July 1st, 2013

Reflecting on our other lives

There is nothing like a graduation to remind us of the choices that shape our lives, the ones we have already made and the ones yet to come. This morning as I sit in a treatment team meeting for a patient exactly my own age, I watch and listen as his therapist with a newly minted doctorate reminds him that he will be leaving at the end of the training year in July. There are cheers all around and words of congratulations for the new psychologist, not the least of which come from the man he is leaving behind. There are more complicated feelings as well that will be expressed and processed in private discussions between the two of them and others that will no doubt feed the man’s solitary reflections.

The fledgling psychologist stands on the threshold of a new life brimming with the challenges, opportunities and adventures of career and family. The choices that concern him most are the ones he is making now. The patient has his own choices to make as he decides where he will live when he leaves the hospital and how he will spend his next years. Perhaps the event also prompts him to reflect on the choices that have brought him to where he is today.

I may be inferring too much or even projecting my own concerns which I find running strangely parallel to the scene playing out before my eyes. A few weeks earlier when my son received his master’s degree, our family traveled together to celebrate his graduation. We also had the pleasure of meeting the family of the young woman who has become an important part of his life and ours. As always when I meet someone new, I especially enjoyed sharing stories about our lives and choices. Occasions like these always remind me how many different ways there are to make a satisfying life. The possibilities seem limitless as we decide where to live, how to earn our living and whether to stay put or move on to different jobs, more interesting cities or balmier climates. Every choice brings its own consequences, putting us in a new place where a whole array of different choices is possible. This is the point that Robert Frost made so well in “The Road Not Taken” when he wrote that because “way leads on to way,” he would probably never come back to travel the road he thought he would keep “for another day.” Yet no matter which road we choose, we usually wind up in an interesting place.

Back at our hotel we reflected, alone and together, on where our life choices and plans had brought us. Graduations will do that to a family as parents wonder how things might have been different had they done one thing and not another while siblings measure their own progress on their master timetable and against the visible progress of the graduate on his special day. Our son was starting a new phase of his life with the fanfare of a graduation ceremony and the credential of a diploma. I felt that I was starting something new as well but I would have to wait another week for the official ceremony marking my passage and the credential it conferred.

It happened, of all places, at a Dunkin Donuts on the way to work where I stopped for a nutritious breakfast of one chocolate frosted donut. When I gave my order to the young woman at the register, she said that the donut was free if I had an AARP card. That’s what she said. What I heard was, you look old so, if you’ll just show me some proof, you can have a free donut. As I began to search for the card in my wallet, she said she didn’t actually need to see it; I could have the free donut anyway. That’s what she said. What I heard was, you are really old and you don’t need a card to prove it. Now I knew for certain that I had crossed the border into a new country where I would have to learn its language, customs and a whole new way of going about my life.

I accepted the donut gratefully and started my new life by consulting the gerontology literature. There I learned that I had just entered the territory of the young old where, if I was lucky, I could hope to enjoy many healthy and vigorous years provided, of course, that I change my breakfast habits. I also learned that it was quite normal to be reflecting on the choices I had made, that gratitude was better than regret and that Erik Erikson’s ideal of integrity was still within my reach. We achieve integrity by cultivating the attitude that the life we have lived and the choices we have made are the best life and the best choices possible for us. After all, they brought us this far.

But it’s not all about the past. I think of Tennyson’s aging Ulysses bored by life in port and resolving to have one more adventure. “Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world./…Though much is taken, much abides; and though/We are not now that strength which in old days/Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;/One equal temper of heroic hearts,/Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Now there’s a commencement message to see me through what lies ahead.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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