|Odd Couple House Mates
Last summer, I became a pioneer in a sort of a May-December living arrangement. That’s when my 25-year-old grandson – I’ll call him Tom - decided to move from Chicago where he, like I, had grown up, move to New York and move into my West Side New York City apartment with me.
My one-bedroom apartment barely had room for me. But its amenities included a minuscule sleeping alcove, a second, half-bathroom, a dishwasher, a washer/drier, and a balcony on which he could both stash his bike and, in less than freezing temperatures, withdraw to converse in private on his cell phone – all attractions, according to Tom, that were lacking in the still tinier apartments of his friends in which he’d first thought he’d stay.
A graduate of an art school, Tom had dozens of friends who’d already moved to, or who’d moved back home to New York. Though I keep hearing that New York has become so prohibitively expensive that no one can afford to live here anymore, let alone move here, Tom’s social circle seemed to far exceed my own rapidly dwindling number of friends who lately had been succumbing, at an ever more alarming rate, to the ravages of death, disease and/or dementia.
My few remaining, cognitively- intact friends, hearing of Tom’s arrival, were shocked. “How long is he staying?” they kept asking. “Don’t you find it a huge imposition?”
Actually, I didn’t. I’d had trouble adjusting to living alone after thirty-plus years with my artist/companion, David. But in the three years since he died, while I’d gotten used to my privacy, Tom and I both understood our arrangement would be temporary – breathing space for him to take stock and look for a job.
Truth to tell, from his arrival, I found it exhilarating, to be privy to Tom’s boundless, energetic bursts of optimism as he outlined his hopes and goals for his future. For the past seven years – through high school and college – he’d held a part time and summer job in a Chicago bike shop. He was interested in retailing, design, plus he could sew. With his myriad contacts and talent, he felt sure that the world lay open before him. Then, a scant week after his arrival, Tom landed a job in a bike shop less than a mile from my West Side apartment – a far easier commute than any he’d had in Chicago,
Before long, my son, Tom’s uncle, along with his whole family, and even I, had all stopped by the bike shop to say hello to Tom at work.
At home, Tom regaled me with tales about his customers. On West 72nd Street, they comprised a cross section of Manhattan; like people I’d see when I reported on civil and criminal trials in Manhattan courtrooms, they ranged from foreigners, Orthodox Jews, working class people, to lawyers, psychoanalysts and other professionals, along with celebrities or an occasional biking-adicted world leaderg.
There were, of course, some minuses. Living alone, aside from an occasional steamed artichoke, I’d given up on cooking for myself. Now I felt a nagging guilt over my typical dinners - meals that mainly consisted of take-out food, or an ordered- in cheese burger or pasta. Despite vowing to take up cooking again, however, Tom’s erratic home-coming hours did little to bolster my resolve. Plus I soon found that he shared my taste for junk food - from pizza, or mac and cheese, to anything on Chipolte’s menu. My main concession to Tom’s presence was that at dinners with friends, I took to bringing home my leftovers, or an extra main dish for him - looking more like a bag lady than my image of a gracious grandmother.
I was surprised to find that Tom never looked at the newspapers I spent too much time studying each morning, or watched my favorite evening news or other TV programs. His chief – actually, his only - source of information was his computer – and his main choice of TV viewing was roller blade videos.
`He’s not my son,’ I reminded myself, each time I’d return home to be confronted anew with what struck me as these more abysmal life choices. But by my advanced age I’d learned to keep my mouth shut – a trait I never came close to mastering in the stormy years before and during my divorce, when Tom’s mother was growing up – the third of my four children. Nor did I lie awake listening for his key in my door at whatever early morning hour he might return. At night, I just closed my bedroom door, read or watched TV and fell asleep. Occasionally, however, in a unique role reversal, when I had opera or theater tickets, it was I who sometimes texted Tom to tell him I wouldn’t be home until around midnight.
“I would have worried if you hadn’t shown up much after 11,” Tom said, sounding just like the real Jewish mother in his - and my - family: my daughter.
As weeks turned to months, friends and family began to ask me a new question: “Are you still getting along?’
“We call you `The Odd Couple’,” my granddaughter, Sarah, not her real name, who’d grown up in New York and was the same age as Tom, told me one night.
She'd meant it as a joke, but I said: "That's a good description. He's an exercise addict; I'm an exercise phobic."
I continued to take everyone’s assumption of impending disaster in stride. Even when he was little, Tom and I had always gotten along. He’d shared my taste in reading about Jeffrey Dahmer and some of the other grisly true crimes I’d reported on. Unlike his bookish younger brother, he also had always loved visiting New York. Like me, he felt invigorated by the city’s noise and hectic pace – by the jammed, chaotic mess of the city that, in just days, left his mother and brother limp and exhausted.
A few friends remained alarmed. “Is your grandson still there?” Roz asked, every time she phoned. Then, as if fearing disaster: “Are you feeling okay?”
Diane, another friend, continued to inquire how much longer my son, not my grandson, would be staying with me. Did these friends fear I’d embarked on a taboo relationship – a mama cougar out to ensnare my much younger grandson? They didn’t seem to know about today’s `boomerang’ generation – what writer Sally Koslow, in her book, Slouching Towards Adulthood: How To Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up
terms `adultescents.’ Koslow was describing today’s often jobless college graduates of around my grandson’s age who opt to move back into their parents home – more than 21 million, according to 2012 statistics - and a few million more who choose to move in with one or both grandparents.
Tom soon got busier, working three days a week in the bike shop, the other three in a skate board shop down the street. And I got introduced to a whole new group of his co-workers.
My friends went from appalled to dismayed. “Is he ever going to get a real job?” they asked?
“He’s just going through a delayed adolescence,” I said. “Or maybe a second one.” So long as he seemed happy, I doubted it mattered.
Not everyone has been as upset as my friends. My dermatologist said she has four patients in Manhattan - four! - whose grandchildren are living with them. “If their grandchild lives in some other city, how can they possibly afford to move here unless they’ve already got a great high- paying job?" she said. "And after all - some young people would rather live with a grandparent than a parent.
(Photo of Sally Koslow; Property of the author)
“Do you ever get embarrassed”, I asked Tom. “Living with your grandmother?”
“No, not at all,” Tom said. He noted that he’d grown up with friends in Chicago whose parents – thanks to their divorces, remarriages and second families- were all different ages. Some were as young as his parents, but others wre about the same age as me. “Besides,” Tom looked at me from his perch at his computer on my living room couch. “My colleagues all think you’re a really cool grandma. When I told them I was living with my grandmother, they thought you’d be a little old bedridden lady. But I told them no, you’re busier than I am. You go out to the theater, to movies, your Shakespeare group – and when they met you, they said `wow! She’s really cool!’”
I’d thought of myself as pretty doddering – prone to falling, arthritic ridden- the next broken bone just one footstep away. Never, until now, as cool.
I was more surprised when Tom, never that interested in films, piped up one night and said: “I know about a movie we should watch. “Grandma’s Boy.” It was a flop, then it became kind of a cult thing.”
So far Tom’s been too busy to watch it when I stream it on my Roku. Whenever he gets the time, I know he’ll find it a hoot. The movie grandma and grandson enrich each other. She gets her grandson, Alex to shape up - grow up? - and do chores around her apartment. IAlex manages to turn his grandma and her two mostly sedentary women roommates onto TV remotes, then to TV cooking programs, foul language, then accidentally onto drugs, and finally he gets them addicted to playing video games. Alex’s grandma becomes such a wiz at the new video game her movie grandson is developing, that, spoiler alert - she ends by saving the day.
I haven’t yet gotten hooked on speed, taken up video games or tried skate boarding. But I have introduced Tom to Bill Maher (he’d never had HBO), and to Larry Wilmore’s new Nightly Show – things I consider huge pluses. Mainly, what struck me about the movie, however, is that the cool reel- life grandma and grandson in Manhattan get along just as well as I have so far with my cool real- life live- in grandson in Manhattan. As half of a pair of real-life `Odd Couple' housemates, I also plan one day soon to ask my exercise-devotee- grandson to take this exercise-shunning grandma downstairs into our building's gym and forcibly show me what I need to do to start regularly working out.
Family and friends wonder if I'm wise to be temporarily rooming with my grandson
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Decades ago intergenerational living was widespread, ofen for economic reason. From the mid-1950s, nuclear families became the norm. Today's convulsive economic upheaval has seen a return of multi-generational housing situations. And as my recent experience with my grandson attests, while it may not be a familar phenomenom, it definitely has its pluses for young and old.
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|Day 28: Seizing 9 Golden Meaning Opportunities
This series supports the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference I’m hosting from February 23 – 27, 2015. Please get your free ticket to the conference now by visiting here. And plan to attend!
Each day in this series of 30 days to better mental health I want to propose one simple idea and one simple strategy in support of that idea. If you’d like to view other posts in this series, please visit here:
You might like to ask a friend to join you for these 30 days. The two of you can chat about the ideas I’m presenting and support each other in your efforts to try out some new strategies. You might even want to get a whole group involved!
Today we look at the following.
Our mental health depends on us having a good sense of what promotes the experience of meaning in us—that is, a good sense of what sorts of things give us the subjective psychological sense that life is meaningful.
This array—or menu of meaning opportunities—is naturally different person by person. What would you put on your menu of meaning opportunities? Consider the following nine possibilities:
1. One meaning opportunity is love
We are built to experience love as meaningful. Unless life has harmed us to such an extent that we have stopped daring to love or unless we’ve become so self-involved that all the love we need is self-love, love is a golden meaning opportunity. You could love today—all it takes is a softening of your heart and an object of affection. If you bestow some love today, your life will feel more meaningful. Think of any of the words in the family of love, words like affection, kindness, generosity, and intimacy. They paint a picture of what loving means. You can take today as an opportunity to invest meaning in loving someone or in loving something.
2. A second meaning opportunity is good works
Action makes us feel more alive. So does living our principles and our values. When we marry these two ideas we get the idea of “good works”: real work of our own choosing that reflects our principles and our values. Maybe your everyday work feels short on real value but you must continue with it because it pays the bills. So be it. Try to supplement that everyday work with some good works of your own choosing. Your life will feel more meaningful if you pick “good works” as one of your meaning opportunities.
Creativity is a rich, large word that stands for the way we make use of our resources and talents. We can approach anything creatively—creativity is not reserved for certain pursuits like writing a novel or inventing software. Life feels richer when we turn on that inner tap and allow our natural creativity to flow. Creativity in this everyday sense is an excellent meaning opportunity. You can choose to approach some challenge at work with grudging energy and a feeling of boredom or you can decide to invest something of yourself in meeting the challenge, bring to bear your inner resources and talents, spend a little of your passion, and attack it creatively. Life feels more meaningful when you approach it this way.
As children we start out with two energies, both of which appeal to us greatly: we love to experiment and we love to excel. Soon, though, because we’re pressured to get things right, we start to lose our taste for experimentation; and because much of what we do doesn’t rise to the level of excellence, we begin to fear that excellence isn’t in us. Out of this dynamic arises a middle-of-the-road approach to life. Still, excellence remains a golden meaning opportunity for you. You can decide to bite into something and do it really well. Maybe you’ll flounder at first; maybe you’ll make some heroic messes. But if you apply yourself and if you persevere, excellence is waiting. And how good it will feel! Give excellence a chance and add it to your list of meaning opportunities.
Protecting our individuality requires that we remain separate: We can’t think our thoughts or dream our own dreams unless we stay in our own skins. But while separateness and solitude are precious, relationships remain golden meaning opportunities. They are the place to love and be loved; the place to befriend and be befriended; the place to make work, business, and career connections; the place to be human in the presence of other human beings. Some of these relationships are rather like traps; others are the very beauty of life. Consciously decide where you want to relate, choosing the riches and avoiding the traps, and put relating high on your list of meaning opportunities.
It is reasonable enough to focus on our own survival needs, appetites, and desires. Evolution has built that primacy right into us. But nature has also provided us with a sense of right and wrong and an understanding of ideas like responsibility, mutuality, and shared humanity. Therefore we feel better if we aim ourselves in the direction of stewardship: in the direction of care for and attention to the world in which we live, the creatures of this world, and the ideas and institutions that maintain civilization at its best. We can aim to steward our children, civil rights, democratic institutions, the environment, or anything small or large that we think is worth our concern. It could be the stream at the edge of town; it could be the freedom of one person to speak. Stewardship meets both our ethical and psychological needs. Pick something to steward—a person, an ideal, a resource—and life will feel more meaningful.
Many of us curtail our natural desire to experiment as, during our formative years, we are instructed in school, at home, and among our peers to get things right and not make mistakes. Often we are literally punished for experimenting; and so we lose our taste for experimenting. However experimenting is a crucial core element of creativity, growth and learning. We can’t learn a new art medium unless we experiment with it. We can’t learn how to run our business except through trial-and-error experimentation. If you’ve lost your taste for experimentation, see if you can reacquire it by choosing experimentation as one of your meaning opportunities. Let go of needing a successful outcome, don’t worry whether you will get it right or wrong, and rejoice in the experimental process.
It goes without saying that people find pleasure pleasurable and a source of meaning. Yet because of familial, cultural, and religious injunctions against enjoying pleasure or because we think that pleasure is too low a thing to honor, many people reject pleasure as a significant meaning opportunity. In a well-rounded life where we are making meaning on many fronts, by creating, by being of service, by entering into relationships, and so on, pleasure ought to take its rightful place. If our life were only about garnering pleasure we might rightly feel that we had strayed too far from our principles. But if we’re living a value-based life we’re certainly entitled to include plenty of pleasure! Pleasure is not a suspect or second-rate meaning opportunity.
Self-actualization, like creativity, is a word that stands for our desire to make the most of our talents and inner resources. Instead of using only a small portion of your total being, you make the heroic decision to employ your full intelligence, your emotional capital, and your best personality qualities in the service of your meaning investments. This is hard to do. Your personality shadows may get in the way. The facts of existence may get in the way. We may want to use our full potential in the service of writing a novel, say, but that embroils us in the very real process of writing a novel, with all of its mysteries and difficulties. Despite these built-in problems, we know in our heart that we would love to “actualize our potential” and by doing so make ourselves proud.
There are many other meaning opportunities, too. Today, do the following “simple” thing. Just think a little bit about the idea of “seizing meaning opportunities” and the related idea of creating your own personal “menu of meaning opportunities.” Just do a little dreaming and thinking on these important ideas.
Today’s goal: To begin to understand the extent to which creating meaning positively influences mental health
Today’s key principle: You can create the psychological experience of meaning by seizing meaning opportunities and if you do so that will improve your overall sense of wellbeing
Today’s key strategy: Calmly considering the related ideas of “seizing meaning opportunities” and “creating your own personal menu of meaning opportunities”
Good luck today!
Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://ericmaisel.com. Contact Dr. Maisel at email@example.com. And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February: https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel
Day 28 of 30 days to better mental health
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you increase your sense of wellbeing, improve your mental health, and experience life as more meaningful when you create your menu of meaning opportunities
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|What is Your Theory of the Person?
Over the past few months I have found myself repeatedly asking the following question: “What is your theory of the person?” Most of the time this question is a private thought, and I am simply noting to myself the relevance of this question. I find it to be relevant when I am listening to my fifteen year old daughter talk about what she is learning in school about why people behaved the way they did. I find it relevant when politicians are making claims about the direction our country should move. I find it to be relevant when someone is trying to explain why a friend of theirs behaved in an unexpected way. And on and on.
The reason I normally keep the thought to myself is that when I literally ask this question out loud—for example, if I ask it when I am supervising a doctoral student who is trying to effect some change on a client—I often get blank face staring back at me. Who even asks a question like that, yet alone is working off some semblance of an answer to it?
The primary reason I have found myself asking that question is because I have come to see it as an excellent way of framing what it is that I am trying to get at with my “unified approach”. I want a working theory of people in general and of the specific person in front of me. And when I frame it that way, I realize that the unified approach is the only system I know of that is actually positioned to offer an adequate outline of an answer to the question.
One of the reasons that I have found the question to be so helpful is that it frames for me what is missing in the field of human psychology. Not only does mainstream psychology lack a theory of the person, it is now functioning in such a way that it will never find one unless it fundamentally changes course. Rather than focusing on generating a working theory of the person, mainstream psychologists have a completely different identity. If you doubt this, check out how mainstream texts like Keith Stanovich’s How to Think Straight About Psychology characterize the field. After explaining that there is no grand theory of human behavior (i.e., the person), Stanovich explains that what psychologists do is ask questions that can be researched via behavioral science methodology and then goes on to articulate how to think like a behavioral scientist. In accordance with this characterization, the vast majority of academic/scholarly/research psychologists have as their skill set the capacity to develop empirical research programs on specific research questions (i.e., questions that can be addressed by gathering data). Even professional psychologists now largely operate via the empirical lens. A huge chunk of training professional psychologists centers on the question: What does the research say about this or that intervention for this or that disorder in terms of producing desirable outcomes?
I, of course, have no problem with empirical research per se. I base an enormous amount of my understanding on empirical research, and we absolutely need research endeavors to refine our existing knowledge, to point out errors, and to lead to new domains of inquiry. And there will always be a need for “more research”. However, the data and information gathered from the empirical method ultimately achieves its utility when it is integrated into existing knowledge systems and referenced with and against other data and information. In other words, to achieve any genuine sense of understanding, the facts uncovered by the empirical method must be integrated into a theoretical understanding of the objects and causes under consideration, which in the case of human psychology is human individuals behaving in context.
Currently, empirical facts are referenced in mainstream psychology against a bewildering array of “theories” about specific parts or particular aspects of being human or particular contexts. Thus, we have “theories” of memory and attention, learning, cognition and perception, mood and emotion, gender differences, social attraction, bias and prejudice, depression and anxiety, cognitive dissonance, dreams, dominance and minority status, defense mechanisms, implicit and explicit processing, decision making and choices, individual trait differences, the impact of trauma or rejection, the impact of culture, and on and on.
But the problem is that these are “part-level” theories, not theories of the person as a whole. And apart from my work and that of a few others,** mainstream psychology doesn't even begin to offer an outline of how to put them together to make a whole. And that is why we need to be asking this question because the current state of the field of human psychology is such that there is now a striking lack of recognition that we need work on putting the parts together into a workable model of the whole person.
It is the case, of course, that historically, many pioneers in human psychology did strive to essentially offer a holistic theory of the person. This was true especially in the first half century of psychology’s existence. Psychology’s so-called grand theorists (i.e., Freud, Skinner and Rogers) essentially attempted to work out the outlines of a theory of the person. Indeed, it was in large part because the major initial paradigms in human psychology failed to produce an adequate theory of the person that human psychology retreated to more “manageable”, mid-level, part-level, empirical questions. However, in my estimation—especially in relation to my view of the field and of people via my unified approach—that retreat to methods and researching mid-level parts has come with a whole host of new problems. To the extent that everyone is engaged in empirical research about parts and problems they themselves define and measure and there is limited or no attention is paid on how all this knowledge is connected to address the issue of how people actually work as whole entities, the field will produce an ocean of information, but will offer very limited authentic, cumulative knowledge about people. Indeed, this is, in essence what I think has happened and why I am critical of the current state of affairs in human psychology.
So next time you are hanging with a psychologist, ask them: “What is your theory of the person?”. To the extent that the question elicits a blank stare that is followed by some justification that psychologists no longer think that way, follow it up with the question, “But, when you really think about it, isn’t that human psychology’s ultimate goal?”
*I am happy to say that there does appear to be the beginning signs of a resurgence of interest in developing frameworks for understanding the whole person. Some work in evolutionary psychology (e.g., Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works) is in the ballpark, although still not adequately up to the task. More recently in the field of personality psychology folks like Dan McAdams and John Mayer and others are working toward a more integrated and unified view of personality. Likewise, Jeffrey Magnavita and Jack Anchin have offered a broad unified approach to personality and psychotherapy that moves us in this direction. And Arthur Staats has, for a long time, offered a broad vision that is congruent with the framing of the question raised here.
The task of human psychology is to develop a working theory of the person.
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Theory of Knowledge
Although human psychology started by trying to develop a theory of the person, that goal has largely been abandoned by the mainstream. But the question is an excellent one for all of us to consider, and one that human psychologists should not lose sight of.
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