What Are We Here For?

Purpose and meaning are NOT built in to human life. It’s NOT that life is meaningless, it’s that life has NO predetermined meaning,” said the man on the green padded stool.

Oh my, the wisdom that comes out from sitting on a green padded stool! It just so

happens that my favorite watering hole has twenty of them all in a line at the bar.

That man on the stool is my buddy, Tom, and I am Dave, sitting next to him. This afternoon we decided to see how much wisdom we could glean from sitting on green padded stools.

***

“Well Tom, your opening remark was pithy, I have to say. It could be very empowering and liberating if we could create our own meaning in our lives.”

“Oh boy Dave, I like those words: empowering and liberating. But the sad story is that many people believe the world would not notice if they never existed!”

“Hopefully, we can get some meaning and purpose from our struggles. It’s sort of a journey of becoming,” I said, after taking a sip of my beer, “Tell me Tom, what is one way to get meaning in your life?”

Tom pondered that for a moment, then said:

“How about helping others, what’s the word, ALTRUISM, that’s it.”

“Yes Tom, that’s a good way to get meaning in your life but some would say that you’re helping others to feel good yourself!”

“I believe it’s a two way street, your help benefits others and in doing so gives you a good feeling of purpose.”

“Another way to get meaning is serving society for the greater good. This is similar to altruism in that you’re relegating one’s own interests to second place for humanity’s betterment. Some politicians try to make life better for society by making government their life’s work.”

Tom’s face lit up as he said:

“Being happy in life and sustaining it would be meaningful.”

“Yes, I can see that happiness is an enduring state of pleasure and the happy person can probably endure the misfortunes that life throws at us better than those who aren’t happy.

But instead of the word happiness, I would use the word, contentment. We all have ups and downs and then happiness is interrupted. But if we are thankful for what we have we should be content.”

“How about SUCCESS in your endeavors being meaningful. Some people want a lot of recognition for their success, but just living your life pursuing your passions, no matter what recognition you get, should be seen as success and therefore meaningful.”

Boy, oh boy, the green padded stools were heating up now!

Tom started singing:

“What’s it all about, Dave.

Is it just for the moment we live?…”

“Hey Tom, that’s another meaningful purpose: “Carpe Diem”, seize the day. We are all trapped in the present, it’s the only life we have, so we should make the most of our present.”

“But Dave, does seize the day mean only to have as much pleasure as possible?”

“No Tom, seize the day means whatever we value in life, whether it be relationships, creativity, learning, food, sex, or travel, carpe diem is a call to appreciate these things while we can and not to put them off. In other words, to make every day COUNT.”

“Oh, I see Dave, the wisdom of carpe diem is that time is short, and this is the only life we have, so don’t squander it.”

***

“Eastern Philosophy, such as Buddhism, which calls for a “freeing of the mind”, is another way to find meaning. The purpose is to open your mind and let go of your ego. Attune yourself to the rhythms of nature. By freeing your mind the “I” becomes unimportant, and letting go is a meaningful exercise.”

“So Dave, this meditation might give us a feeling of freedom that almost can’t be expressed in words.”

“That’s right, my friend, it seems the older we get the more philosophizing we do, which is good, it makes us think.”

***

We both ordered another beer to celebrate the wonder of the green padded stools.

“Well Tom, we have uncovered ways to construct a purposeful and meaningful life. We’ve confronted the fragility and unpredictability of life and we’ve come up with ideas to do the best we can with it.”

Tom and I took long gulps of our beer and drained our glasses.

I took a deep breath and said:

“Someone once said: “My life has no purpose, no direction, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. What am I doing right?”

And then some philosopher said: “We should confront the absurdity of life with courage.”

With that, Tom and I walked out into the sunshine and went our separate ways.

Keep Breathing and Laughing

The title of this blog is the formula to cope with Old Age.

 

The other day while sipping my pint of beer, on my green padded stool, and old chap climbed up on the stool next to me and said:

“Isn’t it great to get old? I can give my opinion on things and nobody will pay attention or I can give advice that nobody will follow. Invisibility, that’s Old Age.”

“You’re growing old in a good mood,” I said, smiling, “My name is Dave.”

“Mine,” answered the old fella, “ is NOT.”

I was taken aback for a few seconds.

“Well, my friend, if you can’t grow old gracefully, do it anyway you can. Cantankerous is good.”

The old man laughed.

“My name is Noah.”

We shook hands.

“I take it you’re not enjoying old age.”

“Oh, it’s great, each day that passes makes me feel two days older!”

“Hey Noah, you’re a comic and a poet, your feet show it, they’re Longfellows.”

We both laughed.

“Talking about feet, mine hurt even before I get out of bed.”

“That reminds me of an old adage: You know you’re getting old when almost everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work!”

After a few more minutes of banter, we exchanged ages.

It turned out we were both 80!

***

“Noah, do you find joking about old age helps you cope?”

“Yes, Dave, it does. A couple of years ago I went through an Aging Existential Crisis and seeing the comedy in life helped me out of it.”

“What do you mean by an aging existential crisis?” I said, very seriously.

“Well Dave, it is the moment when I started questioning the foundations of my life; whether my life had any meaning, purpose, or value. I started a program of introspection.”

“So, Noah, what did you start thinking about?”

Noah started laughing.

“When I started my introspection, someone asked me if I’m having as much fun as I used to. I replied, “Look, I’m 80 years old, nothing is as much fun as it used to be.”

“True,” I said, smiling.

“But seriously, I thought about the positives of old age: having spare time, wisdom, tranquility, maturing, and immersing myself in hobbies. Also, I thought about the negatives: loneliness, worries, illness, and death. I started to reminisce about the past and I would wonder how I will cope with the advancing years.”

We both ordered another beer.

“I enjoy living in the past. It’s cheaper!” I said, hoping to put a smile on Noah’s face.

Noah laughed and then abruptly stopped. He had a far away look in his eyes.

“Dave, I’m at the point in my life that I wonder: What it was all about? The idea of having meaning comes to mind. I’ve struggled all of my life to achieve goals and make something of myself, but that only makes sense if those achievements will be permanent in some way. What do you think?”

“I’m afraid your achievements won’t be permanent. Even if you wrote a best selling piece of literature that was read years after your death, it would eventually vanish. If there is to be any meaning to what we do, we have to find it WITHIN our own lives.”

“I’ve worked to earn money to support myself and my family. I eat because I’m hungry. I sleep because I’m tired. I read for info and pleasure. I go for walks because it makes me feel good. I help people when I can. But these things don’t seem enough somehow…”

“My friend, all those things we do WITHIN life, none of those things explain the point of your life as a WHOLE.”

“So, you’re implying that from the outside, it wouldn’t matter if I had never existed!”

“Keep your shirt on. One way your life could have a larger meaning is if you somehow changed the world for the better, but most of us don’t accomplish that.”

We both sipped our beer and pondered.

“I just thought of something, Noah. Why isn’t it all right for our lives to be POINTLESS? Why worry whether or not the WHOLE is meaningless?”
“But Dave, I do care about what my WHOLE stood for!” said Noah, very seriously.

“I think that’s the problem, we take ourselves too seriously. We want to matter to ourselves so badly, and if we see pointlessness in our lives, we are dissatisfied and the wind is taken out of our sails.”

Noah smiled and said: “Perhaps we just have to put up with life being ridiculous, meaningless and absurd.”

“We should both go back to the beginning of our conversation when we were laughing because that reduces stress, combats depression and increases resilience.”

“That’s right Dave, we must remember that a lot of life is funny and then laugh at ourselves.”

“A good laugh heals a lot of meaninglessness,” I said, smiling.

“When you’re laughing, not even absurdity can stand,” said Noah, laughing so hard he had to take a deep breath.

“In conclusion, I will leave you with this, Noah:

AT OUR AGE, TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES AND WALK IN FRONT OF A MIRROR. I GUARANTEE YOU WILL LAUGH YOUR HEAD OFF!”

The Listener

I was fresh from completing my six month Listening and Communication course, when I dropped into my favorite watering hole and Tom, the barkeep, greeted me:

“Hi Dave, what will you have today?”

“Give me a tonic water with ice and a slice of lemon. I’m trying to lay off of the alcohol.”

Tom came back with my drink and said:

“Are you waiting to listen to someone with a problem, like you used to do?”

“Tom, I’m open to anyone who wants to talk about a difficulty. I’m a good listener. Humans are social beings and they find release in sharing their thoughts with others.”

“There’s a chap at the end of the bar who told me he has problems. I’ll bring him over,” said Tom, pointing to the darkened corner of the tavern.

“Sure, bring him over Tom.”

A couple of minutes later a tall, dark haired chap hopped up on the stool next to me.

“Hi, I’m Jim, I was told you’re a good listener.”

“I’m Dave, and yes, I know listening helps people unload burdens.”

Jim looked at me with questioning eyes.

“What is good listening?”

“Listening is a form of helping conversation. When I’m listening to someone’s problem, I try to put aside my own judgements so they don’t interfere.”

“Does a listener ask questions?”

“Oh yes, a listener asks questions to clarify issues and to broaden the horizons of the talker and to challenge their thinking.”

“I tend to get upset and angry when I talk about my problems,” said Jim, waiting for my reaction.

“A burst of feelings from the talker can be scary for the listener but, hopefully I can manage because I know expressing emotion can be helpful and it might make the help-seeker initiate change.”

“Well Dave, I feel comfortable in your company. What are the reoccurring problems you’ve encountered?”

‘Well Jim, most problems in counseling practice involve change and some kind of loss. All changes and transitions in life bring stress and have a great impact on the help-seeker.”

“Well, I’ve got a problem with finding meaning in my life.”

I took a long sip of my tonic and lemon.

“I’ve found there are three avenues that lead to meaning fulfillment.

First, doing a deed or some creative work, like listening to people’s problems.

Second, experiencing something or encountering someone. Meaning can be found in Work and Love.

And third, facing a fate we cannot change so we have to make the best of what we have by rising above ourselves and changing.”

“Are you telling me that meaning can come out of suffering?”

“That’s right, Jim.”

“Well, I better tell you my problem then…

My wife has been depressed for a year now since her parents got killed in a car accident. She doesn’t feel like doing anything, housework, cooking, or socializing. The doc has her on antidepressants. She has even threatened to become a recluse. She has lost her energy and inclination to do anything. She has lots of moods. The situation is getting me down now. I’ve lost hope in the future because my wife and I used to do everything together and now that is gone.

So it has ended up with two depressed people under the same roof. I now tend to get angry with my wife because she can’t get better. I feel guilty about that. I can see myself becoming her carer and I don’t know if I’m fit for that role.”

Jim ordered another pint of beer and waited for my reaction.

I was so intent on listening to Jim that I found it hard to get my mouth moving with an answer!

“Well Jim, you’re seeing the event of your wife’s sickness in an unfavorable light, and it is regrettable, and it’s affecting your stability. Your thoughts are distorted and your belief of no hope for the future is unhealthy, consequently you have destructive actions such as your anger, guilt and fear. You are responding very negatively to the event.”

“What am I supposed to do to stop these anxiety feelings?” Jim’s voice was getting louder.

“Your wife’s G.P. and therapist are in charge of her depression but sadly you have been left out of the equation to fend for yourself. There is a tendency to forget about the carer in many cases. We have to find a way to get rid of your toxic negative thoughts.”

“I have these thoughts all the time,” said Jim, dejectedly.

“That’s why they are called, “Negative Automatic Thoughts”. You see Jim, these thoughts are distorted and unhelpful ways of interpreting a situation.”

“So how do I get rid of these distorted thoughts?”

“You need to ask yourself: “How can I change my thoughts in order to feel better and act more constructively?”

“So, should I try to find an alternative thought?”

“That’s right, instead of thinking there’s no hope for the future and being consumed by anxiety, instead think, “If I MUST go through this bad patch, I might as well try to make the best of it and live as enjoyably as I can. I will ACCEPT the situation and live my life.”

“Okay, I’ll try it, but my concentration is all over the place now days and I get very emotional.”

“Remember Jim, and this is important, the best way to really consolidate your new thought is to ACT on it. Don’t get angry at your wife, be more compassionate.”

“I have to go now Dave, thanks for listening and giving me some pointers. I probably will need some more help, can we meet up again sometime?”

“Sure thing Jim, lets make it on Fridays at 6PM after your work week is over. I’ll be here on my green padded stool waiting. We will talk about concentration and emotion next.”

Jim and I shook hands and off he went and there was a faint smile on his face.

 

Bust Times, The 1930’s

In early and mid 1929 the stock market soared from high to high. Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the USA, entered the White House in March of 1929 and he foresaw the final triumph over poverty in the states. But the winds of downturn were gathering. Auto sales were down and also housing starts plus manufacturing output was falling.

***

“Dave, why did the 1929 stock market crash happen?” said Tom, soberly.

“Well, millions of Americans were in debt, buying on installment plans and “Buying on Margin” in speculative purchasing of stocks. The economy wasn’t on a sound footing.”

“What’s “buying on margin”?”

“I remember my Dad explaining it to me this way: A speculator would put down 10% of the stock price in cash and borrow the rest. They would pay back the borrowed money with the profits when the paper was sold. This concept worked as long as the stock prices kept growing. This became so popular that 90% of the stock was being bought with borrowed money!”

“But Dave, not everyone played the stock market,” said Tom, quizzically.

“That’s right Tom, my Dad never owned stock. In fact, less than 20% of Americans invested in the stock market leading up to the crash.

But it was the psychological effects that pushed the downward economic slide. Business couldn’t get capital for new projects and expansions. The consumer stopped buying. Companies got rid of workers so consequently it led to mass unemployment. And then, the banks failed!”

***

“So Dave, the booming, roaring twenties was a time of wealth and excess that led to the crash and depression.”

“That’s right Tom, nothing was the same again after the Crash, billions of dollars of wealth were wiped out in one day and that depressed consumer buying.”

“The depression was like the apocalypse of the economy.”

“Right Tom, in fact you could liken the times to the biblical four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The first horseman was the dodgy distribution of income. The farmers never had prosperity in the 20’s. The urban masses faired better, but the rich got the gravy, dividends, interest and profits. Industrial profits rose 40% and corporate profits rose 80%! But wages rose only 8%. When the rich started to slow their investments, consumer spending could NOT plug the gap.

The second horseman was the bank failures, the banks had no deposit insurance so there was a run of people trying to withdraw their money. The banking system collapsed.

The third horseman was that America had become a creditor nation.

The fourth horseman was poor economic intelligence. The thinking was that there was an automatic functioning of the markets, that left alone the markets would restore normal business.

And the fifth horseman, one more added, was the Crash itself.”

***

“Lots of people were on the breadline, going to the soup kitchens, because they couldn’t find a job.”

“That’s right Tom, my Dad told me he jumped on a boxcar on a long freight train going from Chicago to New York, to find a job. He got a part time job in N.Y. and he existed on sinkers(stale doughnuts) and coffee. But eventually he came back to Chicago because the job situation was no better in New York.”

“What else happened in the 30’s?”

“Well, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1933. Also, Prohibition was repealed on Dec. 5th, 1933. This noble experiment spawned modern organized crime. Now, bootlegging was over but the criminals had grown rich and bold. Everyone could drink freely again so they could enjoy their pickled relatives!”

“Didn’t Roosevelt state in his inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself” and everyone sang, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

“Right you are, Tom. Roosevelt got to work on his “New Deal” program. He started deposit insurance in the banks, regulated the stock exchanges and got people back to work on infrastructure projects.”

“Boy, he was busy!”

“I almost forgot, Al Capone went to Alcatraz prison for tax evasion in 1931, he was released in 1939 with a brain disease brought on by syphilis. He died in 1947 at the age of 48.”

***

“You and I, Tom, were Depression Babies”, but by 1938 the USA was climbing out of the Depression.”

Happy Days Are Here Again

The Skies Above Are Clear Again

So Let’s Sing A Song Of Cheer Again

Happy Days Are Here Again!

 

Boom Times, The 1920’s

In a fit of nostalgia, I remembered how my Dad talked about his youth in 1920’s. So I decided to review some American history from 1920 up to 1986, which includes my youth, and also it was the year I emigrated to England. I will do this in a series of blogs.

I mentioned this to my boyhood friend and adult buddy, Tom, and he decided to take the journey with me.

***

The 1920’s were known as The Roaring Twenties or The Jazz Age.

I will start the 20’s journey with a few things that happened in Chicago, since Tom and I were born and bred there.

In 1921 the magnificent, 4300 seat, palace called The Chicago Theatre opened on State Street.

Al Capone rose to power in 1924 (more later).

US Route 66 opened in 1926 linking Chicago to Los Angeles.

In 1927, the Harlem Globetrotters were founded by Abe Saperstein. They were a comic basketball team staring Wilt “the stilt” Chamberlain.

Also in 1927 Maxwell Street and Halsted was the home to thousands of Jewish immigrants. The Maxwell Street Market was a place where “most everything” was on sale, the motto was, “We Cheat You Fair”.

In 1929, the gangland St. Valentine’s Day Massacre happened at a garage on Clark Street by Capone’s hit team. They killed some of Bugs Moran’s men, who were Capone’s enemies.

***

My Dad told me how many people were caught up in the art of Autosuggestion in the 20’s. This was due to a Frenchman named Emile Coue who advocated self-improvement based on optimistic autosuggestion. People used to recite a mantra daily to themselves. It went something like this: Everyday in every way, I am getting better and better.

“Sounds good to me,” said Tom, “I can just see a 1920’s flag-pole sitter mumbling that to himself as the pole sways in the breeze.”

“How about this, Tom, imagine a flapper repeating the mantra over and over while sitting in a bathtub filled with gin!”

We both laughed.

***

“The economy was booming those days, wasn’t it?”

“That’s right Tom, my Dad told me the US economy was growing over 6% per year and 50% of the world’s goods were made in America!”

“Hey Dave, wasn’t there a phrase going around: A Chicken In Every Pot.”

“Yes Tom, my Dad did mention that. He also said, by the mid-20’s almost every home had a radio. But there were some down sides. The American factory worker was slaving away 10-12 hours a day, without any job or health security.”

***

“Didn’t women get the vote in 1920, Dave?”

“Yes, but the liquor companies were in opposition because they feared that women would vote for prohibition, which they did. It was called the noble experiment.”

“Women started smoking in public in the 20’s, didn’t they, Dave?”

“Yes, the flappers did. Cigarette production doubled during the 20’s.”

***

My Dad also told me about the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925.”

“Was that about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?”

“That’s right Tom. Scopes, a teacher, was accused of violating the Butler Act in Tennessee, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools. Most people in Tennessee didn’t like the notion that everyone’s ancestors were monkeys!”

Tom laughed and said:

“People didn’t like the findings of science to conflict with the teachings of the Church.”

“Does it bother you, Tom, that you came from a chimp?”

“No,” said Tom, swinging his arms wildly.

***

Now, we come to the gangster era in Chicago. Al Capone came to Chicago in 1924, when he was 25 years old. He was a henchman for John Torrio, the father of gangsterism. When a rival gang shot Torrio, he went back to Italy and handed over his empire of breweries, speakeasies and brothels to Capone. He just about owned the mayor, Big Bill Thompson, by payoffs and helping him get rid of his political opponents.”

“Whenever people speak about Chicago, right away they think of Capone,” said Tom.

“That’s right Tom.”

***

“Dave, what exactly was a flapper?”

“Well, according to my Dad, they were young women who wore short dresses and cut their hair short to conflict with the way people thought women should behave. They were the fun loving women of the times.”

“I would of liked to have met one,” said Tom, smiling.

“Me too, Tom!”

***

“Talking about gangsters in the 20’s, Prohibition let them make lots of money by bootlegging alcohol and they became rich.”

“That’s right. The temperance women wanted their husbands to stay out of the taverns and the companies wanted their workers sober. So the people thought prohibition would be a good idea. But with the chaos created by the gangsters it meant that the amendment had to be repealed, and it was in 1933.”

***

“Dave, you mentioned the 20’s were called “The Jazz Age”, what was that all about?”

“My Dad told me the national culture was changing in the 20’s. Music was one thing that changed. Jazz was a type of music that combined African American music with European harmonies. It inspired Americans to dance fast with crazy actions, such as the Charleston. Talking movies came in and everyone listened to the radio. Change was all around and the Americans loved it!”

“I remember once I tried to dance the Charleston and fell over,” said Tom, laughing.

***

“Well, that’s it for the 20’s. Next blog will be about the 30’s and the Great Depression.”

“That should be interesting,” said Tom, jitter bugging down the street, or was it the Charleston?

Past, Present, Future and Hope

I was in my favorite watering hole, sipping my pint of beer, sitting on my green padded stool and thinking of how many good discussions I’ve had with people on these stools.

There’s something about these stools that brings out the best reflective thinking in people. I was wondering who I would talk to today and about what topic, when a chap jumped up on the stool next to me.

He was a tall, broad shouldered fellow with sharp facial features and a dark pencil line moustache. He was about mid 50 ish in age. He ordered a G and T.

“Nice day today,” I said, in my best congenial voice.

He squinted at me and said in a gruff voice:

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“You sound like you have a problem.”

“Hey mister, what are you, the local psychiatrist?”

“No, just trying to pass the time of day,” I whispered. I was hoping he would simmer down.

“If you must know, one of my friends told me I’m so immersed in the past and future that I can’t be content and live in the present where I should be. He said the present was the most important place to live and I should forget about the past and future. What do you think about that?”

I sipped my beer and thought for a minute.

“Nothing to say, mister psychiatrist?”

“I’ve got plenty to say, but will you listen?”

He looked at me long and hard, then he made a gesture like he was zipping up his mouth.

“We all spend time in all three of those time zones. Granted, our consciousness and Now reality are in the present. By the way, how is your present?”

“Not good! I’m in a dead end job, my partner is threatening to leave me, and my health is starting to fail.”

“What is your name , my friend, mine is Dave.”

“I’m Tom.”

“Okay Tom, lets lay down some facts to disperse the illusion that only the present is important.”

“Do you really think you can help me?”

“Well, I can give you some info to mull over that might help.”

“Okay Dave, lets get started. I’m all ears.”

I took a deep breath and began:

“It’s an illusion that you must be in the present constantly. The past has a great influence on your present behavior. Having a future is a need that is essential for your morale in the present. If you have no hopes for the future your present collapses.”

“So, when I was told to stop thinking about the past and future, that was wrong?” Tom looked confused.

“That’s right, Tom, you must NOT suppress those two times, if you do, you will get depressed.”

“Oh boy, carry on, Dave.”

“The current thinking is that action and accomplishment make the present enjoyable as possible. And the future will become the present, so you have to make the present good to enjoy the future. So, with this thinking the present is the most important time because it is your reality and a time to prepare for a future reality. As far as thinking about the past, it is useless.”

“But Dave, I’ve always enjoyed thinking about the good times in the past,” said Tom, quizzically.

“Nothing wrong with that, Tom, if your past was good it provides an enjoyable experience to reminisce about.”

“But now, Dave, my present and future is bleak so I live in the past. I don’t have much hope that will change.”

“That’s too bad, hope is a NEED in itself. You need to have some hope in order to have some present morale. Cut away the future and the present collapses.”

“I wish I could regain some hope,” said Tom, sadly.

“I wish you could, too. Let me tell you what hope does for you. Hope motivates you to carry on with life. Hope maintains morale, that’s the level of a person’s confidence and enthusiasm at a particular time. A person without hope is a person without a future. Hope is an energizer. It maintains your immune system.

But hope is also a mixed blessing, it can be a big letdown especially if it is false hope. You look forward to something and it nevercopes.”

“But Dave, I’m depressed, I don’t see any improvement in my present. I feel time is running out for any dreams that I had. I walk around in an aura of hopelessness! My health is fading, my legs are weak.”

“Wow Tom, that’s quite a list of dejection.”

“You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. You say hopelessness leads into depression, what next?’

“Your saviour might be resignation, it’s less toxic.”

“You mean shut down and accept my predicament?’

“It’s better than wasting away pining over lost hope.”

Tom was staring into space with a grim look on his face.

“What you’re suffering from is Need Frustration due to life losses.”

“Come again,” said Tom, dejectedly.

“Need Frustration is losing health, being in a job you don’t like, being lonely, aging, etc.

You’re depressed because you are on the cusp of aging, diminished attractiveness, diminished mobility, diminished abilities, all these are close to arriving and this brings on frustration.”

“What can I do, Dave?”

“Appreciate what life you have left. Be glad you’re alive. Accept that time moves on and live as enjoyably as you can knowing that life is short. I’ll leave you with something I read on a tombstone:

Remember me as you pass by,

As you are NOW, so once was I,

As I am NOW, so you must be,

But first,enjoy what life you have left!

***

Tom left the building with a glint in his eye!

Howling Through The Human Condition

My nephew, Tom, who is 15 years old, told me the other day:

“Uncle Dave, would you believe our teacher said we wouldn’t be discussing Shakespeare’s tragedies because they might be too upsetting for us?”

“Well Tom, I know the new child psychology is to wrap children in cotton wool so reality doesn’t frighten them too much. I think it’s called “the snowflake generation”. This is when the adolescents are so sensitive they find it hard to face the world.”

“Why are we so sensitive, Uncle Dave?”

“Well, one thing is “Health and Safety” rules now days. The kids are pushed into safe spaces and are not allowed outside by themselves. Their games are closely supervised.

Years ago 80-90% of seven year olds walked to school alone, now only 10% do. So they don’t feel any sense of independence and they don’t have a chance to learn things by themselves. Some risk taking is good for kids, they learn to face their fears. Consequently, having been protected from everything, children are hypersensitive to any discomfort right up to early adulthood. there is more mental illness among children now because there is a terror of encountering opinions which differ from theirs.”

Well, Uncle Dave, wouldn’t it be better to study the tragedies to learn about fear and conflict? By the way, someone in class mentioned the Human Condition,  what’s that?”

“Tragedy teaches you about adversity and you learn a lot from adversity. The Human Condition is composed of the things essential to our existence, such as, birth, growth, adversity, conflict and mortality. Shakespeare is full of the Human Condition.”

“So, studying Shakespeare helps us examine the Human Condition?”

“Yes Tom, you’ve got it in one!”

“Give me some examples, Uncle Dave, and I hope I don’t get too upset,” Tom smiled.

“In life we have to endure many things we howl about, we come into the world howling, we howl through life and we probably will leave the world howling!”

“Oh, Uncle Dave, you have such a way with words, just like Shakespeare,” said Tom, laughing.

“Hamlet is a good example, he asks all the questions we ask ourselves: Who am I? To be or not to be? Why do we exist?

Hamlet wanted to know should we accept our troubles in silence, or should we act to overcome them? Or, if we can’t overcome them, just accept our predicament and live one day at a time and enjoy what life we have.”

So, Uncle Dave, not to study Shakespeare is to miss out on essential life knowledge?”

“That’s right, Grasshopper, sorry, I mean Tom.”

“That’s okay, I am your Grasshopper.”

“Now Tom, when you go to see a Shakespeare tragedy, you will experience fear of what’s going to happen, and then you will feel pity for the main character.”

“What then, Uncle Dave?” Tom interrupted.

“Catharsis is next, you get purged of those emotions and you leave the theatre uplifted with an understanding of what it means to be human.”

“So, Uncle Dave, my teacher should be teaching us Shakespeare, otherwise he is hindering our education.”

“Yes Tom, he thinks he is protecting you from life’s rocky road, but you need to be taught about the tools to face your future.”

“Well, I’m going to read Shakespeare on my own time,” said Tom, determined.

“Well Tom, if we don’t study such works of literature, how will we endure the real tragedies which affect our world?”

“Thanks Uncle Dave, for setting me straight. I’ll be going now.”

“A couple of thoughts to take with you Tom:

All the world is a stage and most of us are UNDER REHEARSED!

All the world lives in one of two tents: Content or Discontent.”

Anxiety Help (from the green padded stool)

I was daydreaming, which writers do a lot, sitting on my green padded stool in my favorite watering hole. My daydreaming was interrupted when a chap climbed on the stool next to me. He looked to be in his early 50’s. He was sweating, grim faced and stooped over the bar.

He ordered a boiler-maker, which was a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser. That was a powerful alcoholic combination compared to my non-alcoholic tonic water with ice and lemon.

He drank the whiskey in one gulp and then took a sip of beer.

Then his eyes started to roll and he mumbled:

“My body fells tingly and I’m dizzy. I feel like ice water is in my veins. I want to run away from my body but I can’t. My heart is pounding!”

His breathing was shallow. The bartender gave me a cold cloth to wipe his forehead with.

“Take deep breaths, fella,” I said, holding the cloth on his forehead.

He recovered after about five minutes, then he blurted out:

“The walls of life are closing in.”

“What do you mean by that, my friend?” I said as a reflex action to his outburst.

He looked at me with watery eyes and said:

“I’m depressed and full of anxiety. Life is getting claustrophobic.”

He ordered another whiskey.

“Do you think whiskey is the solution to your panic attack?”

“It blots out my negative thinking.”

“What got you into this situation?”

“The last two years have been a disaster for me. My wife died, then I was passed over for promotion. Now my job is in jeopardy because I’ve lost my concentration. My health has been deteriorating and I feel I’ve lost all control over my life.”

“Maybe I can help. Sometimes talking it out is therapeutic.”

“Hey mister, what makes you an authority on depression and anxiety?”

“I’m a writer of a blog where I try to inform people on solutions to their problems.”

Tom, the barkeep, came over and said:

“Hey buddy, listen to this guy, he knows what he’s talking about.”

My stoolmate pondered that for a minute and said:

“He does?”

“Yes, he does, trust me I’m a bartender!”

“What qualifications do you have?”

“I’m a student of life. I took some psychology courses when I was young and I continued through my life to read about anxiety, depression, fear and phobias, all of which I am interested in.”

“Well mister, this depression is taking over my life,” my stoolmate mumbled.

“Do you realize that depression is a defense mechanism against the sickness of negative thinking?”

“You mean to tell me, that depression is good for you?”

“No, depression is NOT good for us, but it’s the body’s survival mechanism over extreme stress caused by negative thinking.”

“How does depression help you survive?”

“Your body has to deal with the stress, so depression depresses negative thinking by numbing out fear emotions but it also numbs out good emotions, like love and joy.”

“So, my negative thinking has caused my depression”

“Yes, but you can get rid of depression by discontinuing to think negatively.”

“Easier said then done!”

“But worth the effort if you want to get control of your thoughts and feelings.”

I noticed my stoolmate stopped drinking whiskey and was sticking to the beer. Was I getting through to him?

“Hey Dave, you want another tonic water?” said Tom, the barkeep.

“Yes please.” Tom was my buddy from our school days, which is why I come to this tavern.

When Tom brought my drink, he winked at me, he knew I had helped others from the green padded stool.

“So many of my friends seem to be going through bouts of panic and depression. Why is that, I wonder?”

“Well, my friend, stress over long periods of time plays a role. Each of us creates much of our own stress, but the society in which we live affects us also.”

“How does society affect us?”

“Our environment and social order have changed drastically in the last 30 years. Modern society is fast paced with the advent of digital technology. Consequently, this hasn’t given people time to adjust.”

My stoolmate was pondering that statement for a minute.

I continued: “The situation is compounded by the increasing uncertainties in today’s world, climate change, nuclear proliferation, etc, means society gets more anxious and finally values are unclear today.”

“How’s that about values?”

“Nietzsche, the philosopher, said: “God is dead!”

That means the usual values prescribed by religion and society are gone. We must all cope on our own and take responsibility for creating our own meaning and moral code, which becomes very stressful!”

“So, my panic attacks come about from too much stress?”

“That’s right. How do you feel at this moment?”

“Terrible! I feel like I’m losing control of myself and my life and I have a feeling that something bad is going to happen. Also, I say strange things to myself, like I’m going crazy.”

“All that tells me you have extreme anxiety that is probably generalized. You have an overall feeling of a vague danger coming all the time.”

The stoolmate was squirming on his stool!

“So, this is affecting me in every department?”

“Yes, physiologically, behaviorally, and psychologically.”

“Oh No! What am I going to do?”

He put his head in his hands and he was shaking!

“Relax fella, there is help for you.”

I motioned to Tom to give me the cold cloth again.

“Here, my friend, hold this on your forehead for a few minutes.”

I handed him the cloth. I didn’t want him to have another attack.

After a minute or so, he threw the cloth on the bar and said:

“How can I recover from this horror situation?”

“Your recovery program should include:

A reduction of your physical reactions, an elimination of avoidance behavior and finally change your subjective interpretations right now, your self-talk is terrible and is perpetuating your state of apprehension and worry.”

“How do I put all that into action?”

“Well, you might need a therapist, but if you were strong enough, you could do it by yourself.”

“Please tell me the treatment, Dave, my name is Jake, by the way.”

That was an improvement, he called me by name and introduced himself.

“Fasten your seatbelt, Jake, here we go:

First, you will need some relaxation training. Deep breathing exercises to reduce anxiety.

Then Cognitive Therapy to get rid of bad self-talk and replace it with realistic thinking. You need to correct your distorted thinking.

Then Distraction, some diversionary activities such as a hobby, listening to music, journaling, and writing down your daily thoughts.

Finally, Mindfulness practice would be beneficial. Realize your bad thoughts can’t hurt you and try to live in the present moment, where your life is.”

Jake was writing all this down on a piece of paper that Tom gave him. He put it in his pocket.

The Jake got up to leave.

“Remember, my friend, yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the Present.”

“Thank you for the info, Dave, I feel better already.”

He walked out of the tavern whistling.

Tom and I smiled at each other and gave the thumbs up sign.

To Be A Philosopher

My nephew, Tom, just turned 15 years old when he spent a day with me because his parents were visiting some people they met on holiday.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, he is very smart and he studies with kids two years older than him. So, it didn’t surprise me when he said:

“Hey Uncle Dave, guess what, my teacher started philosophizing about how beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This started me thinking wouldn’t it be great to be a philosopher.”

“Tom, philosophy might boggle your mind,” I said, smiling.

“No, I’m up for it, Uncle Dave.”

“Well, you will have to realize that ALMOST nothing is certain.”

“Okay, but how do I begin my philosophy education?”

“Oh, you want to play Master and Grasshopper again?”

“Yes Uncle Dave, but I would prefer it if you didn’t call me Grasshopper.”

“Okay Tom, to begin with you need to consider what is or appears to be directly in front of your eyes. You must begin to question and doubt what is supposed to be obvious.”

“Do you philosophize, Uncle Dave?’

“You and I, Tom, philosophize without even knowing we’ve been doing it!”

“No, Uncle Dave!”

“Yes Tom, it’s true. We’ve both wondered how the universe began, we’ve wondered if we know anything for certain or is life meaningless. All this wondering is tantamount to philosophizing.”

“Define philosophy for me, Uncle Dave.”

“Well Tom, the word philosophy is derived from “philos”, the Greek for “love” and “sophis”, the word for “wisdom”. So philosophy is the love of wisdom.”

Tom was pondering that for a moment.

“Well Tom, are you a lover of wisdom?”

“Oh yes, Uncle Dave.”

“Keeping on with the definition, philosophy is the rational investigation of Being, knowledge and right conduct.”

***

“Uncle Dave, what’s the nature of philosophy?”

“There are three things about philosophy’s nature:

It is an activity that exposes falsehoods and inconsistencies.

It uses REASON to do this.

It involves thinking about ALL sides of an argument.

***

When we talk philosophically to people, it makes all parties THINK!”

There was a minute’s silence, Tom was pondering again.

“The main thing in becoming a philosopher is that you must start doubting everything.”

“What should I start doubting, Uncle Dave?”

“Well, my boy, you can doubt something that is supposed to be obvious and beyond dispute about the world around you. You have to become a “Philosophical Sceptic.”

“Uncle Dave, are you telling me to doubt the EXTERNAL WORLD?”

“Yes, but lets start small with just one object. Lets say my eagle head cane here.”

Tom looked long and hard at the cane.

“Well, it could be a hallucination or an optical illusion.”

“Very good Tom, you’re getting the philosophical thinking technique. So lets analyze this. An hallucination is the false perception of an object when no object is present. When a person hallucinates his mind is disordered and it is playing tricks on him.

Now, an optical illusion is a trick of light and heat, etc. These two phenomena focus on a thing appearing but is not real. But, what if everything in this room is not actually here at all?”

Tom was thinking hard, I could see it in his eyes.

“Maybe, everything out there is just a DREAM!”

“Great thinking, Tom. Many philosophers believe that the world you think you’re in right now is a dream. And if you wake up from the dream, you can’t be sure if you’re not falling asleep, follow?”

***

“Any other ideas about the existence of the external world?”

“Maybe, the world is just in our imagination.”

“You’ve hit on a great point again, my brainy nephew. What you’re thinking of is akin to “Solipsism”. Your self alone is the external world. Some believe one’s own mind is the only thing that exists!”

“But, that’s kind of hard to believe, isn’t it, Uncle Dave?”

“You’re right, Tom. If your mind was all that exists, what would you do with yourself? If there were no other people, there would be no point in writing this blog.”

***

“Oh Uncle Dave, the more we talk about the existence of the outer world, the more I am haunted by my doubts. But, when I go out and about I’m too busy enjoying my interaction with the world that appears to be there to bother to think about whether or not it is REALLY there.”

“I told you it would boggle your mind. Lets wind up this discussion since we can’t prove or not prove the existence of the outer world.”

“Sounds good to me, Uncle Dave, but it was interesting.”

“Yes it was, but I think we should get on with analyzing and classifying our perceptions as they APPEAR to us. Forget about if there is or isn’t anything besides those appearances.”

***

To sum up, here are some thoughts on philosophy:

Philosophy is an orderly way of discussing subjects we know nothing about.

***

Philosophy is a study which enables men to be unhappy more intelligently.

***

Philosophy is nothing but COMMON SENSE dressed up in a suit.

***

Tom left scratching his head.

 

 

 

The Last Chapter

It had been two years since my nephew, Tom, and I had our chat about historical beginnings. I missed our chats. Then one day, out of the blue, his parents dropped him off at my house for a few hours while they went shopping.

“Uncle Dave, the other day I saw a very old man hobbling along on a cane and I was wondering what it would be like to be him. I notice you have a cane now. How old are you, Uncle Dave?”

“I am 79 years old and yes, I need a cane at times to support my aging legs.”

I propped my brass eagle head walking stick by the side of my chair.

My 14 year old nephew sat on the floor at my feet.

“Well, Grasshopper, do you mind if I call you grasshopper?”

“No, I don’t mind, but why?” said Tom, quizzically.

“You’re too young to remember the Kung Fu TV series, but in the story, the Master Teacher calls his student, Grasshopper, because when he was teaching him about being in the Present Moment, he said:

“Do you hear your heartbeat?”

“No,” said the student.

“Do you hear the grasshopper at your feet?”

“No, how is it you hear these things, Old Man?”

“Young Man, how is it that you do not?”

***

“Now, Grasshopper, about your wondering how it feels to be old…”

“Oh yes, Uncle Dave, tell me, please,” said Tom, excitedly.

“You’re awful young to be thinking about old age.”

“I will be old some day and I want to know about it. Now, please continue, Uncle Dave.”

This kid was curious beyond his years!

“Okay, Grasshopper, here is what it feels like to be OLD:

Smear some dirt on your glasses.

Stuff cotton in your ears.

Put on heavy shoes that are too big for you.

Wear gloves.

Now, you can’t see or hear very well. You stumble around and your hands don’t work properly.”

***

Tom looked gobsmacked.

“You see Tom, I mean Grasshopper, as we get older our senses become less acute and our muscles weaker,” I smiled.

“When I get old I want a fancy eagle head cane like yours, Uncle Dave.”

“I’ll leave you this one when I’m finished with it.”

Tom took my cane and rubbed the brass eagle’s head.

“Uncle Dave, how do you grow old without feeling old?”

“That’s a good question, Grasshopper, I suppose you have to try to stay young in mind and spirit. But, it has been said that there is little difference between a long life and a short one. Both are but moments in time.”

“When I get older I want to study about old people and help them enjoy life.”

“A noble goal, Grasshopper. Your parents told me you are interested in pursuing a medical career.”

***

I knew Tom was precocious because he had skipped two grades in school, so he was studying now with 16 year olds!

“How can old people live their life to the fullest?”

“Well Grasshopper, I guess to grow old gracefully you need to:

Live and enjoy each day and don’t think too much about the past or future. Live just for today, it’s the only life we have.

Exercise and take care of your mind and body.

Keep your mind alert.

Have a hobby and join a club to interact with people.

***

“Uncle Dave, can you define happy and successful aging?”

“Grasshopper, I know you will do well in your pursuit of a medical career in aging because you ask the right questions.

Successful aging requires three key things:

Low risk of disease, high mental and physical functions, and active engagement with life which means interacting with others and having activities.”

***

“It must be sad when old people don’t feel a part of the world anymore.”

“I’m amazed, Grasshopper, your thinking is way beyond your age.”

“Well, Uncle Dave, I read that people are living longer now and I would like to help them cope.”

“Yes Grasshopper, it is sad when one is old and has outgrown the world of the young. But, then one must make one’s own music, as art, maybe music, painting or writing.”

***

“Maybe, some old people feel left behind.” Tom looked pensive.

“Well Grasshopper, some old people feel like they are invisible. The old tend to be shuffled off to the sidelines with the attitude of society that the old have lost value in a youth oriented world.”

“That’s a shame,” said Tom, sadly.

***

“Grasshopper, you are young, but I’m wondering if you ever think of mortality?”

“I do realize that everyone dies sooner or later. All living things eventually die. My dog died recently. One of my dad’s workmates died of cancer six months ago. So, yes, I do think about it sometimes.”

“Well, old people think a lot about it. As their remaining time becomes shorter and shorter, coping with what is left of life can become very hard or they might think it’s senseless to even try. That’s when depression sets in.”

“Do you get depressed, Uncle Dave?”

“No, I don’t, because I have a hobby of writing which is my passion and I’m still interacting with people and the world through attending discussion groups.”

***

“Uncle Dave, I suppose when you get old there are a lot of adjustments to be made.”

“That’s right, Grasshopper, the old have to adjust to all their losses: the loss of physical health, the loss of mental flexibility, loss of professional identity, financial means, friends and relatives.

If the elderly can adapt to these losses, they will still be able to say, YES to life in the last chapter.”

***

“Thanks Uncle Dave, for explaining so much about old age to me.”

“You’re welcome, Grasshopper,” I said, shaking Tom’s hand as he left with his parents.

Thinking back on Tom’s questions and intelligence, I wondered who was the Grasshopper, Tom or Me?