Having just completed my 70th year on this planet, I find myself in a reflective mood. What has mattered the most all these years? Can I offer anything useful to an 18-year-old about what lies ahead? Not that I’ve been asked, of course. But then, I don’t recall asking 70+ year-olds to answer that question when I was young, either. Novelist and essayist Ana Castillo noticed that younger people simply have little interest in uninvited “wisdom” from older folks:
“My Mamá Grande, a tiny Mayan woman, took me aside when I was an adolescent and told me several things that didn’t make a bit of sense to my young and inattentive ears, and as young people tend to waste all attempts of our elders to relay to us wisdom accumulated over the decades, I thought my Mamá Grande had a few mice in the attic.”
Even so, Ana, I’m going to offer something…though it may be as much for my benefit as for an anonymous 18-year-old.
When I look back, my deepest pleasures and satisfactions in life have come from just three sources.
Curiosity. I love feeling curious, wanting to know more. Because curiosity has stimulated questions that have produced lots of information. The best knowledge, of course, has come from those equipped with the training, knowledge or experience to provide it. But keeping the learning curve going up in this way has been so enriching, enlivening, entertaining—and still is at my age, perhaps even more so.
The excitement of learning has been perennial and wide-ranging: from the ever-advancing knowledge about deep space to the secrets of the quantum world. From the observations of artists and musicians, poets and essayists, philosophers and pundits, scientists and educators, psychologists and physicians. And from all the diversity in our species—ethnic, spiritual, and national traditions with roots reaching back thousands of years. So much to learn, so little time!
My own career as a clinical psychologist has provided me with an endless stream of interesting new information and knowledge about the human experience, sometimes even overturning previous beliefs. Early in my career, for example, it was orthodox to believe that when my brain’s neurons die, they cannot be replaced. Wrong. They can, with enormous implications for recovering from brain injury.
Oh, and one more thing. Minds that remain inquisitive may be reducing the risk of dementia.
Compassion. This word blends two Latin roots. Com means “with,” and passion comes from “pati,” meaning “to suffer” with intense emotion. Compassion, then, is the experience of being with others who suffer, and feeling strongly about their plight. Concern and empathy arise from this compassion, not pity or criticism.
Compassion then moves us to do something about the suffering we find. It is an activating force, so much more than merely feeling sorry for someone. And finding someone in pain is easy…because suffering is universal. All of us—without exception—face the realities of injury, illness, and death. So my compassion may be directed toward anyone.
Fortuitously, I landed in a profession that requires compassion as an occupational necessity. Daily, I have sat with the pain of someone in my office who is suffering, and then tried to convey back my understanding of that pain. I have learned over my years as a psychologist that most people want…not so much to be helped, but to feel understood. And as they feel understood, insight and healing emerges.
Of course, compassion isn’t an experience reserved just for therapists. Anyone can find ways sitting with the suffering of others, feel strongly about their struggles, and find ways of responding constructively.
Commitment. Here, I’m referring to something quite specific—the experience of finding someone with whom to share an enduring love. And then protecting that experience from the harm that only I can bring—by working too many hours, becoming overly self absorbed, avoiding conversations about “the hard stuff,” overlooking signs of stress or distress, and so many other ways of injuring the connection I have made with my partner. A long-term primary relationship with someone deeply loved has been a profoundly important dimension to my life, and requires a commitment that is steady, purposeful, and adaptive.
So, there it is, Ana…three mice in my attic to some, perhaps. But for me, sources of my deepest pleasures in life. Following curiosities. Feeling compassionate. Committing to loving someone.
John M Robertson
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