A disappointing lesson we all learn sooner or later is that growing older doesn’t necessarily mean growing wiser, or even growing up. In our teens (or twenties or thirties, for that matter), we may have thought that, somehow, upon arriving at full adulthood (whatever that halcyon age of perfect self-realization might be), we’d magically be smarter about life, more mature and self-possessed. Then we find ourselves directly confronted with some of life’s harder realities and revert, at least inside, to the same confused, fearful, childish selves we thought we’d left far behind. At those times, our hopes and expectations of ourselves–that, when things got tough, we’d instinctively do the right thing, or even know what the “right thing”was–seem hopelessly naive.
Few events are as likely to provoke our benighted “inner child” as it drags us, kicking and screaming, into real adulthood, than the lingering illness and growing frailty of aging parents. In “Refeathering the Nest,” Katy Butler describes with unsparing honesty being thrust into the new and unexpected role of parent to her parents, plus all-round family caretaker, when her father suffers two debilitating strokes. We get an intimate sense of the sheer logistical difficulties involved in organizing her parents’ finances, health care, and home needs from 3,000 miles away, and the even tougher job of struggling with unresolved childhood hurts while ricocheting between classic female altruism (“trying to be the Platonic ideal of a dutiful daughter”) and resentful anger at the unfairness of it all. It’s a hard road, but one with its own deep rewards, not the least of them being another chance at growing up.
If a debilitating stroke provides what Butler calls “AFOG–another fucking opportunity for growth,” the proximity of death even more clearly shows us just how far removed we are from the palmy certitudes of youth. As David Seaburn writes, “Most of us live in a wonderful, protective dreamworld, in which others die as we project our lives into the future with careless confidence, rarely considering the reality of our own mortality. Nothing calls this insouciance into question more than a terminal illness, with its relentless progress toward death.” In his lyrical account of his own work–as both a therapist and a minister–Seaburn shows us that, with the dying, often the wisest, most compassionate, and most grown-up act any human being can perform for another is simply “being there” with as much attention, care, and commitment as we can muster. Describing the most important thing he does, particularly with clients facing death, Seaburn says, “I sit with people. . . . I listen, I attend, I’m curious and respectful, and in the end, I’m enthralled by the intricate and often painful stories people tell.”
In “Reliable Witness,” a gritty, tough-minded look at the “growth opportunities” provided by death, Barry Jacobs takes a somewhat jaundiced look at the much vaunted and excessively sentimentalized idea of “the good death,” which, he writes, can seem “like a mawkish intrusion” upon the stark, inescapable fact of death itself. He’s found that there are no “correct” ways to mourn, no prescribed set of steps, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross notwithstanding, and that therapists are no better than anybody else at confronting the terror, pain, and grief of death. His life as a therapist, Jacobs writes, has in part been “an effort to gather data to answer the eternal mysteries that plague us all: How did my father face his end? How do we all face our ends? What do our lives mean once they’re over?” And how has Jacobs fared in his search? “If you’re looking to me for the answers to those questions, I’ll have to get back to you.”
At such times, when we see just how much we aren’t in control of anything, the better part of real wisdom may be recognizing that we never will be the perfectly wise adults we wanted to be. But there’s a real consolation prize, nonetheless, and that’s the genuinely grown-up realization that we don’t have to be perfect and all-wise. We’d all be well advised to remember the observation about dealing with life of that well-known old sage, Woody Allen: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.