Monday, April 28, 2008

Life Legacy News: "Wills that convey principles of life"

The Seattle Times ran an article last month titled, "Wills that convey principles of life", that describes ways people are using ethical wills. Looks like at least a couple of people are offering ethical will workshops in the Seattle area as well.

I have an introductory talk, Your Life Legacy: Blessing Future Generations, scheduled on June 3rd at OASIS for people in the Eugene-Springfield area. A four-week Legacy Circle begins June 5th for people interested in getting started on an ethical will.
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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Life Lessons for Men: Finding Our Fathers

In the 1990's, I worked as a counselor focusing on men's issues and men's relationships with women, children, and one another. At the time, a "men's movement" was alive and growing in America and around the world. Men were meeting in support groups and weekend gatherings to explore what it means to be a man and to redefine their masculine identity.

While the media and others made fun of "men drumming in the woods," the reality for men I worked with individually and in groups was a heartfelt experience of emotional healing and personal growth. The single most troubling relationship of these men, who ranged in age from their late 20's to early 70's, was with their father. Fathers who didn't have a clue about being a father and emotionally vulnerable with their loved ones.

Samuel Osherson's book, Finding Our Fathers, was a groundbreaking book on the subject and continues to be as relevant for men today as when it was first published. While many fathers now have closer ties to their children and greater emotional awareness, the demands of their work lives are often even greater than in previous generations of fathers. In our busy, cell phone-internet world, dads are distracted from day-to-day human contact with their children (who are busier than ever before themselves!). Being fully present with one another is a difficult challenge.

In his book, Osherson explores how men's early experiences (and ongoing relationship) with their fathers affects their male identity and subsequent relationships with their wives, children, friends, and bosses. In his extensive research and in-depth interviews, the author shows that "if a man is to be a good father to his son, or a good husband to his wife, he needs to know what he got, or wanted and didn't get, from his own father; how he was both strengthened and wounded by that relationship; how it has influenced his own fathering style and his own identity as a man."

In my childhood, my dad was absent much of the time, working as a traveling salesman in Minnesota and the Dakotas. When he came home on weekends, he was stoic and often angry and abusive. Mostly, I feared him and felt angry that he left me, his eldest son, to be the "man of the house" while he was gone. And be his surrogate husband for my mother and surrogate father for my brothers and sister when I was a child.

Both of my grandfathers presented a model of manhood that was the typical Minnesota male stoic (spiced with occasional bursts of anger). I felt some warmth from my dad's father (who always played a skinny Santa Claus at Christmas). But I had little emotional connection with my mother's farmer dad except when he offered us kids a very small glass of chilled Grain Belt beer (from long-neck bottles) on hot summer afternoons sitting around the dining table with the men.

Among my few positive male role models were teachers who encouraged my intellectual growth and rewarded me with good grades. Yet my worst model of manhood was a coach/phys-ed teacher -- a man who once hit me over the head (from behind) with a heavy book, knocking me to the floor for reasons still unknown. That quickly ended my participation in sports he coached (good judgment on my part!) and increased my fear of men.

Thankfully, I had good "buddies" as friends in my childhood. We did all the things boys did in western Minnesota in the 50's and 60's -- playing "peewee" baseball, exploring "snake hill" trails, bike riding all over town, bullhead and crappie fishing, and as teens, pheasant and duck hunting. Then came "girls" (dances, dates, and first kisses), cars!, drive-in movies, smoking, beer-drinking "out in the country," and much more (while being good students in school, of course).

We all went off to college and gradually drifted away from regular contact with one another as we graduated, got our first "real" jobs, moved away from Minnesota, got married, and became fathers. Fathering ... what an experience when you don't have a clue about what to do (and the books about it didn't "compute" with any inner experience from childhood!). I muddled through with lots of help from my wife, the mother of our two sons -- who were born when I was 25 and 29 years old.

As a father, I "showed up" for my sons but ultimately failed at being present and emotionally available to them. I wasn't emotionally intimate with myself in my late 20's and 30's so had a hard time being a father and husband. Like my dad, I did "work" very well, along with my intellectual pursuits, but relationships suffered mightily. I was still so angry with my dad that I didn't allow my sons any contact with him. It took depression and divorce to bring my feelings to life (but, too late for fathering my sons the way I wish I could have). Hard as it was, and with lots of counseling, I "woke up" and did the emotional work to heal (and forgive) my father before he died in 1997. And I had conversations with each of my sons to express my regrets about what kind of father I was to them when they were children.

I agree with Sam Osherson that "If things are imperfect with our children or our childhood (as they are bound to be) there are second, third, and fourth changes as we age and grow. It's never over between parents and children, no matter how old we are. Merely the effort to understand each other can be healing between the generations."

I suspect that as my sons reach mid-life, they may find even more "unfinished business" with me come to the surface as they deal with their own fathering (or not fathering). Not to mention their relationships with their wives or woman-friends, their male friendships (or lack of), men they deal with in their work lives, and their own masculine identity. I've let them know I'm always available to listen, to hear whatever they have to say to me, and to go to counseling together if they so desire.

My hope is that all the wounds from generations of fathers in my family will be healed before my death and not be passed on to my grandchildren and their children.

With hindsight, I can now see how my relationship with my father and my struggles with fathering led me into the men's movement, to building long-term relationships with male friends, and to working with other men as a counselor and men's group "mid-wife" for many years. And to being emotionally available in an intimate relationship with a dearly loved woman.

As I reflect on my personal experience and work with hundreds of men, the most important outcome of completing "unfinished business" with our fathers is an opening of our hearts -- allowing us to be emotionally vulnerable in relationships with women, children, and our fellow men.

Over the years, the best measure I found of a man's trustworthy masculinity is his valuing of relationships with other men, demonstrated by his willingness to devote time and energy to male friendships throughout his life. Trusted friendships with men who he feels safe and secure enough with to speak his feelings -- his sadness, his fears, his anger, and his joys. And to listen with caring and compassion to the emotions of other men (without advice-giving).

When a man can be a trusted friend, he is able to be a fully-engaged father, an intimate relationship partner, and ultimately, his own man.
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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

I've had the pleasure and privilege to hear James Hollis' lectures at the U. of Oregon during his visits to Eugene over the past several years. Hollis, a Jungian analyst and executive director of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Houston, is an engaging speaker who always offers insights that are thought-provoking (and often, disturbing to one's habitual patterns of behavior!).

In my reading of his book, "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up," I found his views affirmed my experience during my years as a counselor (and my own life experience). His clarity is startling:

"The chief disorders of our time are the fear of loneliness and the fear of growing up. The flight from loneliness drives people to mill amid malls, to stay in bad relationships, to abuse substances and worst of all, to avoid a relationship with the self. How can we ever have a good relationship with another when we cannot have a good relationship with ourselves? The flight from ourselves will always mean that we will be uncomfortable with another. What we fear in ourselves we will fear in the other; what we avoid addressing in ourselves we will avoid in the other; where we are stuck with ourselves we will be stuck with the other."

Hollis goes on to say that "Growing up means taking psychological responsibility for ourselves, and not just economic and social responsibility -- that is the easy part. Growing up means taking spiritual responsibility for ourselves. No other can define our values, become our authority, or protect us from necessary choices. Until we accept this responsibility for ourselves, we are asking others to be a shelter for our homeless soul. As understandable, and universal, as that desire may be, remember that others will then be asking the same of us as well. How ingrown, and stagnant, such a relationship will prove to be. The immense soul that dwells within each of us will in time, chafe and fret, and produce symptomatic messages of dismay. And in time, whether or not we stay outwardly bound together with a partner, we will psychologically leave the relationship by the diversion of Eros's energy to work, to another, to other projective possibilities, or invert it as depression or somatic illness."

Brilliantly said. I can certainly attest (or is the better word, "confess") to what happens when the soul begins to "chafe and fret". My experience in my late 30's was to "invert it" to become depressed. And later in life, to somatic illness. In myself and people I've counseled, I've seen excessive busyness, workaholism, work avoidance, romantic dalliances, multiple addictions, and projections of every imaginable variety ("it's all your fault!").

If any of James Hollis' words ring true for you (or sufficiently disturb or annoy you!), I suggest you read his book. Sooner or later, your soul will summon you to "live a larger life."

NOTE: James Hollis is scheduled to return to Eugene-Springfield on October 3-4, 2008. His most recent book is titled, "Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves."
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More Life Lessons from Randy Pausch

A few months ago I wrote about Professor Randy Pausch and his "Last Lecture." I was pleased to see him on the cover of Parade magazine on April 6th with his story "The Lessons I'm Leaving Behind" and to learn that he had book on "The Last Lecture" on its way to bookstores.

Then a couple days later, Diane Sawyer interviewed Randy and his wife, Jai, on ABC. She called the story, "The Last Lecture: A Love Story for Your Life." I highly recommend it for viewing and passing along to your loved ones.

The essential question Randy's lecture asks everyone to answer (as he did) is:

"What wisdom would you impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?"

His question is one of the many that we pose to people who are writing an ethical will. While it may be a tough question to answer at any age (since we humans seem pretty resistant to the idea that death will someday visit us and we don't want to face the prospect of our "last chance"), I think it's important for every person and for future generations of humanity that each of us take time to share the wisdom of our unique journey through life.

As Randy Pausch said, "Make Time for What Matters." "Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think."
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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Positive Changes in Older Minds: The Aging Brain

With all the concern today about Alzheimer's and other diseases causing memory loss, it's easy to forget the positive changes that take place in our human brain as we age. Truth is, contrary to long accepted beliefs that our brain power inevitably declines, our minds continue to grow and flourish with age.

In his book, The Mature Mind, Gene Cohen documents findings of aging research that shows "not only does the brain retain its capacity to form new memories, which entails making new connections between brain cells, but it can grow entirely new brain cells -- a stunning finding filled with potential."

Dr. Cohen goes on to say that "We've also learned that older brains can process information in a dramatically different way that younger brains. Older people can use both sides of their brains for tasks that younger people use only one side to accomplish."

"A great deal of scientific work has also confirmed the 'use it or lose it' adage: the mind grows stronger from use and from being challenged in the same way that muscles grow stronger with exercise," says Cohen, who is director of the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University.

The Mature Mind presents authoritative research and real-life examples to show the positive power of older minds. In a highly readable style, Dr. Cohen describes scientific studies on what happens to the brain as it ages and offers inspiring life stories of ordinary people who demonstrate our creative potential as we live into elderhood.

The author contends that previous definitions of the final stage of life have been too limited. He extends the common "old age" stage to include four distinct developmental phases which often overlap one another:

1. Midlife reevaluation: Not the same as a "midlife crisis", it is a time of exploration and transition -- a quest for the true and meaningful in one's life (ages 40 through 65).

2. Liberation: A time to experiment, innovate, and let go of inhibitions from earlier in life (late 50's to late 60's).

3. Summing up: A time for life review, recapitulation, resolution, and giving back to society (late 60's through the 70's to early 80's).

4. Encore: A final phase of returning to themes from one's life, often expressed in wonderful and surprising ways (80's until the end of life).

Cohen says we have inner drives or desires which he calls the "Inner Push" that motivate us to move through the life phases -- drives that work in concert with changes in the aging brain.

The "inner push" and four phases ring true from my own life experience and from people I've known over the years. At my age of 63, I'm early to the the "summing up" stage. Most all of my work with people on ethical-spiritual wills has been with individuals at that stage and a few who've reached the "encore" phase of their lives.

In his book, Dr. Cohen introduces the concept of "developmental intelligence" which he sees as the "greatest benefit of the aging brain/mind." He defines it as "the degree to which a person has manifested his or her unique neurological, emotional, intellectual, and psychological capabilities." Cohen shows how to cultivate developmental intelligence to take advantage of its rewards as we age.

The most practical and usable information in The Mature Mind covers activities for "brain fitness" -- all of which work to boost clarity, power, and subtlety of the brain/mind significantly:

1. Exercise physically: Numerous studies have shown that regular, aerobic exercise sharply lowers the risk of Alzheimer's and other dementias and increases the number of connections between brain cells.

2. Exercise mentally: Engaging in mentally challenging activities stimulates the mind and new experiences boost brain development -- generating new synapses and other neural structures.

3. Pick challenging leisure activities: Reduction in risk of dementia is related to the frequency of engaging in activities such as dancing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board games or musical instruments, and reading.

4. Achieve mastery: Having a sense of control and mastery is vital for mental and physical health of older people. The feelings of empowerment and sense of accomplishment from mastering activities boosts the immune system and stimulates brain health.

5. Establish strong social networks: Maintaining social relationships reduces stress and lowers blood pressure, reducing the risks of stroke and brain damage. Social activity combats loneliness which causes many adverse health effects while strong social networks have a profound positive impact on health of the brain, mind, and body.

In his book, Dr. Cohen also deals with the subjects of cognition, memory, and wisdom as well as cultivating social intelligence and "reinventing" retirement. He discusses creativity and aging in the last chapter, expanding upon his previous book, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. Especially interesting to me were his findings that creativity among older people follow three basic patterns which Cohen describes as commencing creativity, continuing or changing creativity, and creativity connected with loss.

The Mature Mind is a mind-changing book which will awaken you to the positive power of the aging brain and increase your sense of control over its health and well-being. Read it to learn how to realize the amazing potential for your life as you grow older.
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