An old friend sent me this card for my birthday last week; he asked me what I thought of it…
Here’s what I said:
Age and kindness will triumph over youth and ambition old friend.
I’m up to my neck in my new job, but strangely have come to realise I have lost my fear.
Many years ago you helped me; with an exercise which taught me I had treachery in me but also had compassion, care and kindness. You helped me tip over the right way (and I’ve seen so many who haven’t) and for that I owe you everything.
A rather marvellous angle on life came by email a few weeks ago…
I’ve shared it with half a dozen people; and in passing nice to remember (even as the world seems to barrel towards hell in a handcart) at no other time in history could you have got this knowledge – via a friend of a friend, across an ocean and the English Channel, and then on to me – in but a handful of days….
There is still much to be thankful for in the modern world.
So what’s the story?
In 1999, Carole Holahan and Charles Holahan, psychologists at the University of Texas, published an influential paper that looked at hundreds of older adults who early in life had been identified as highly gifted.
The Holahans’ conclusion: “Learning at a younger age of intellectual giftedness was related to … less favorable psychological well-being at age eighty.”
The Holahans surmise that the children identified as gifted might have made intellectual ability more central to their self-appraisal, creating “unrealistic expectations for success” and causing them to fail to “take into account the many other life influences on success and recognition.”
And this is compounded by:
…abundant evidence [which] suggests that thewaningof ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically.
Just think of professional sportspeople….
Consider professional athletes, many of whom struggle profoundly after their sports career ends.
Tragic examples abound, involving depression, addiction, or suicide; unhappiness in retired athletes may even be the norm, at least temporarily.
This is nicely summed up by Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former Formula 1 driver:
“Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,”
This is sooo right…
“For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line.”
“His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead.”
“In this case, there will not be life after success.”
The author Arthur C Brooks calls this the ‘Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation’:
The idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to the height of professional prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige.
I think I suffered a bit of this in my current job… From self-appointed ‘brain of Britain’ to hard pressed General Factotum in one simple apparently duff career move.
Still the great advantage of life is time.
There’s lots of time if you use it well. Time to think and time to learn. I’ve learnt a lot; and finally – having left my rather unhappy job last week – I’ve had some time to think on a happy family holiday.
And I return to this article again…
One thing I’ve learned working at a top university, is everyone is constantly competing to demonstrate what thearticle says British psychologist Raymond Cattell defined (in the early 1940s) as fluid intelligence:
The ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower.
It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s.
Cattell’s work suggests a smarterfocusfor thesecond half of one’s working (and actual) life is ‘crystallisedintelligence’:
Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past.
Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom.
Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.
And herein lies theanswer to the later career – let go of being thesharpest, smartestand fastest; and develop wisdom instead.
The antidote to worldly temptations isVanaprastha whose name comes from two Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest.”
This is the stage, usually starting around age 50, in which we purposefully focus less on professional ambition, and become more and more devoted to spirituality, service, and wisdom.
This doesn’t mean that you need to stop working when you turn 50—something few people can afford to do—only that your life goals should adjust.
Vanaprasthais a time for study and training for the last stage of life,Sannyasa, which should be totally dedicated to the fruits of enlightenment.
As we age, we should resist the conventional lures of success in order to focus on more transcendentally important things.
This suggests leaving behind:
Résumé virtues which are professional and oriented toward earthly success. They require comparison with others.
And making the benchmark ‘Eulogy virtues’ which…
…are ethical and spiritual, and require no comparison.
Your eulogy virtues are what you would want people to talk about at your funeral.
“He was kind and deeply spiritual”
“He made senior vice president at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles“
And if this is the goal of thethirdphase of life – I’ve made some progress.
In my leaving dos from the endof the 1990s through the 2000s people might well have said: ‘He made Director at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles.’
But at my most recent leaving do last Thursday, I signed off by thanking a wonderfully diverse audience (which wholly represented the community I am proud to have been part of) for helping me to become: “a kinder, gentler and better person.”
And thanks to them; I have.
These are the crystallised fruits of the challenging but ultimately rewarding last three and a half years.
After two house moves in two weeks; last Sunday, post visiting a loved one in terminal decline and absolutely physically and emotionally shattered – I cried for the first time in a decade. It was just too sad.
But five days later the sun has come back out. Life is very simple. Get some sleep, be kind, work hard, do stuff, and crucially (as I’ve recently discovered) ruminate less; and the sun comes out.
My single biggest achievement in the last year – and arguably in my life – has been to train myself to think, act and be more positive. If you’re kind, interested, positive and helpful there is no situation you can’t improve.
For me it is a feat of application, discipline and will. It’s not my natural disposition. But sunny is the best way to be. Today it absolutely was; and I absolutely have been.
As a person (traditionally) of the head, I generally take the arrow of causation to be ‘the head drives the heart’…
Of course that’s not always the case. When the heart skips a beat or starts misbehaving; that certainly gets the head thinking.
But a book I’ve been reading advocates what many world religions say: rather than just a rather ugly fleshy pump, the heart is a rich source of information on what’s going on inside.
The thesis is, if you’re carrying some problem you’ve not ‘processed’, when your mind wanders anywhere close to it, you can feel it a sort of ‘blockage’ in the heart. Experimenting with this for three or four weeks – for me at least – there’s absolutely something in it.
The physiology and location of the actual electrical impulses is a matter for the neurologists and cardiologists; but if I concentrate on where I ‘feel’ angst, I do indeed feel it in the heart.
And what an acute detection mechanism it is – when you properly tune in to it… If I think of something or someone and feel a slight (or indeed major) tension in the chest; then sure enough it turns out there’s some form of messed up feeling hiding in there.
A combination of taking a breath and exploring round the ‘blockage’, and lo and behold there’s invariably some unfinished emotional business to have a look at…
A few weeks in, and I’ve ironed out and processed a good few anxieties I didn’t know I had, rattling about my chest cavity. I find I’m pausing and reflecting; but also acting and reacting more contentedly, easily, helpfully and kindly.
Instead of chucking the brain at problems, I’m tuning into and listening to the acutely sensitive and (thankfully) steady thump of the heart. It’s a very fine guide.
The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years.
It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.
Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’.
Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness.
I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:
However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are:
Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
Our ability to experience gratitude
Our choice to be kind and generous
These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.
I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging.
As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.
Some of the Buddhist ideas: notably Karma, the cycle of returns and the idea that we are all constantly living and reliving; these are not for me.
But I do like the concept of ‘impermanence’. Recognising nothing stays constant; and none of us live forever, is in some ways the sum of all fears. But it also means bad times will pass, and that tricky situations generally resolve. ‘Impermanence’ tells me I sometimes work too hard and worry too much.
But the key insight for me came about two pages from the end. And it’s this – very simply put in the Dalai Lama’s own words:
It is important not to become inclined towards solitary peace, because by aiming merely at liberation for your own sake, you lengthen the process of attaining altruistic enlightenment directed to others’ good – the ultimate goal.
By mainly taking care of yourself, you foster a self-cherishing attitude, and this attitude is difficult to overcome later, when you train in great love and great compassion.
Consequently, it is crucial from the very beginning not to fully invest your strength of mind in your own benefit.
Perhaps an easier way to swallow Karma (whilst dropping the reincarnation bit) is this: in every action we take, or person we help or hinder, we create ripples in the world. Mostly small ripples of course, but when added up, we can all do a lot of good – or ill.
Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings – a simple word or deed could help another ‘sentient being’ towards happiness; or push them closer to anger, hurt and despair.
I’ve sometimes thought that one person can’t make much of a difference… And so, given who I am, perhaps one day writing a half decent book, would be about the best contribution I could make to mine and future generations.
But shrinking into one’s self is not taking the Dalai Lama’s point – “By mainly taking care of yourself, you foster a self-cherishing attitude.” and “it is crucial from the very beginning not to fully invest your strength of mind in your own benefit.”
I do believe that everyday kindness, care and compassion can make a difference. And since I have maybe as many as 20,000 days left; that’s a lot of help (or hurt) I could dole out. But ‘impermanence’ says I could have a lot fewer days, so best to get on with it.
‘Great love’ and ‘great compassion’ are worth aspiring to. Solitary peace, however beguiling, is not the point of life.
The song says it all. It can sound cheesy; but it ain’t… This week, I got by with a little help from my friends.
The genuine care, interest, support and love of friends has gently and kindly steered me to a much better place. If last week ended in comparative darkness; this one ended in light.
A good friend briefly home from abroad, walked with me, talked with me and in the process put a supportive arm around my shoulders. The world of men can be a lonely place, but together we stared unblinkingly at the facts. And in so doing he gave me solace and strength – and followed up with a new opportunity.
More joyfully, with my great friend from closer to home, we celebrated our mutual success at goading each other to shed a few pounds – with a big fat gourmet cheeseburger each.
Today I’m wearing a sweatshirt the missus bought me for the Xmas before last – which for the first time in all that time, I fit in; trimly and unselfconsciously. Happy days.
Finally the missus herself. She knows I’ve been struggling and has been there for me all week. A kind word, a cuppa, a conversation – and a great big uninterrupted lie-in this morning.
The moral of the story; we all get by far better with a little help from our friends.
A great many birds with broken wings or ruffled plumage, have come to perch in my tree in recent weeks. Human beings are fragile and so easily damaged – usually by each other.
We all like to believe life is fair. So, in the end, very few people are able to cope well with anxiety or things going badly for them.
We were taking about this at home the other day, asking the question:
“Is it possible to communicate to other people you are stretched, stressed or tired yourself, without being pissy, shirty or sad with them?”
Probably not. Because ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ and ‘sad’ are exactly the ways we communicate stress. To do it any other way just confuses people – or they simply don’t hear.
So for the various birds; small and large, young and old; who have come to unburden themselves on me, there are only really two ways to be:
1) ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ or ‘sad’; and quickly break both their wings so they never come back to my tree again.
2) reach for patience, tolerance and kindness; give away some all-too-precious time, and hopefully help them a little, to fly onwards.
I’ve mostly managed the latter. Some are still chirruping in my branches. Some are permanently nested there; so they are to be lived with.
But at least a few have gently flapped away with splinted wings or smoothed feathers. And that’s a success of sorts. Kindness is always the best answer.
My son (who is kindness personified) came downstairs, this evening, keen to finish a conversation with me. We headed back up to his bed and he expanded on his earlier thesis…
This was that ‘kind kids’, once they reach ‘maximum kindness’ can give some of their kindness to their Dads making them kinder too. We’d agreed that probably does happen, and I’d become kinder since he’d been in my life.
The development in his theory (which he wanted to discuss immediately) was if you had ‘kind kids’ and they topped you up to ‘maximum kindness’ then maybe some of your kindness might spread to other families – making them kinder – and then maybe in a month or (maximum) a year everyone in the whole world might become kind.
Given everything that’s going on in the world, it might not happen this year. But a bit of compassion and kindness goes a very long way – the Dalai Lama can give you chapter and verse on that.
And with the amount of it my son has, I couldn’t be more fortunate. A top up to ‘maximum kindness’ is always just a conversation away.