Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

Too Patient for Words

In Family, Romance on October 22, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Every now and then a text arrives like a feather floating from the sky. This one arrived a few months ago: “Is it possible to be too patient?”

And the question haunts me.

In the abstract, of course, it is never possible to be too patient—if the patience is authentic. “Patience is a virtue,” I told my kids. And I believed it, and still do. Being willing to wait, to suspend judgment, to dispel irritability, to maintain an even temper—these are messages of love. Being patient generally communicates that you’ve settled into an admirable equanimity—that you know you are not the center of that waiter’s universe, that not everyone knows exactly what you know, that everyone doesn’t walk at the same pace or attend to the same details, that reading Goodnight Moon for the 112th time is more important than your to-do list.

When I think about times I’ve been “too patient” myself, honesty tells me it’s not patience at all I was exercising. I let a member of my team struggle for too long without seeing the situation for what it was—a perfectly good person in a job that was a nightmarishly bad fit. I put up with too much in several relationships, most notably a marriage that called for endless stores of “patience” that was really martyrdom and victimhood.

Because it’s awfully easy to confuse being patient with many other things; unfortunately, the confusion often lifts only with time. Sometimes when you tell yourself you’re being patient, you’re really avoiding confrontation, “picking your battles,” rejecting the alternatives, even being cowardly. I suppose the way to tell is whether you could in any sense describe yourself as “seething” as you’re “patient.” If you’re grousing, you’re not patient. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grouse; it likely means it’s time to admit you’re not patient (even if you wish you were) and figure out what else is going on.

A friend and I were talking last week about how nice definitive tests are—like pregnancy tests, which have (almost always) a clear, unambiguous answer. Wouldn’t it be handy to have that for all the varieties of emotional diagnosis? Am I patient, or only too tired to care? Am I depressed, or only a little sad? Am I in love, or only quite fond? Pee on a stick, and see what the color tells you.

I can’t quite come up with a physical test, but I can approximate a Cosmo quiz for determining whether you’re really feeling patient or something else altogether:

Are you gnawing on the inside of your mouth?

  • It’s bleeding (5 points)
  • Gnawing is a strong word (3 points)
  • I’m serene (0 points)

Have you looked at your watch or calendar more than twice in the last five minutes?

  • More like 10 times (5 points)
  • Now that you mention it, I have (3 points)
  • I’m not wearing a watch (0 points)

Are you casting your mind back to any of the dozen times this has happened before?

  • Dozen times? More like 73 times that I can specifically remember. (5 points)
  • I haven’t counted the times it’s happened before. Yet. (3 points)
  • I can’t remember this happening before. (0 points)

Have any curse words formed themselves in your mind, whether or not they’ve come out of your mouth?

  • I’ve gone through my entire vocabulary (5 points)
  • Do “frickin’” and “jiminy cricket” count? (3 points)
  • I can’t think of a curse word right now (0 points)

Are you fantasizing about getting into your car and driving for eight hours in any direction?

  • Eight hours is not nearly long enough (5 points)
  • Only to the nearest bar (3 points)
  • I’m happy sitting here (0 points)

If your score totals more than 12, you might spend some time thinking about whether you’re experiencing something other than patience.

Because that feather of a question arrived out of context, with no particular bird to attach it to, it could have had nothing to do with relationships. But in my own life, it was a relationship that befuddled my judgment for the longest stretch of time. I claim no expertise in relationships. It seems to me that miracles, good friends, synchronicity, and happenstance are what took me from a relationship that required the daily exercise of “patience” to one that requires much less actual patience, even as it makes it easier to achieve. And I do realize, of course, that I’m not actually involved in my kids’ romantic lives. They’re adults, usually.

And yet, in spite of having no role and no expertise, I can’t get over being a mother, thinking that I should be able to offer some kind of helpful counsel and support, just as I offer homemade bread, neatly folded clean clothes, and free haircuts. I wasn’t sure I knew what to do when they told me at the hospital that it was time to take that first seven-pound bundle home, either. “Really?” I thought. “Me? Just take him home?” I made things up for at least those first 20 years, and we seem to have made out okay.

So just in case it’s helpful, I offer this second Cosmo quiz for prospective partners—before a relationship gets to the point at which you’re wondering whether it’s a lack of patience or a loss of faith that you’re feeling:

In a restaurant, do you have to discuss how to share food?

  • I never share food
  • I’ll finish whatever s/he doesn’t eat
  • My plate is his/her plate and vice versa

If your life is a construction project, what phase are you in?

  • The blueprints are final, the materials are purchased, and the contractors are hired
  • A napkin sketch that’s awaiting the ideal collaborator
  • I don’t understand about phases

How would you describe your role in past relationships?

  • Caretaker
  • The Decider
  • The Romantic

How far are you willing to go to make my son/daughter happy?

  • At least across the street if the traffic’s not heavy
  • Fifty miles or less off the interstate
  • To Mars if s/he asks me

Scoring is difficult on this one. While “never shares food” might be a red flag, “my plate is his/her plate,” while it sounds very generous, could be creepy in practice. Partnerships work best when they’re collaborative, but two people can generally negotiate a compromise more easily than they can manufacture an entire vision. A caretaker is handy, until it’s clear that there’s baggage that comes with that. And going to Mars seems romantic, until you consider that it requires an absence of at least nine months and there’s no guarantee of return.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees anywhere in love, even based on the best research results. That’s the toughest part, I guess, of parenthood at this point in the game: Heartbreak is out there in many forms, and it’s impossible to predict and prevent. What I’m left with is my wish for my kids—and for everyone else, of course, though somewhat less fervently—is that they find someone with whom they can be who they want to be and do what they want to do, someone who understands what miraculous people they are, someone they can find miraculous. I hope they have partners with whom they can share laughter, tenderness, and creativity, partners who understand the value of the private joke and a spontaneous touch.

And when their hearts are broken, as they may well be, I hope they don’t give up on love. I hope they’ll find patience when it’s deserved, be impatient when they need to be, and be true enough to themselves to tell—always—one from the other.

–Lois Maassen

Looking for Redemption

In Community, Fulfillment on March 1, 2011 at 2:07 am

It was a small thing, but I remember it almost 30 years later: “I hate people who don’t turn off the water when they brush their teeth,” a friend said.

This probably hit me harder than it would strike other people. My family had some odd prohibitions. We weren’t allowed to curse, of course, but “hate” was also really strong language. We could hate tuna noodle casserole—well, as long as we ate it—but “I hate people” was a phrase that would have gotten me sent to my room, no matter how it was completed.

Of course perfectly lovable people have the bad habit of letting the water run while they brush. Surely something careless tooth-brushers might do could redeem them. And I really doubt that my friend meant what he said.

A few weeks ago I read Living Into Hope for a discussion group. Tucked inside, among other stories of reconciliation, is the story of Joan Brown Campbell’s 1999 trip to Kosovo to gain the release of American soldiers who’d been captured by the Yugoslavian military. These are the people who were part of the group, led by Reverent Jesse Jackson: three Serbian Orthodox bishops, a bishop from the Greek Orthodox Church, president of the board of the American Muslim Council, a Los Angeles rabbi, a bishop from the United Methodist Church, a Jesuit scholar and conflict-resolution specialist, and the Quaker director of Mercy Corps. Oh! And Rod Blagojevich.

Rod Blagojevich. Then a congressman from Illinois, more recently former governor, well-known for his hairstyle and his profane and self-serving wire-tapped telephone conversations, the latter eventually leading to his impeachment.

I will admit that I snorted. Probably out loud. So it was a very good thing that my friend Kay said that she loved that he was on this list. “Really?” I said, unable to disguise my incredulity.

“I love that he had a moment of redemption,” Kay said.

Ah. Yes. This is why we need insightful friends: They’ll say the right things to keep us honest and humble.

I’m thinking about this because of the way that groups and organizations are made villains right now. There’s the attraction of simplicity, of course, in seeing things as all good or all bad, all black or all white. But the simplicity of that oppositional view is overwhelmed by the complexity of all the conflict it engenders.

My brother had a biography of Jesse James when we were kids. The opening paragraph made us laugh and laugh. I don’t recall it word for word, of course, but it ran something like this: “Jesse James was a thief without conscience, a heartless torturer, and a vicious murderer. But he loved his mother.”

If I asked Kay, I’m sure she’d say it was a redeeming quality.

–Lois Maassen

Words Mean Something

In Community on January 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm

“This bag is compostable,” I said to my spouse-ish one. I wanted him to know that our favorite local coffee shop, which is pursuing a fairly radical zero-landfill goal, had changed their coffee bags.

“Not for ours,” he said.

“What?” I didn’t know why we couldn’t compost a bag.

It took us only a little while to figure out that when I held up what looked like a brown paper bag and said “compostable,” my SO’s brain translated to “recyclable.” And he knows that our recycling resource won’t take kraft paper.

“See?” he said, when we’d figured out our miscommunication. “Words mean something.”

Words mean something, I said to myself in a church meeting the other evening. Someone referred to a person who attends our church but is not a member as an “adherent.” I was struck by the word—it isn’t part of our usual vocabulary, it seemed.

I brainstormed alternatives (I’m not always an attentive meeting participant): guest, visitor, hanger-on, groupie, advocate, disciple, transient… and at the end of the list, I said to myself, “adherent” is exactly right. We may not know whether they share our faith or proselytize on our behalf: “disciple” is too much. They’re valued members of our community: they’re no longer “visitors” or “guests.” They’re not “groupies” because they are full participants. Whether or not they are members, “adherents” are people who have stuck with our church community.

The care taken by this community to find the right term for people who have joined us in all but an official, administrative way reflects the desire to welcome, to affirm, to include. The word chosen reflects the reality we look to create together.

And that’s the conclusion I wish more conversations had led to over the last few weeks. It wasn’t productive for people to argue about whether there is a straight line between Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map and the shootings in Arizona. And I don’t know whether it’s possible to measure the effect of overheated debate, violent metaphor, and partisan vitriol on a disturbed, armed individual.

And, frankly, it seems about as interesting as trying to figure out who really started the fight among my three kids in the back of the Taurus station wagon in 1994. If we all know we’ve been failing at having real dialog, as both speakers and as listeners, let’s all work to do a better job, starting now.

The larger question, it seems to me, is whether we can recognize that “words mean something” in the shaping of our future together. Can we develop a vocabulary that bridges divides to define the world we can agree we’d like to live in?

Honesty and substance are prerequisites, of course. I saw last week that Politifact had named “government takeover of health care” as the number one lie of 2010 because… it wasn’t true. And compare these names: “Affordable Health Care for America” versus “The Repealing of the Job-Killing Health-Care Law Act.” A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but who would know both of those pieces of legislation are attempting to address the same thing?

Those examples reflect my biases, but I make no claim to the higher ground for progressives. Seems to me that insults directed at you are more memorable—because more painful—than insults that you happen to agree with. So I don’t trust my judgment about the honesty or willingness to engage on substance of the either the right or the left.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal at least a decade ago that talked about the dangers of jargon in the corporate world. Jargon is exclusionary, the author argued. When words mean something other than what they might appear to mean, and when new words are manufactured, you create a company—or a country—in which there are insiders and outsiders. You’ve made it more difficult to know whether you’re having a meaningful exchange. When someone says “dog,” for example, you need to know whether they’re referring to a failing program or a golden retriever.

It’s jargon that’s also often right next door to propaganda. What’s the image called to mind by “alien”? By “immigrant”? How is an “injured soldier” different from a “wounded warrior”? If I call my neighbor Doug, who hunts deer, a “gunman” or a “shooter,” how will my relationship with him change?

What if, instead of metaphors of violence and conflict, our metaphors were creative and harmonious? “Kitchen table” instead of “war-room,” a “pantry” instead of an “arsenal”: I’m both more comfortable and more optimistic with images like those.

Words mean something to all of us, together, in community. It’s not enough for us to use words carefully in our own heads, in our families, with our neighbors, in our churches, in our political parties. If we use words only to solidify our own points of view, we’ll soon clog our democratic arteries. What would happen if “help me understand what you mean by that” tripped off our tongues as often as “you lie”?

We need words to acknowledge our differences without judging them, words to find our common ground. Our collective ancestors found common ground—although it wasn’t easy—when they collaborated on the preamble to the Constitution, when they listed as our common goals a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, and the blessings of liberty for us and our posterity.

Words will describe—and therefore help us to shape—the country we want to become, the world we want to become. And every word means something.

–Lois Maassen

Don’t Sweat the Shirt

In Fulfillment, Romance on January 6, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Tara Parker-Hope’s piece on sustainable love in The New York Times last week highlights recent research suggesting that what we really want from a romantic partner is someone who will help us become who we want to be.

As one of the researchers put it:

“People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person. If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”

TheMichelangelo Effect” — in which close partners “sculpt” each other’s skills and personality traits over the course of a long relationship — has been identified by a number of studies as an important ingredient in happy and stable partnerships.

The trick though, is that you can’t try to shape your partner into your notion of his ideal self. You’ve got to promote and affirm and cultivate his own vision of the person he wants to be. So the other day, when I attempted to sculpt My Loving Partner free from a certain gray sweatshirt, I was  contributing neither to his “self-expansion” nor the future happiness of our relationship.

Despite this slip-up, when MLP and I took the Sustainable Marriage Quiz designed to measure how much your partner “expands your knowledge and makes you feel good about yourself,” we each got scores in the “highly expansive range.”

But there’s room for improvement. I’m working on expanding my notion of my ideal self to include becoming a person who is okay with the sweatshirt.

–Debra Wierenga

Too Much of a Good Thing?

In Community on December 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

An article in a recent Time magazine has me thinking. It reports on a study that shows that the pose you take–like leaning forward aggressively or sitting back with your arms and legs crossed–can affect the amount of testosterone in your system. A “powerful” posture can double the amount of testosterone in 15 minutes.

That can be a good thing, I suppose, if you’re needing to feel more assertive in a business setting or with your kids or a recalcitrant volunteer committee. As the article points out, it’s further evidence that “fake it until you make it” can really be true. That was demonstrated earlier with happiness research: People who smiled, or even gripped a pencil in their mouths in a way that uses the same muscles, were more likely to have positive feelings.

I’m just not sure that what the world needs now is more testosterone. A study at Harvard and Columbia showed that people with those posture-produced higher levels of testosterone were more willing to gamble and lose. Which reminds me of the New York Magazine article about what would have happened on Wall Street had women been in charge over the last few years.

They pointed to more research that confirms that hormones correlate with aggression and risk-taking but, helpfully, also caution against “being reductionist about hormones and gender,” since it’s a “sure way to misjudge a complicated individual.” Sheila Baer, chair of the FDIC, is both cautious about categorizing people and conscious of the need for balance. “… From a risk-management standpoint,” she says, “having diversity and different perspectives and attitudes is helpful.”

Which I certainly agree with. Collectively, we don’t want to be either bossy and reckless or retiring and inertia-prone. Just be careful of your posture, or you may accidentally skew your contribution to our diversity.

-Lois Maassen

Particular Lives

In Community on November 24, 2010 at 1:49 pm

“Every accident is particular.”

That’s what Darin Strauss said on Diane Rehm’s show yesterday. His most recent book, Half a Life, is the first time he’s written about an accident he had back in the 80s, when he was the driver who hit and killed a bicyclist who’d darted into his path.

He was responding to a listener to the show who e-mailed to say this one accident shouldn’t be generalized into anti-cyclist angst or regulation.

And of course that listener was right. What struck me, though, was that not just accidents are particular: Everything is particular.

I was already thinking about this, because we’ve just come through a fractious election season in which generalizations, stereotypes, and categorical condemnations played too prominent a role. If you only listen to mass-media pundits—whether on the left or the right—you’ll get a very different picture of what people are thinking than if you talk to your neighbor. You’ll react differently, too, in righteously indignant objection or sanctimonious agreement.

That’s entirely removed from having a conversation with another person about what she fears or hopes for. Especially if that person is a cousin whom you’ve loved since childhood but who happens to be a conservative Republican. That person just might be able to change your mind, or you might change hers, or at least you might find the middle path, the one where both of you can feel hopeful and secure together.

I’m not sure technology is helping us pursue lives together in civil society. Part of the problem is the mass media, of course. Having a few people pontificating from a media studio, heard by millions, does not make a dialog. A Sarah Palin-themed Facebook page—pro or con—gaining of thousands of fans in minutes doesn’t help anyone to understand anything new. And the “discussion” capability of many blogs and media sites doesn’t seem to spawn much actual discussion; what I see is so often vented venom that I take pains to avoid comments whenever I can.

Another way technology may be working against us is disguised, it seems to me. My husband passed along an article from The New York Times about the rise of data as “the next big thing in language, history, and the arts.”

I’m not saying that data is bad. I’m of an analytical bent, myself: I had a meeting yesterday regarding a nonprofit and found myself itching to dissect the donor data, to see what kind of picture the numbers would paint about our fundraising momentum.

But I do think that our ability to collect and analyze massive amounts of data—more data than my grandmother could even imagine, more than I can imagine myself—encourages us to think and act in abstractions. If we can so clearly identify trends and majorities, it’s too easy to overlook the needs of the minority, to assume that everything about the majority aligns, to lose track of the power of individual relationships.

I finally got around to reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains in the last few weeks. It’s the story of Paul Farmer’s amazing work as a doctor, first in the poorest regions of Haiti, then around the world. The subtitle of the book describes Farmer as “the man who would cure the world.” He’s the founder of Partners in Health, now a widely respected global organization addressing AIDS, TB, and other infectious diseases in parts of the world with lots of despair and few resources.

If I expected Farmer to take a big-picture approach to solving these problems, I would be wrong. What was striking about Kidder’s description of his work is the personal nature of it: Farmer knows his patients, he calls them by name and asks about their families; he treats each one individually, and he concerns himself with all aspects of their lives. He recognizes that if he cures a person of TB and sends her home to live in a dirt-floor hut with a leaky roof, no clean drinking water, no sanitation facilities, and brothers or children who are still infected with the disease, he hasn’t made a lasting difference.

And in addition to seeing the whole person in his patients, Farmer doesn’t apply the usual economic calculus to his decision-making. He wasn’t intimately involved in, but approved of, his organization’s decision to fly John, a teenager, from Haiti to Boston for medical treatment, at a cost of more than $20,000. John’s cancer, sadly, was found to be too advanced for treatment.

Was the money well spent? It depends on whether you base your judgment on the abstraction or on the particular. As I thought about the arguments on both sides, the most instructive, though clumsy, example was our experience with Coot, our German wire-haired pointer.

We picked up Coot from the breeder the weekend after our wedding, if I remember correctly. He was smart and energetic and puppy-cute; both my husband and my four-year-old son were besotted within 24 hours. It was several weeks before we noticed a funny spot in one of his eyes, a sort of dark bubble on his iris. The bubble was eventually diagnosed as a tumor, and the recommendation was for surgery to remove it at the MSU veterinary school, where Michigan’s best canine cancer specialists are said to practice.

We didn’t think long before we scheduled the surgery. The breeder had offered to exchange Coot for another dog, but that option already felt like a betrayal. If you had asked us in advance how much we would spend on specialized medical care for a household pet, I’m sure the answer would have been a small percentage of what we ultimately invested. As an abstraction, I still struggle with the amount of money Americans spend on pet care when, for example, millions of Pakistanis struggle to rebuild after an entire season of flooding.

But we spent the money; it felt like the only option. The surgery was successful, and Coot grew up with our children.

If the relationship with a dog inspires that reordering of priorities, that certainty of purpose, how much more does a relationship with another person? What would I spend for one of my children? What would I spend for a friend?

Compassion, it turns out, is particular, too; so is generosity.

And I wonder how personal relationships would affect our perceptions of the way we live together, including our communal spending. If Joseph, the former autoworker who’s been looking unsuccessfully for a new job, were my neighbor, would I feel differently about providing unemployment benefits? If I have a friend who is gay, can I accept a second-class-citizen status for him? When I talk to the high school student who’s grown up in my town without papers, could I look her in the eye and tell her I oppose the DREAM Act, that I’m not concerned that her future dead-ends with her graduation?

Among the basics for writers is the injunction to look forever for the meaningful detail, to remember that the specifics, not generalities, make what we write resonate with readers. Charles Eames, the designer, said “The details are not the details. They make the product.” And if we’ll pay attention, the details will also make our lives.