A different point of view

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A friend sent me this ‘heartwarming’ story – which, to me, is indicative of the delusion we live in. My comments below.

The first day of school our professor introduced himself and challenged us to get to know someone we didn't already know. I stood up to look around when a gentle hand touched my shoulder.

I turned around to find a wrinkled, little old lady beaming up at me with a smile that lit up her entire being.

She said, "Hi handsome. My name is Rose. I'm eighty-seven years old. Can I give you a hug?"

I laughed and enthusiastically responded, "Of course you may!" and she gave me a giant squeeze.

"Why are you in college at such a young, innocent age?" I asked.

She jokingly replied, "I'm here to meet a rich husband, get married, and have a couple of kids..."

"No seriously," I asked. I was curious what may have motivated her to be taking on this challenge at her age.

"I always dreamed of having a college education and now I'm getting one!" she told me.

After class we walked to the student union building and shared a chocolate milkshake.

We became instant friends. Every day for the next three months we would leave class together and talk nonstop. I was always mesmerized listening to this "time machine" as she shared her wisdom and experience with me.

Over the course of the year, Rose became a campus icon and she easily made friends wherever she went.

She loved to dress up and she reveled in the attention bestowed upon her from the other students. She was living it up.

At the end of the semester we invited Rose to speak at our football banquet.

I'll never forget what she taught us. She was introduced and stepped up to the podium. As she began to deliver her prepared speech, she dropped her three by five cards on the floor.

Frustrated and a little embarrassed she leaned into the microphone and simply said, "I'm sorry I'm so jittery. I gave up beer for Lent and this whiskey is killing me! I'll never get my speech back in order so let me just tell you what I know."

As we laughed she cleared her throat and began, "We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing.

There are only four secrets to staying young, being happy and achieving success. You have to laugh and find humor every day. You've got to have a dream. When you lose your dreams, you die.

We have so many people walking around who are dead and don't even
know it!

There is a huge difference between growing older and growing up.

If you are nineteen years old and lie in bed for one full year and don't do one productive thing, you will turn twenty years old. If I am eighty-seven years old and stay in bed for a year and never do anything I will turn eighty-eight.

Anybody can grow older. That doesn't take any talent or ability. The idea is to grow up by always finding opportunity in change. Have no regrets.

The elderly usually don't have regrets for what we did, but rather for things we did not do. The only people who fear death are those with regrets."

She concluded her speech by courageously singing "The Rose."

She challenged each of us to study the lyrics and live them out in
our daily lives.

At the year's end Rose finished the college degree she had begun
all those years ago.

One week after graduation Rose died peacefully in her sleep.

Over two thousand college students attended her funeral in tribute to the wonderful woman who taught by example that it's never too late to be all you can possibly be.

When you finish reading this, please send this peaceful word of advice to your friends and family, they'll really enjoy it!

These words have been passed along in loving memory of ROSE.

There are only four secrets to staying young, being happy and
achieving success. You have to laugh and find humor every day.
You've got to have a dream. When you lose your dreams, you die.

We seem to have this obsession with ‘staying young’. It is a Holy Grail that has so many seeking a magical elixir. It keeps the doctors busy with cosmetic surgery, sustains a billion dollar cosmetics industry, has 14 year olds dressing like kindergarten children, has both men and women flocking to the gyms to achieve that toned young look, and has middle-aged men buying Harleys and dumping the “old lady” for something younger and cuter. We are born, we live, we age, we die – get used to it. Wouldn’t it make a bit more sense to embrace and find the beauty of whatever age you are at rather than denying you are growing older and spending all this time trying to be something you are not?

Where did we get this notion that ‘being happy’ was the only thing in life that mattered? To begin with, to paraphrase Paul Simon, one man’s happiness is another man’s unhappiness. There is no one definition of happiness that satisfies every person. Secondly, if it was all happiness – what a dull boring life we would lead. Life is the full spectrum of emotion. Fear and anger have a lot more impact on giving us a sense of feeling immediately alive than happiness does. Not that I’m advocating these emotions, just suggesting that we not dismiss other emotions because we are afraid to experience them and have been brainwashed into thinking that it is only happiness that counts. Feeling sad when someone you care for dies, or when something bad happens to you, is a perfectly rational and normal emotion. Growing up is when we can embrace all the emotions that make up this rich life.

And what is this mad need to ‘achieve success’? Where is it written that a person has not lived until they are a ‘success’? And by whose standards do we measure this ‘success’? Society has put an enormous pressure on all it’s members to ‘succeed’. It does seem that ‘society’ has benefited from this pressure – more knowledge, better standard of living, better health care, bigger and taller buildings. Oh, I forgot something in this struggle to ‘succeed’ – it’s the wars, the neurotic messes it makes of so many people, it spawns the suicide bombers who want the ultimate ‘success’ of entry into heaven, it spawns cutthroat corporate takeovers and makes each person hack and slash away at their fellow man in this desperate attempt to reach the top of the heap in order to ‘succeed’ (and be happy…). Hmmm, maybe we should take another look at success.

What happens if your dream is to spend a year in bed and you do that. Not only are you one year older but you succeeded in your dream. That sounds pretty cool to me. Ah, but it wasn’t ‘productive’. ‘Productive’ to whom, to what? Like ‘success’, ‘productive’ also comes with all these subconscious definitions and expectations. One of the big messages this world gives us is that we can never be successful enough or productive enough – in other words, the individual can never, in their lifetime, achieve a point where they can look in the mirror and say to themselves “I am a success. I no longer have to search for ways to ‘be productive’.” We have also linked success and productivity with happiness - so this means that we will never ever feel total satisfaction with life and be happy. Here you are 90 years old and still worried about losing 10 pounds and looking young or making that last business deal to make a few more dollars. What a terrible curse to put on people – you can never be happy until you succeed in life and you will never be able to reach the end of striving to reach for success. The setup has a way of constantly changing the goalposts. Growing up is when you begin to question these goalposts and realize them for the fallacies they are and learn, once again, to embrace who you are, where you are. This doesn’t mean you stop doing and become a sloth, but that you do with the pleasure and sole purpose of doing rather than because what you are doing is striving to be a ‘success’ or to classify yourself as a ‘productive’ person.

“You have to laugh and find humor every day.” “You have to”? No you don’t “have to” anything. Where is this written? When did this become some holy decree? Not to mention the erratic success of cause and effect. ‘You have to’ implies a cause and effect relationship – if you do x then y will follow. It’s a nice expectation but it doesn’t always reflect reality. Plus, I’ve had bad days where I found myself laughing in frustration at how ludicrous life was and I’ve had days bereft of humor and laughter but where I was perfectly content to be alive.

While Rose sounds like an interesting person there are a few things that I question. Isn’t it nice she walked up to young handsome stranger and wanted to give them a hug. Let’s see, I’m male, over 50, handsome (sic) – wonder what would happen if the next time I saw a good looking young woman and walked up to her and asked if I could give her a hug...do you think I’d meet with the same response as Rose. (Ah…old people are so cute…). And while I admire Rose’s spunk in attending university – I’d like to know why she did it. Did she attend for the joy of learning, the joy of slaking a thirst for knowledge; or was she there to fulfill her need to be a ‘success’ in life, a need to be ‘productive’, that she couldn’t die before having satisfied her definition of what being a success was. It’s a good thing her definition of success wasn’t as a suicide bomber or she’d have been blowing up the university instead of attending it. As I said – it’s an interesting curse this ‘success’ business.

I wonder when people will wake up and start taking a hard look at what they believe and how they think the world operates. These kind of stories perpetuate a myth about how the world works – they sound so nice and sugary and Pollyannaish and heartwarming and utopian – but I defy anyone to go take a good look in the mirror and tell me that this is how their life really works.
Growing up has nothing to do with getting older. You can grow up at any age. Most equate getting older with getting wiser and growing up, however, when I look around, I see many who have gotten older but have stopped growing up when they were in their teens (there’s this big group of retiree’s buying the hotrods they salivated over and couldn’t afford when they were teenagers – and that’s just one obvious example). Not that I’m suggesting we have to grow up or have to be anything – I’m just suggesting that we stop trying to make life something that it isn’t, that we stop this focus on the elixir of youth, the need to be successful in life (whatever that means), and that our lives must always be productive (whatever that means). What’s wrong with life as it is? Life is a full meal deal. Get used to it. Live it. Enjoy it. Stop worrying if your life lives up to societal expectations or fulfills standards that are an illusion and can never be met. Sure having a dream sounds nice. But having dreams that are unrealistic and can never be achieved sounds like a curse to me and a recipe for neurosis – it is crazy making.

In the end, it’s ourselves and our own vision of life that we must live with. To me, growing up means taking a hard look at this vision and determining what is really me in this vision and seeing if I have unwittingly and unquestioningly accepted another’s vision of what they think I should be. Society, church, parents, peers, leaders, learning institutions, etc., all attempt to inoculate us with values and standards that are often for their best interest and not necessarily best for me the individual. Growing up is facing the unpleasant, but rewarding, task of making the distinction. While Rose’s story seems to be about personal growth, I think it is a perpetuation of societal myth and not how the world really works and not at all empowering to the individual.
But that’s just my opinion. You gotta decide for yourself.

As the letter says:
Friday, October 06, 2006
Re: Roses story
I guess there’s always a bit more to say.

I have this thing about smaltzy stories – I not only find them sickeningly and sweetly distasteful, but think they are disrespectful and do a disservice to mankind. They present a false image of life. An image we would all like to believe because it sounds so nice, but is not rooted in any reality that I am familiar with. When we believe in these smaltzy stories we can go mad trying to bring that reality into our lives. I don’t appreciate people trying to convince me of their madness nor do I appreciate their unexamined values which often result in neurosis. (and the joke is, you will probably say the same of me…it’s a fun world isn’t it – my madness against yours. :-) )

I know the story is written so as to make us believe it is a true story – but there are things I question (the story sounds more like it was written by some young person as part of a creative writing exercise on inspiring stories – probably by some patriotic American – the only thing this story lacks is God and country – it already has hard work, mom and apple pie. ) Getting a college degree takes 2 to 4 years, depending on your course of study. If you attend full time it is a grueling job that tasks the mettle of even the young and takes quite an enormous physical toll. I know truth is always stranger than fiction and there is always one who defies the norm – but I haven’t met too many 87 year olds who have that kind of mettle.

Then there’s the endless milkshakes after class and getting dressed up and smoozing with fellow students. She managed not only to impress the football team (perhaps this was another long held goal of hers – I know – that’s really mean...tsk, tsk) but managed to touch over 2000 students. That seems like a lot of smoozing even if it was over 4 years – I wonder when she found time to do her homework. No wonder she died two weeks after graduation – all that would have exhausted a 20 year old.

Now I really don’t care if she went to college for the sake of learning or because she wanted to get a diploma before she died or if she just wanted to dress up and hang around a younger crowd of college students in order to feel young herself. It’s just my credibility is stretched when it’s all put together in the guise of an 87 year old lady.

And this is another reason I react to this kind of story. It puts before us heroes (heroines) that are impossible to live up to. So here we have before us a story with irrational values and super heroes which get passed around and it is suggested we take the ‘lesson’ to heart and try to emulate the values and the person. Gee – thanks for trying to drive me crazy.

Rose said: We have so many people walking around who are dead and don't even know it!

IMHO, it is Rose and the writer of this piece that are walking around dead. Living in an irrational illusion is not my definition of being alive. Life is much more than attempting to stay young, worrying about success and about filling the unforgiving minute productively, or thinking life is only about being happy and finding a smile in every day. If that’s all your life is about then you are wandering around in a great delusion and you are the walking dead.

It’s not that having and achieving goals is unimportant but it is the insistence that one has not lived a full life unless one has worked hard and been productive and successful in life – usually according to stringent societal guidelines which include amassing wealth, fame or performing good works for one’s fellow man. If you haven’t done this then you are somehow ‘lesser than’.

And I will admit to a personal note in this (it’s always personal). I have a disability that makes achieving fame, fortune and doing good works a bit of a challenge. Yet each day I am confronted by the well wishes of my fellow man to achieve these goals. Why is it these well wishes are only towards these goals? Are these goals the only things worth living for in this life? What about just wishing me to have a good life – a good life according to the values I hold dear. I find great pleasure in a sunrise or a sunset. This has nothing to do with fame, fortune or good works. But I don’t think I’ve had many people who encourage me and wish me to find joy in my life and pleasure in whatever it is that I find pleasurable. There is this sense that watching sunrises just isn’t ‘productive’ enough and just how is it attributing towards being a ‘success”. It’s not. But it’s far more life affirming than Rose’s story.

Now if you could send me a sunrise or a sunset in my email box – that I would pass on to everyone I know – in a heartbeat.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Well I thought I’d run out of things to say about the Rose story but some of you have made some comments that I’d like to respond to. Thank you for your comments – shows you’re listening to my wild rants, and, after all, what is a good rant without an audience and what better audience than your friends…:-)

One friend suggested As per being productive; in the Darwinian sense that simply means that we have been successful in passing on our genes, that may be our claim to immortality?
If that is a definition of ‘productive’ then I guess I haven’t lived a productive life as I haven’t been successful in passing on my genes – at least not that I know of ?. Also, judging from the variety of offspring that result from even the same parents – the results are pretty much a crapshoot and I often question if they could be called ‘productive”. I guess I also have no claim to immortality. You’re born. You live. You die. End of story.

There was another suggestion that I was perhaps feeling guilty over not living up to the societal standards I mentioned earlier. Sorry, I don’t do guilt. Regrets, occasionally. Remorse when called for. But guilt keeps us back at the scene of the mistake. Yes, I am human and not perfect, last time I checked anyway. We all make mistakes. So, apologize, make amends, rectify the situation to the best of our ability – and move on. Why perpetuate an untenable situation – even in our mind. To feel guilt for something that I’m not, or for something another thinks I should be or have done. is a major waste of emotion in my books.

I sent my comments to some friends who face similar health challenges to myself and I found it interesting that my words resonated deeply with them. Thank you.

Some thought that I was reading way too much into the story and that there were far more important things to worry about in life. Maybe. But I’d counter that perhaps they weren’t looking deep enough and what could be more important than examining our sense of reality, examining what we think is true and finding peace in life – dealing with the big picture instead of just putting out fires all; the time.

Another suggested I sounded angry and bitter. Which I will admit to – but, as I mentioned earlier, anger is also a perfectly acceptable emotion. I think anger is extremely valuable – especially if we listen to it. Anger is an indication that something is not jibbing in our lives, that there is a conflict in beliefs and expectations. You can either figure it out and resolve the issues or you can remain dead to your anger and it will repeat itself.

As a number of you know, one of my greatest passions is exploring human nature, trying to find the truth of my existence. Well, it’s more than just a passion – more like an obsession actually. (smile). Towards this end I do a lot of reading – and writing – and contemplating my navel. This involves a daily exploration and confrontation with various ideas, beliefs, and notions about what makes up life. One of the most common themes that has been coming up lately in my reading, in all my explorations on life, is the concept of surrender or acceptance. The Christians say “Thy will be done”. The Moslems say ‘inshalla’ – it is God’s will. The Taoists speak of the Tao – ‘the way’. The Hindus say ‘let Brahmin be your charioteer’. Even some schools of modern psychology urge us to ‘take our hands off the tiller’ and learn to accept what one can and cannot control in life. It is a concept that I have fiercely resisted and have long struggled with finding a balance between what I can do something about and what I can’t. I guess you could say that this was my “struggle du’jour” when the ‘Rose’ email arrived in my email box. I noted my strong reaction to the contents and sat down to make a few notes to myself and two hours later found I’d written quite a little rant/article that revolved around the concept of acceptance of what is; and, seeing as how rants need an audience…well, you know the rest – it’s no fun keeping a good rant to yourself…:-)

Not sure that I have any wise words (or unwise words) to say about surrender/acceptance, however, judging from some of the responses, it’s an issue a number of us share. And we’re pretty much on our own in dealing with it. Though I personally think the first thing to do is to throw out any one or anything that attempts to tell you a definition of what you should accept or surrender to (including me for any comments I might have made). “If you meet the Buddha on the road – kill him!”

One friend suggested I never change – they loved me for the curmudgeon that I was (smile). But isn’t change exactly the point. How can you have growth and surrender/acceptance if you’re not willing to change. And change begins by taking a look at where we are and evaluating if that’s really where we want to be.

On a final note: To those who think sending on smaltzy chain letters that attempt to instill guilt if you don’t send the letter on to 50 friends – please take me off your list. What saddens me most about these kind of emails is that we mistake them for communication – that we somehow think we are sharing something of value with our friends. But, IMHO. most of it’s garbage. I value my communications with my friends and so I try and listen and read when my friends communicate with me. But if these generic comments are all you have to say about life then I begin to wonder. However I’d love to hear your personal comments about life, what you think, what you like, what you’re pissed off about, how is life going with you, your ideas, thoughts – you know – the whole meal deal. Those emails get saved to read again.

Look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks for listening to my rants. I had fun.

Braden Corby © 2006