Today is my birthday. I am 66 years old today. As I sit in my bed in Umbria looking out at the beautiful green hills in front of me, I am reflecting on a life of 66 years. What forces shaped my life? Being born American has influenced my world view in ways that I am still discovering. I am American. I don't want to become an ex-pat who self flagellates their native country. Americans are just as good as, and no better or worse than, Italians. We all have our national drawbacks and our cultural limitations. At 66 I wonder what were the other cultural forces that have influenced who I am?
I am a true Baby Boomer. Born in 1946, I believed that all was possible for me if I worked hard enough. That proved to be somewhat true. Being well educated, upper middle class and white helped more than I ever understood, while being female proved to be more of a drawback than I ever acknowledged. Still the mindset that all things are possible, has stood me in good stead in my life. First you must believe it, then you can do it. I still believe this and so it is self reinforcing and is still true for me. I have been successful in my work life and after years of struggle, also in my personal life. Work and Love, Freud says, is what we all must face and master during our lives. I can say at 66 I have learned to feel comfortable and at ease with both.
As a baby boomer, I was taught it was our duty to challenge authority, to speak truth to power, to challenge the status quo. This was easier said in slogans than done in living and working. At the beginning of my career, I found these things impossible to do. The authority loomed so large, seemingly in control of my very being. Eventually, I learned that the power I gave to the authority was really in my own head and speaking the truth was essential to my sense of integrity. I do not want to say it was easy because it was not. For those of you out there who are still in work relationships that are difficult, I empathize. Authority has a way of co-opting our behavior that is often unconscious. Still I would challenge everyone to speak truth to power when given the opportunity. It is essential in this time in history that those in power hear the truth. It is so very easy to be deluded. Our ability to self-deceive is a topic for another post, but I assure you that self-deception is alive and well in all parts of the world and all levels of the power structure.
As a baby boomer I was taught that history was always progressive, in other words, that the future is always better than the past. I think this is clearly an American idea because in our brief history that has been, for the most part, true. Our standard of living has improved with each decade. In the history of other parts of the world, clearly it is not true. Technological progress and standard of living is not the same as progress of humanity itself. More and more these days, I see that our technological landscape changes at an astonishing rate, but our human landscape has not changed in thousands of years. Why is that? I haven't a clue.
As a baby boomer, I wanted to be different than my parents' generation. Mad Men may be an entertaining TV series, but living as a child of that, was not! In some ways my generation became the generation of "no". In that way I can identify with the Republican party. The problem in only representing the negative is that the next generation has no idea what you really stand for. What were our values? What did we want to pass on to our children or the next generation? These were things I never heard people discuss. It was always about working, accumulating, and working some more. Somehow there was an embedded belief that the accumulation of things would lead to our ultimate freedom from suffering. Our possessions were supposed to protect us from the vagaries of misfortune. For many of us, 9/11 changed that. For many of us it did not. We are after all, the generation of nonconformists except when it comes to the generation that follows us and we expect them to be like us. Weird.
As a baby boomer, I was taught to be skeptical of religion. My generation is "spiritual but not religious." That saying now irritates the hell out of me. I mean what does that really mean, particularly in regard to our own materialism? I think for some people it means a child like belief that there is something larger than the human spirit that drives things. I wonder in 10 years if my generation will spend more time thinking about this and quantifying their belief? I hope so.
Another thing that was in my social context is that self exploration is a good thing. Most of us went to therapy when we weren't happy. We got divorced when we weren't happy. We changed jobs when we weren't happy. We changed career when we weren't happy. Yes, I see a theme here myself.
Now about retirement. This is a difficult topic for my generation because it means putting down all that we have created that has given us meaning in life. We don't want to "be retired". We don't want to "be seniors" How we all will handle retirement fascinates me, as I am struggling with this concept myself. We want to be forever young, not work so hard, and die without ever experiencing any illness. I read where a majority of us believe that we will die peacefully in our sleep. So be it. I'm all for that.
So here we are. I have 2 nieces; one who is in her mid 20's and one who is in her mid 30's. What would I tell them about my life standing where I am today? So many cliches come to mind that are partially true, but not totally true. Take care of your body with the same attention you would give your most treasured car. Our bodies won't last forever without maintenance and regular check ups. Pleasure is not a bad thing, it is just not the only thing. Turn off your electronics and get outside more. I guess the most important thing I would pass on is to give the other person a break. We have no idea the load each of us carry, if we did we would have more kindness toward one another and less judgement.
Reflections from Umbertide, June 29th, 2012.