Category Archives: personal growth

Memories as we turn the calendar

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If you’ve been following this blog, you probably know that I am a nostalgic creature by nature. I often joke that I can get all soggy over the sandwich I had for lunch yesterday. I’ve been this way since I was a kid.

The turning of the calendar to a New Year only reinforces this trait.

In a piece for the November issue of Quest, a membership publication of the Unitarian Universalists, minister Mary Katherine Morn writes about themes of memory and hope.

Our memories serve to create and re-create us all the time. What are we, but this series of stories that we tell ourselves and these images that we conjure? Even our vision of the future is anchored in the stories and images we remember. And the present is some powerful spark, fueled by what we remember and what we imagine about the future.

I recently sat down with a dear friend of mine who enjoyed a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy, starting with an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and including service as a officer and captain on destroyers during the Cold War. Over the year, his daughter sorted through his personal papers and assembled a series of albums centered on his career, and they evoke rich memories for him and tell compelling historical, human stories to me. The albums are among the keepsakes and remembrances of a good life.

Nevertheless, Minister Morn urges that memories both good and bad “can hold us back from living fully and well.” Dwelling upon “an idealized vision of our past” can cause us to overlook the gifts of the present. For example, sad is the life of the former high school football star stuck in the glories of touchdowns past, or the frustrated actress who lives in the moment of her one star turn decades ago.

By contrast, adds Morn, defining our present “by means of a memory of abuse or illness or some other terrible thing” will cause us to have a “fitful and troubled” sleep through the present. She adds that “(t)he challenge with memory is to hold it lightly, to avoid being trapped in the comfort or terror of it for too long.” For example, in my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, I often write about those who are dealing with memories of severe bullying and harassment at work. Post traumatic stress can cause people to rehash details of bad experiences over and again, undermining their ability to move forward.

Those who are not beset by long and sharp memories (especially you non-Cancerians!) may find it hard to relate to these observations. Consider it a partial blessing! For those of us whose memories stick around, here’s to finding and keeping a proper place for them.

And, while I’m at it, allow me to wish you a safe, healthy, and meaningful 2014!

Synchronicity and A Foggy Day

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Here’s the story behind this photograph: In July 2011, I participated in a law & mental health conference at Humboldt University in Berlin. On one of the conference days, all morning and into a lunch hour walk, I found myself humming one of my favorite Gershwin songs, “A Foggy Day (In London Town).” I simply couldn’t get it out of my head!

Well, with lunch hour coming to an end, I made my way back to the conference site, and as I turned the corner into the main university plaza, these two students were playing…yup…you guessed it. It sent a (good) chill up and down my spine…and earned the kids a few euros.

The phenomenon is called synchronicity, a pair of related events that do not appear to be causally connected. Some would call it a coincidence, but those who know of the theories of psychologist Carl Jung might well suggest that a more psychic element is at play. I would tend to agree. I’m not the most psychic or intuitive person around, but I’ve had these moments too often to write them off as products of chance.

What about you? Do you buy into the idea of synchronicity?

What now, not what if

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Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them.

I was way too young to understand the tragedy of the assassination when it occurred. Today, however, I regard those events with a deep sense of loss and a light snuffed out.  Kennedy’s three years in office were marked by large successes and failures, but he appeared to be hitting his stride by the time he met his demise in Dallas. The “what ifs” are both tantalizing and sad to contemplate. It is oh-so-tempting to imagine what might have been had he lived.

Nevertheless, watching television programs devoted to Kennedy and his death seems like wallowing in a past that cannot be changed. That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy. The main protagonist — a modern-day school teacher — learns that when we go back in time, our attempts to change the past may have unintended consequences.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be drawing such fundamental lessons from a bestselling novel, but I’ll take the chance. Even hardcore nostalgia addicts like me must recognize that what’s done is done. And to a generation raised with options, the what-ifs — the speculations over the roads not traveled — can consume us if we let them.

Rather, what counts is how we live today, including the measures we undertake to better our lives and those of others. This point applies in the realms of public affairs, our personal lives, everything. We take the world as it is and do our best to move forward. It’s the best choice we have.

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This article is cross-posted with my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

The stories of our lives

(Photo: DY)

(Photo: DY)

For me, the best part of embracing (or at least not resisting!) middle age is the feeling that I’ve finally sorted out my core priorities and values. I’m not suggesting that change is undesirable or impossible at this stage. Rather, I believe that real, positive change is best built on a grounded base of earlier experiences and lessons we’ve learned from them.

On that note, a short passage from Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004), a collection of writings by the late Joseph Campbell, is instructive. Campbell wrote:

In a wonderful essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” [philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer points out that, once you have reached an advanced age, as I have, as you look back over your life, it can seem to have had a plot, as though composed by a novelist. Events that seemed entirely accidental or incidental turn out to have been central in the composition.

I don’t know if I’m fully at that point yet, but I do understand the passage in ways I would not have a decade ago.

Story plots

In this context, it’s helpful to think about the stories of our lives. In The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories (2004), Christopher Booker posits that seven basic plot lines continually recur in literature and drama:

  • “Overcoming the Monster”
  • “Rags to Riches”
  • “The Quest”
  • “Voyage and Return”
  • “Comedy”
  • “Tragedy”
  • “Rebirth”

Let’s apply these seven types to our own story arcs, and attempt to change the narratives if they aren’t going our way. Only one of the seven — tragedy — is negative on its face. And with the exception of comedy, the rest encompass seizing opportunities, meeting challenges, overcoming obstacles, and recovering from setbacks.

Beyond ourselves

Our stories also may include reaching out beyond our own lives and striving to better the world around us.

My friend Kayhan Irani, an award winning cultural activist based in New York (she’s way too young to be a Gen Joneser, but who’s counting!?), co-edited with Rickie Sollinger and Madeline Fox a volume of essays, Telling Stories to Change the World (2008). The book gathers narratives and reflections on social justice from around the world.

Whether it’s the immigrant experience in New York’s Hudson Valley, teaching about genocide in Darfur, women living in Muslim cultures, or a host of other settings, Telling Stories to Change the World draws us out of ourselves and, in the process, invites us to think about how we can make a difference in our own lives. Especially for those of us whose life experiences have been more conventional (in the American middle class sense of the term), this is a book of differences and possibilities.

When I started this blog a few weeks ago, I asked How will Generation Jones make its mark? During the years to come, I believe that part of that answer will include contributing toward positive change in our communities. We have a lot of good chapters left to write, I’d say.

How will Generation Jones make its mark?

I can relate. (Photo: Screen shot from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer")

I can relate. (Photo: Screen shot from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”)

If you’re a card-carrying U.S. member of Generation Jones, you no doubt recognize this screen shot from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” depicting some of the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys, hoping that Santa Claus will pick them up some Christmas Eve and deliver them to loving homes.

And that, for me, captures how I feel about our chronological place in time. I think of Gen Jones as a group whose formative period missed out on the heart of the Sixties and preceded much of the gee-whiz launch of the Digital Age.

Instead, the Seventies come to mind, and I don’t necessarily consider that a good thing: Big, gas guzzling cars; a struggling economy; lots of cheesy pop music, TV, and movies; some pretty scary fashions; high crime rates and crumbling cities; and the outing of political corruption at a national level. Despite my Cancerian devotion to nostalgia, that’s one decade I don’t get all warm and fuzzy about.

Finding our place now

But I’m over that — er, sort of.

More importantly, there’s a bigger question presenting itself, and that’s how we make our mark as a generation. I know I’m not alone in wrestling with these thoughts. The quest to find that narrative and purpose is said to be one of the defining characteristics of Gen Jones, as its Wikipedia entry suggests:

The name “Generation Jones” has several connotations, including a large anonymous generation, a “keeping up with the Joneses” competitiveness and the slang word “jones” or “jonesing”, meaning a yearning or craving. . . . It is said that Jonesers were given huge expectations as children in the 1960s, and then confronted with a different reality as they came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving them with a certain unrequited, “jonesing” quality.

For now, it’s fair to say that the process of generational self-definition is a work-in-progress for Gen Jones.

Here’s one take on it…

Beth Wiggins, whose work brings together aging issues and community services, suggests that Gen Jones can make its unique contribution by how we handle our aging population. Here’s a piece of her article for MinnPost.com, “Time for the Jones Generation to Make Its Mark”:

We . . . have been given a name: Generation Jones. Born between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, you don’t hear much about the Jones cohort. Yet, we outnumber all other Boomers and Generation X. Jonathan Pontell, who coined “Generation Jones,” describes it as a large, anonymous generation with unfulfilled expectations. . . . But here we are at our midcentury mark, and we have an opportunity to step out and make a difference.

. . . And we must, whether motivated by pursuit of the greater good or pure self-interest. Generation Jones is the crest of the population age wave. We personify its biggest challenges and are especially vulnerable to the potential insecurities when the wave hits the shore. Health-care costs continue to escalate, and Medicare is in a precarious position. Professional care-giving work force shortages loom ahead. Dispersed families and the increasing prevalence of single-person households have implications for how informal care is provided in the future. How we approach aging matters.

A good conversation over a bite to eat

Just yesterday I enjoyed a quick meal with an old friend from high school who was in town on business. We hadn’t seen each other in decades, but Facebook put us back in touch. He’s got a ton of important work experience in both the private and public sectors, and he’s at a point in his life where he’s considering how to bring this accumulated wisdom to bear upon some of our larger challenges in creating a vibrant, socially responsible economy.

Our conversation covered a wide swath of what our generation has experienced over the past 30 years. For both of us, this includes witnessing the sharp decline of our hometown of Hammond, Indiana, once a thriving small industrial city in Northwest Indiana’s steel belt, now yet another Midwestern locale trying to hang on. We’ve seen good jobs at decent wages disappear, with massive shifts in wealth distribution to go along with it.

Will my friend be part of a creative solution? I’m betting that his myriad experiences, and what he’s learned from them, have led him to this point.

Legacies

There’s no shortage of good works and noble deeds that need doing. That said, we’re in our 50s and late 40s. Realistically speaking, we have about a 20 year window to continue or begin creating the heart of our personal and collective legacies.

In other words, we can’t afford to feed a lot of angst about the world and our places in it. It’s game time, and we need to realize that.

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