As a kid, I was mistaken for mature when really I was just obedient. I dutifully followed in my older sister’s footsteps. I was good at school, went to the same college, and assumed I was heading for an office job and a climb up a company ladder. There was always a lot of “work talk” in my home– all centered around pretty traditional business, where success was some type of recognizable prestige, be it leading a company or winning a Fulbright. Reinforced by much of society at-large, I never questioned these assumptions growing up.
In the years after my mother passed, my father never spoke of her death. Instead, he often gave me and my sister (14 and 16 at the time) self-help books for our birthday and Christmas presents. Titles included The Courage to Be Yourself: A Woman’s Guide to Growing Beyond Emotional Dependence, and See Jane Win: The Rimm Report on How 1,000 Girls Became Successful Women. I read all of them, along with How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Road Less Traveled, and countless others from this genre, which lined my father’s bookshelves, and he avidly read himself.
I read and absorbed the books, but mistook my father’s silence for a lack of understanding. Only years later did I realize that my father keenly observed and understood the struggles my sister and I faced as motherless teenagers, but he couldn’t speak to us directly about them. My father has always been painfully silent man, rarely communicating about the small details of our daily lives, let alone the overwhelming pain that created a huge chasm in our family. Instead, he relied on the wisdom of self-help authors to solve our problems for us. (read more…)
A couple years ago, my grandmother renewed her AARP membership, paying in advance for three years. “I figure I can at least make it to 100,” she said at the time. Last month, my grandmother, Edith, turned 99. We all call her Edie, but don’t be fooled by the sweet nickname. Edie – or Grandma E, as my sister and I call her – is the most determined person I know– one of three key characteristics that I believe enabled her to get to 99 without seeming old.
Since the early 1960’s, she has lived in a DC townhouse spanning three floors. Every day for many decades, she climbed up and down two sets of stairs– from her bedroom on the top floor, down to the kitchen on the bottom and spending most of her day in the den on the middle floor. As she got older, a set of stairs became painstakingly slow, but she kept at it. We’d warn her when dinner was 15 minutes away so she could start making her way down to the dining room. Clutching the railing and moving slowing, she knew that this was the only way to make sure that she could continue doing steps. It was only within the last few years, well past the age of 95, that she stopped climbing the stairs, and only under much duress (and concern that the automated stair chair lift was unsightly).
During some of our visits in recent years–when she was still climbing the stairs herself, but after she had relinquished cooking duties to my sister and me–Edie would come down to the kitchen and keep us company while we cooked dinner. She’d pepper us with questions: what is that? How are you cooking it? What are those spices? Where did you get this recipe? Since she’d pretty much stopped cooking, I used to wonder at these questions. And it isn’t just about food, anything and everything is interesting to her.
My sister once asked our grandmother if she thinks of herself as smart. “I don’t know if I’m smart,” she replied, “But I am curious.” I think Edie’s curiosity keeps her engaged in the world. She always wants to be in the know. Last year, she was thrilled when we bought her an iPad for her birthday. “What’s the difference between an iPad and an iPhone?” she immediately questioned. She doesn’t care about most of the apps and can barely read the text, but she wanted to understand what all of the buzz was about. Edie recently counseled me to say yes to everything, “If you say yes, you keep doing new things.”
Her curiosity has led her to travel in almost every country. When she came to visit me in California many years ago, my mom remarked about how nice California is and suggested that she and Edie come back. “But I’ve seen California now!” my grandmother protested, “Let’s go somewhere new.”
My mom’s theory on Edie’s curiosity is that she is bored by herself since she already knows what is going on in her own life. She wants to learn new things, so she peppers people around her with questions. I think this curiosity about others has meant that she gets engaged in people’s lives– not with a desire to fix or change people, but merely to understand them, probably the most flattering form of attention.
Willingness to Forget
When I visited Edie this past Thanksgiving, she said, “It’s taken me a lifetime, but I’m very grateful for what I have.” I think she was considering our family, her comfort in life, and perhaps her longevity. But the gratitude that she was expressing is a state of mind for her, not just an appreciation of her situation in life. She is always one to make the best of things, to keep moving, and perhaps to ignore some of the bad things.
It drives my mom crazy: she’ll have some memory of a family vacation, a time in high school or a small incident where she felt wronged. Without fail, Edie’s response is, “Really? I don’t remember that.” She is not only unwilling to dwell on the negative, she literally doesn’t remember it. She doesn’t dwell in the past either. When I recently asked her about what her neighborhood was like when she first moved there more than 50 years ago, she spent only a few minutes reminiscing, quickly cutting herself off with a, “well, that’s past. Let’s talk about what’s happening now.”
Though frustrating, it’s core to her youthful, curious spirit. To Edie, the world is pleasant, still full of things to be learned even- or perhaps especially- at the ripe age of 99. This, along with her sheer determination, might just be the secret to a long life.
Photo: Edie a few decades ago.
Earlier this year, my coach David observed that I tend to default to describing things as “good” or “bad” rather than using more accurate – and less judgmental – words. He scolded me about it, in the way that only someone whose job is to not let you get away with your bullshit can. “Why use value judgements when describing your feelings about something? I try to stay away from those. They’re lazy and unhelpful.”
He was right (of course he was right). Describing something as good or bad is often simpler than thinking about, or explaining, our actual feelings. “Good” and “bad” are such accepted descriptors, despite the fact that they are rarely the most appropriate choice, that we barely notice using them. “Good” and “bad” conceal more complex, honest adjectives, and their overuse neutralizes their actual meaning. Think about all the times you have used the word “good” because it seemed like the politest, most expedient way of expressing, “everything is fine; no further inquiry necessary.” In this way, “good” is like a shield, deflecting more questions. “Bad” can be similarly discouraging of real examination. Is something or someone actually bad, or would it be more accurate to say it was disappointing, upsetting, or tiresome?
David’s larger point about using words like “good” and “bad” to describe things is that they are value judgements, and value judgments aren’t helpful when thinking about your own feelings or behavior (or someone else’s). Value judgments don’t encourage gentleness and patience with ourselves and with others. I had been using “good” and “bad” so generically that at first I balked at this point. But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed. Language matters, and “good” and “bad” subtly signal expectations and judgments that we may not even recognize. Barry Evans, author of The Myth of the Experienced Meditator, wrote about this in relation to meditation:
Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is.
Without realizing it, I’d been slotting many of my opinions and emotions into the two giant buckets of “good” and “bad.” Since having this tendency pointed out, I’ve tried to be more precise and descriptive when I speak and write. Not just with “good” and “bad,” either, but with any that word that feels like a generic placeholder for a more expressive, more accurate, and more meaningful one. By shifting away from using words that are value judgments, the nuance and the complexity of a feeling can come out. Something can be both annoying and worthwhile, frustrating and fulfilling, or exciting and unsettling. It’s difficult not to default to the words I’m so used to; it requires actual concentration on my part. I am still only successful some of the time. But I’ve noticed that it helps me think about my feelings in a less judgmental way, and to be gentler on myself and with others.
Image: Cass County Courthouse (1937; Library of Congress)
Two things happened in the early 1970s that weigh on my conscious when I think about them today: Richard Easterlin, looking at the relationship between income and happiness, found that more money does not always correlate with greater happiness. Around the same time, my parents, newly married, bought a two and a half bedroom apartment in Manhattan that became my childhood home.
Easterlin’s 1974 paper revealed an unexpected correlation in the data: rich countries don’t become happier as they get richer, though rich people within a country tend to be happier than poor people. This phenomenon became known as the Easterlin Paradox. Further academic studies have shown that happiness increases with income until a point at which it plateaus — a threshold after which more money does not make people happier. As long as I’ve known about this, it has given me hope that I don’t need a lot of money in order to live a happy life.