Constitutional amendment, Part I

I think the most important challenge facing Americans today is constitutional amendment.

Think of that as sub-headline.  It’s misleading, sure, but it is supposed to get you into the body of the essay.  We’ll see.

Let’s work first on the misleading words I built into the title.  You may have noticed that although there is a capital C in the word “Constitution” in the title, there is a lower case c- in the word “constitution” in the subheadline.  That wasn’t a mistake.

The Constitution of the U. S. should always be capitalized. [1]  But anything can have a constitution.  If it has several elements that “stand together” it has a constitution [2].  A viable family has a constitution.  The United Kingdom has a constitution.  A senior center has a constitution.  And none of those are written documents.  They are the crucial infrastructure of ongoing social units.

But, of course, not everything that has a constitution has a good constitution.  The Federalists argued that the Articles of Confederation was not a good constitution.  The landscaper we consulted about our back yard (when we had a back yard) said that our soil’s constitution was poor.  And he suggested “amendments” to it.

con amd 1How you “amend” soil depends, of course, on what is wrong with it. [3]  This gets more complicated if you have something in particular you want to grow.  If you just want “good soil” and it is “too acid, you add a bunch of lime and you have “mended” the flaw in  your soil.  There are amendments for nearly anything and nearly any soil is good for growing something.  Some soils, much maligned, are good at growing moss, dandelions, and crabgrass.  Gardeners tend to call those “bad soils” which really isn’t fair, but gardeners are a constituency—they stand enduringly together—and they have a point of view.

But if you have a particular plant in mind, corn, for instance, and you want to grow it on a rocky island in the Aleutian Islands, you have other problems as well.  You have a kind of soil that can’t (a)mended and no one is suggesting that we mend the climate so that corn can be grown “too far north.”  That rocky, parched, frozen soil will (does) grow something, but it won’t grow what you want it to grow.

At that point, you have two choices.  You can go somewhere else, somewhere more hospitable to corn. [4]  Or you can decide to value what the soil and the climate will give you.

[Note to the reader.  This has gotten entirely out of hand.  I have just gone back to the title and renamed it “Part I.”  I am not going to be able to say what I want to say in one average size post, so let’s just serialize.]

James Madison had this kind of thing in mind when he wrote The Federalist #10, justly famous as a work of political theory, but written as a letter to the editor by a proponent of the new federal Constitution.  People told him that you really can’t have a popular government of a territory as large as the 13 states.  He said you could if you used the size as a feature, rather than lamenting it as a flaw.

The problem is “faction.”Madison defined a faction as follows:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Note that a faction is bad because the common impulse is bad.  It is “averse to the aggregate interests of the community.”.  He had two solutions.  The first was to make the electorate so large that small factions would not be a serious threat;  as they get large, they develop internal contradictions and implode. [5]

The second was to establish a two-chamber legislature where only one of the chamberscon amd 2 could be filled up with populist zealots.  The other chamber would have people “whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices .”  He had the Senate in mind when he chose those glowing words and he hoped that they would take care of the hotheads in the House of Representatives.  It requires only that they have enlightened views and virtuous sentiments. {6}

These are not “amendments” in the governmental sense because they were built into the Constitution along with a process by which further amending might be done.  But they are amendments in the sense that we can amend a soil that is flawed for the crop we have in mind, which, in this case, is representative democracy, known at the time as “republicanism.”  The natural limits to the coherence of factional groups and the presence of sober-minded patriotic citizens who are part of the legislative process and the amendments to the soil and they will allow us to grow a representative democracy.

If we are committed to representative democracy as the crop and the flaws we face can be mended, we should set about mending them.  If, on the other hand, they are—as in my Aleutian Island example—beyond the reach of amendment, we are going to have to go somewhere else (hardly practical for a modern nation-state) or change our “preferences” to a crop that our soil and climate will grow.

In Part II, I want to look at what our soil and climate are and to consider what it would take to amend the soil to make it compatible once more with democratic government.

[1]  It would be nice if it were also honored, but I am trying to restrict myself to language use at this point in the argument.

[2]Not to overdose on word origins, but once you get the hang of the stit- element of words, you see it a lot.  Following Eric Partridge’s account, I derive the Latin statuere, “to set: with is “a derivative” of stare, “to stand.”The prefix com- may mean “together,” as it often does (companion) or it may be an intensive.

[3]The Latin menda is “a fault or blemish.”That is why it needs to be “removed” in some way.  That sense is still available in the Latin ex- + menda, which became emendere, which became (after the French were done messing with it) amend.The a- still represents the “removal” part of the word and the “mend” the flaw to be removed.

[4]  Although it is hard not to notice that agricultural interests with a lot of money are buying up land “too far north” for what they are growing now.  You can be as skeptical as you like about the debates of climate scientists, but big time agricultural money in being spent on land where those crops have never ever (in this epoch) been grown.

[5]This is, for science fiction fans, the psychohistory solution in the Foundation Trilogy.  Maybe that’s where Madison got it.

[6]  Rep. Madison, allow me to introduce Sen. McConnell of Kentucky, a living breathing refutation of that half of your solution.

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Grief sherpa

I’m a big fan of good analytical categories.  I value them in the way academics tend to, but on beyond that, I have been benefitted by them in some very personal ways.  Martin and Doka, for instance [1], distinguish between “intuitive” and “instrumental” styles of grieving.

On the other hand, the experience of grieving (the instrumental and intuitive styles are responses to the condition of grieving) is a fact.  Grief is true in your bones and in the pressure behind your eyes; it is true in the associations one word has with another; it is true in the way the numbers change on the clock.

My son, Doug, referred to me recently as “a grief sherpa.”  I think he invented the term sherpa 4on the spot, but I liked it right away.  Sherpas are not defined by their nationality.  There is no “Sherpistan.”  They are not defined by their locality although they do live in the Himalayas.  They defined by what they know and what they can do and mostly, that means what they have done before.  I think that is what Doug meant by calling me a grief sherpa—grief is something I have done before. [2]

The thing about me is, though, if I have experienced it frequently or deeply or both, I have probably written something about it.  Bette says I think with my fingers and although I’m not admitting anything, I do know what she means.  People say to me, “What was it like for you?” and very often, they wonder if, when it happened to me, I wrote anything about it.  Usually I have.

they say it much more often than they say, “How do you think I should handle this in my life?”

The notion of “sherpa-ness” took my mind right back to Leo McGarry’s description of how he could help Josh Lyman. [3]

LEO This guy’s walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep. He  can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up “Hey you! Can you help me out?”  The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on. Then a priest  comes along and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?”  The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. [4]

Then a friend  walks by.  Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here!” and the friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

This a great story for people who are grieving.  For one thing, it implicitly recognizes that there is a time called “afterward.”  When you are in the middle of it it feels like it is always going to be like this.  Somebody who was once in the hole you are in and who got out establishes that “afterward” is possible.

And for another thing, the friend has already jumped down into the hole.  He knows some important things (how to get out, for instance) and he has made himself available.  He is a friend.

sherpa 2This turns out to be relevant to what is going on in my life these days.  Some very difficult things have happened to friends recently.  These are friends who know enough of my life to know that I have been in the hole they are in right now.  Climbing out of that hole if really important to them; it is important, even at first, to know that it is possible and when you start to talk about climbing, you are talking about sherpas.  I called sherpas “people who know something and who know how to do something.

Here’s one that helped me.  Just a little earlier than the West Wing story I cited earlier, Josh was having a wrap-up conversation with Stanley Keyworth, his therapist.  Josh has just learned that his panic reaction had been brought on by the music he had heard.

JOSH So that’s gonna be my reaction every time I hear music? 


JOSH Why not? 

STANLEY Because we get better.

We do.  We get better.  I knew that in an abstract sort of way, but hearing Dr. Keyworth say it, especially the way  he said it, made it seem like something I could afford to trust, maybe to risk a little, hoping that it might be true.

So my sherpa-ing amounts only to this.  I have done this before.  I know some things and I know how to do some things.  And I am willing to help.

[1]Their book is very misleadingly titled, Men Don’t Cry…Women Do, Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin, but it is a superb book

[2]  There is also an informal use he might have known about: “a civil servant or diplomat who undertakes preparatory work prior to a summit conference.”  That meaning was new to me, but if it has gotten that far, it has probably also become a verb in the same way that “caddy” became something your caddy did.

[3]  Season 2, The West Wing, “Noel”

[4]  This is Aaron Sorkin pushing as hard as he can against the narrative of The Good Samaritan.  That makes it much better when the role of the Samaritan is subverted.

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Let’s hear it for Iggy

This is a celebration of Dr. Iggy Frome.  If you watch the NBC series, New Amsterdam, you already know Iggy.  He is “the psych department” at the hospital.  So far, that has mostly required him to be empathetic and cuddly, which he is.  You hear him say “Oh, I’m sorry” and “No, that’s OK” a lot.

Iggy 4That didn’t happen in the one subplot of the one episode “The Blues” (Season 1, Episode 13) that I am going to describe here.  Three lines, all directed at Dr. Lauren Bloom, opened up a new facet of Iggy’s work and changed my assessment of him entirely. 

The first zinger was, “I wouldn’t do that.” when Dr. Bloom was about to walk out on the counseling session.  The second, in answer to her speculation “So….I’ll get suspended,” was “No, you’ll get fired.”  And delivered just right.  Nothing cuddly at all there.  You’ll have to wait a little for the third zinger, but it will be worth the wait, I promise you.

The Addict

So here’s the deal.  Dr. Bloom (Janet Montgomery) has ADHD and is an emergency room physician.  She had taken Adderall for her condition for a long time, but now the stresses of her life and work have led to her abusing it.  Her colleague and friend, Dr. Sharpe (Freema Agyeman) reports her to the head of the hospital, Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold) and Max sets Dr. Bloom up with psychiatrist, Iggy Frome (Tyler Labine).

This is a tough deal for Dr. Bloom.  She knows she is abusing Adderall, she knows she is Iggy 2making mistakes, but she tries to tough it out and denies all the indications that she is a danger to the hospital.  The “appointment” with Iggy is an ambush.  Dr. Bloom is called to Iggy’s office to “deal with a VIP.”  It turn out that the VIP is her.  Max leaves behind a very angry Dr. Bloom,;Iggy sits down behind his desk and starts asking innocuous questions.  She can’t leave without getting fired.  Iggy’s job is to get her to face the problem, which, after the process I am going to describe, she does.  Her last line, as she breaks down in tears is, “I need help.” (37:47)  Here is Dr. Bloom in better days.

The Treatment, Phase 1

If making the case against Dr. Bloom, were the job, Iggy could have started off by detailing the evidence against her.  He has a lot of evidence, it turns out, in the folder on his desk, but he doesn’t use it.  He just asks questions that seem chatty (and are supposed to) but when you have watched this episode several times as I have, you know why he asked them and where he is going to go.

He asks her why she, a New York City girl born and bred, went to Walla Walla, Washington to go to college.  She gives a snarky answer because she is angry about the ambush (“It’s insulting”) and doesn’t yet know that she is trapped. [1]

Iggy asks if she abused Adderall.  We all know she does.  She denies it.  Never take an extra dose?  Absolutely not.  Never put a patient in danger because of overuse.  Absolutely not.  “If I did that,” says Dr. Bloom, “I would turn in my license.”  Iggy has a folder full of evidence that she bas been doing exactly that.  “So…what are you waiting for?” he asks.

For me, watching this unfold, the desire to see Iggy play gotcha is overwhelming.  She is denying an offense he can prove her to be guilty of.  But Iggy isn’t trying to convict her.  He is trying to get her to understand that she needs help and that help is available.  He can’t do that by producing a lot of evidence.

The Treatment, Phase 2

Iggy 3Iggy asks about her childhood.  Her mother was a mess, her sister a victim, and her father a saint.  The “mess” her mother was turns out to be a mess that Dr. Bloom had to clean up, beginning at age 7.   She protected her sister as long as she could, but abandoned the sister at age 12 so she could go to college.  The father’s sainthood turned out to be his business successes and the fact that he always answered the phone when she called him.

That occasions the third of Iggy’s zingers.  “You just described him as an emotionally closed-off workaholic who was in complete denial that his personal life was on fire.  Who does that sound like?

Iggy means that she is running away, just like her father did, and he wants to know what she is running away from.  It turns out that she is running away from the guilt of abandoning her mother and her sister so she could go as far away as she could get.

We see the noose tightening around Dr. Bloom’s neck.  Iggy has the evidence and Bloom knows there is no denying it.  But she has not yet seen that this is one she can’t tough out.  She makes one more try and Iggy helps her—or seems to.

He asks if she thinks she can get her Adderall use under control.  She says she can.  He asks if she thinks practicing medicine is the best thing for recovery.  She says she knows it is.  “O.K.” he says, releasing her.  “Go show ‘em how it’s done.” [2]

The Treatment, Phase 3

She goes back to the emergency room. but she is disoriented.  The image we see of her is out of focus.  She sees things in slow motion.  She looks at five bays containing people in pain with no real comprehension.  Then, without thinking about it, she digs in her pocket for the Adderall.  Then she stops.

That is what takes her back to Iggy’s office.  She closes the door and leans against it in tears and says, “Ask me again.”  He says, “What were you running from?” and this time he gets in.  Bloom’s defenses collapse.  She has seen for herself that she can’t go on and says, finally, what Iggy needs for her to say, “I need help.”

He responds, “We can do that.”

The whole episode, “The Blues” is OK.  It’s fun, especially when you know the characters. [3]  But this particular subplot really engaged me.  It surprised me.  It moved me.  And I’ll never look at Iggy the same way again.

[1]  I had the same experience with an emergency room physician in Chicago when I demanded that she release me from the hospital.  I was pretty uppity about it.  She signed a paper saying I had left the hospital against medical advice.  I asked her what the airline would do when I presented the paper to them and she said they would not allow me to fly.  At that point I realized that she had me completely under her control and I got a great deal more compliant immediately.

[2]  They do come back to that moment at the end.  Bloom says through her tears, “Were you really clearing me to go back to work? and he replies, “And let a drug addict loose in the ED.  God, no.  Are you kidding me?”

[3]  It’s not a soap opera exactly.  It’s a scrub opera.

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Not being afraid

There is nothing quite like fear to inspire an ardent interest in what works.

I am going to cite today two formulations that have helped me and that I have thought about. [1]  It seems odd to me, as I look at them, that both should help because they pull in opposite directions.  I really ought, I think, to find one or the other absurd and unhelpful, but in fact I have found help in both of them.

This one is called “The litany against fear” and it is familiar because it is featured in Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune.  This litany is taught to members of the Bene Gesserit order.  It goes like this.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.[2]

This tee shirt version will help suggest how popular this litany has become, but I also chose this because it features the least helpful elements.  For me, at least.  I have two things in mind.  First, look at the verbs: I will face, I will permit, I will turn, I will remain.

Those virtually scream agency.  I am doing; I am acting.  And when you are seriouslyfear 1 afraid, agency is what you really need and besides it feels marvelous.

The second thing is the visualization.  The feared thing is coming at you and then you do something (permit it to pass) and then it goes away and you turn to see it go.  And then you stop and realize fully that it is gone and you are still here.

You can say those things all you want, but presupposing them is a good deal more powerful.  The things you might say, like “I am not afraid.”[2] don’t really work, but saying things that presuppose that you are not afraid, do work.

Everything in this litany presupposes that whatever is getting done, you are doing it.  It is your own courage that matters most because you are alone with the fear and have no recourse except to your own inner resources.

Minnie Haskins poem, at least the part of it quoted by King George VI in his famous address, is entirely different.  Here is that part.

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

That poem reaches a completely different part of me.  I love it and I benefit from it.  I try not to be troubled that it is entirely opposed to the Litany, which I also find helpful.

Note first that I take no actions in this at all. [3]  I ask the advice of the man who stands at the gate of the year. [4]  And then I take his advice, which is to rely entirely on an understanding that is not my own. (See Proverbs 3:5)  What I do—and it might indeed be heroic—is to give up on what I understand and to rely entirely on what God understands.  Anyone who thinks that is easy has not tried it.

fear 8To the extent I do anything at all, in Minnie Haskins picture of reaction to fear, is that I do go out into the darkness. [5]  Then I put my hand into the hand of God.  That makes sense to me as a commitment, but for me the imagery is all wrong.  I think I would put my hand up and would feel God taking my hand.  You don’t “take” God’s hand when you can’t see it.  And, of course, the theology is all backwards, as this very sophisticated graphic demonstrates.

What is good about my situation, after I have accepted God’s firm grasp of my hand (my version of the transaction) is that my way in the darkness is better than any light would make it.  It is also safer than any way I might know.

I have an understandable and prudent [6] desire to know where I am going and also a desire to be safe.  Ordinarily, knowing what you are doing and how to make good choices fit together just fine.  But not at the Gate of the Year.  The future is God’s Territory, and following Him where he wants to take us is prudent and also safe.

Minnie Haskins view of dealing with danger is irreducibly relational.  It is in the relationship that understanding and trust and safety are found.  They are the presuppositions of her vision just as “my unconquerable soul” is the presupposition of the Bene Gesserit liturgy.  I ought, I am sure, to love one of those and hate the other, but the fact is that I love them both.

[1]  At first, the “helping me” part and the “thinking about” part have had no relationship to each other at all.  But over the years, the two actions have flowed together so that now, I think I find them more helpful because of the understanding of them I have developed.

[2]  “I do not fear those pale green pants with nobody inside ‘em.  I said and said and said those words.  I said ‘em, but I lied ‘em.”  Thank you Dr. Seuss.

[3]  In the part of the poem immediately after this, I do “put my hand into the hand of God” but in doing so, “I am led.”  Again, the passive.

[4] “ It is said that the image in her poem came to her at Warmley when she was standing at an upstairs balcony window, looking down the lit driveway to the gate.”So says a writer for the Daily Telegraph.

[5]  That is, in fact, the common biblical pattern.  God told the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant to start into the raging Jordan River and then He would stop the waters and give them safe passage.  But first, you have to step into the water.

[6]The Latin prudentia is a contraction of providentia which is a combination of pro- before, and videre, to see.”It is seeing ahead, in this word, that allows us to “provide” for good choices, which is the “prudent” thing to do.


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The 12 days of Valentine Season

It does sound odd, I am sure.  But Lent sounded odd to me at first and so did Passion Week and Advent.  I think “the 12 Days of Christmas” sounded less odd than those.  A gift a day to a loved one?  What’s so hard about that?

So we celebrate Valentine’s Season around here.  I don’t do all twelve days, but I do start twelve days out.  

I do my part by giving Bette cards that say something true that is hard to say in so many words.  “I love you” would be the words, but if you have tried that, [1] you know that sometimes the message doesn’t land as solidly as you would like.  So, like me, you try other ways.  

Bette does her part by receiving the cards with pleasure (and not, thank you, Bette, with gratitude) and by trying sincerely to hear what I am trying to tell her.

My part is no more or less important than her part.  It does, in fact, take two to tango. [2]  If she didn’t do what she does, I couldn’t do what I do.

I want to show you my favorite card for this year.  It has a very unremarkable tandem bicycle on the front face of the card.  Then it has this, tucked almost discreetly into the bottom right corner.

Screen Shot 2019-02-09 at 9.02.59 AM.png

The inner tube is contorted by the artist to suggest a heart.  You could go off in the direction of just what is the inner tube of a relationship and how does it hold the pressure that allows the couple to go on down the road safely and efficiently?   I think that is kind of an intriguing question, but it isn’t the one that came first to my mind.  It isn’t the one that causes me to tear up as I was standing by the card rack and to choose to buy this card to give to Bette.

Here’s what moved me.  Every relationship I know of is porous.  If you want the right amount of air in the tire [3] you are going to have to keep putting air in it.  That’s what the handle and the pump and the hose are for.  And if it is a good relationship, you are both paying attention to whether the tire has enough air in it and you are both sharing the pumping task when it does not.

That’s what got to me.

But, of course, relationships—especially relationships of the heart—aren’t like bicycle tires.  Each of the partners has an ideal pressure and so does the relationship itself.  In maintaining the proper pressure in myself, I can do the checking and I can do the pumping most of the time.  But sometimes I don’t notice that the pressure is too low and Bette does notice.  At that point—I know this is ridiculously simple, but that’s why metaphors are so helpful—Bette can work the pump and restore the pressure.  And the same is true for the “pressure” in Bette’s “tires;”  I can check and I can help.

I understand that there are cyclists who adjust the tire pressure for the terrain they are going to cover, particularly if it is going to be irregular.  I don’t know anything about that.  I do know that Bette and I have occasions, like visiting each other’s families, for instance, where a little pressure might be needed.  That is especially true in situations where there might be a puncture and a patch would need to precede the pump.

So there’s a lot of variation.  But what there isn’t variation about is that the tires are going to lose air and we are going to want them to be kept at the right pressure and to do that, each of us is going to have to lend a hand with the air pump. [4]

And we do.  And this Valentine’s Season, I am especially grateful for that.

[1]  Bette doesn’t really hear words all that well.  It is actions from which meanings can be derived that really matter to her.  So I try to do things that will reliably imply the message I am trying to send.

[2]  So I hear.  I have never tried to tango either by myself or with a partner.

[3]  I have more often used the metaphor of burning high quality fuel in the engine (that drives the marriage, I guess) so it doesn’t fill up with gunk and start to malfunction.  Different metaphor; same point.

[4]  If the metaphor were to get entirely out of hand, each of us would have a tire pressure gauge and each would check from time to time on our bicycle.  I think that’s really too much for a Valentine’s Season card.

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Being friends with your adult children

I want to begin with one of my favorite quotes from The West Wing.  Lisa Wolfe is a staffer in a Republican Senate, which controls the confirmation of federal judges.  Josh Lyman is a staffer in a Democratic White House, which controls the nomination of federal judges.  In the quotation below, Lisa is advising Josh to bring her the name of a moderate judge and not to waste his time bringing liberals.  She says:

 I tell you this as a person who would be your friend if I was a person who looked for different things in friends.

I just think it is cute that she the first subjunctive in as if she really wanted to be Josh’s friend and then a second subjunctive which establishes the simple truth that she does not want to be Josh’s friend.  When I think how easy it would have been to write that line so it wasn’t funny at all, I send a silent vote of thanks to Deborah Cahn who wrote this episode. [1]

children 6It does raise the question, however, of what you look for in friends and that is an especially piercing question when the people who might become your friends are your own children.

This isn’t like dating.  It isn’t like striking up a conversation with some new and interesting person at a party.  Your children are people you have known in another way.  The transition will have to have the form of “No longer this…but that.” 

In this essay, I am interested in three things.  What is it no longer?  What is it to become?  And what sort of transition is indicated by that little ellipsis between them?

What is it no longer?

It is not asymmetrical any longer.  Well…it is, kind of, because although you can become new persons for each other, it will always be true that you were, once the persons you were.  You were parent and child.  But you are in the process of leaving that asymmetry behind and the way to do that is to keep your eye on a new symmetry as the goal.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Your children used to be dependent on you, for instance.  That could have been the best part of the relationship for you or for the child or both, but it isn’t symmetrical and it can’t be made symmetrical.  As a practical matter, your choices are interdependence, in which each relies on the other, or independence, in which neither relies on the other.

Now that might not be the way you looked at it. [2] You may have focused much more children 7clearly on nurturance.  You nurtured the child and you did a terrific job of it, sometimes at considerable cost to yourself.  Apart from how good it was for the child to be nurtured, it was terrific to know how good you were at nurturing.  When the child becomes an adult, she doesn’t need to be nurtured, or, what is nearly the same thing, doesn’t want to be caught needing to be nurtured.  We’re all grown up now, right?

I’ve been talking about dependence and independence as if they were positions like ON and OFF.  They aren’t, of course, but I needed to simplify it so I could make the point about symmetry.  It works the same way if the virtue is wisdom. 

Wisdom is just another asymmetry.  I know things that you don’t and you need to know them so you ask.  I may look at how wonderful it is that he and I have such a close relationship (and it may be true) without noticing that it requires him not to know things.  There really ought to come a time when he needs to know things and he will know things and they may be different from the things you know.  They may be contradictory to the things you know to be true.

children 5It is at that point that you find out how tightly wedded you are to the Wise Man role.  If you need to play that role apart from whether your son needs the wisdom you are offering, then you will experience your son’s adulthood as a loss and you will grieve it. [3]  You may continue to offer “wisdom” because, after all, that is what you like to do and you have been really good at it; and find that there is no place to put all that wisdom.  There is no empty space in your son’s life which you can fill to the satisfaction of each party.

Here’s what to do.  Let’s start with the bad news first.

You need to shift over from what you were doing to what your child now needs.  Notice that the trick is to “shift over,” not to stop one thing and start another.  If celebration is the mature form of nurture, then imagine that you are shifting from some kind of 80/20  mix down through 60/40 and on to 20/80.  More and more celebration and less and less nurture.  Or more and more receiving of wisdom from the child and less and less giving of wisdom to the child. 

I promised good new after the bad news, but we’re not there yet.

children 8The two hard things about that transformation are that you have to give up a role you were really good at and start practicing a role you are not likely to be as good at, at least at the beginning.  The nurture that emerged from your compassion and the counsel that emerged from your wisdom were beautiful and practiced and you and your child performed it like a dance.  The celebration of the daughter’s accomplishments is not going to be as good at first (also not as satisfying) so you really need to start now and the same goes for the celebration of your son’s wisdom.

Start now.  Use the asymmetrical relationship as a bank account you can draw from in beginning the new, well new-ish, relationship.[4]  You don’t have to withdraw the adult support faster than the child loses the need for it.  Just don’t be very much slower.  You are alert now for instances where your daughter does things using her own resources that would once have required a shoulder to cry on.  You see them coming, you prepare for them, you prepare to offer nurture should it be required and to lavish your pride on your daughter when she manages for herself.

It might not be easy, but it won’t continue to feel as bad as it feels now.  Here’s why.  When you first lose that wonderful old nurturance, it seems like a loss only.  You have lost something you had a right to.  But as you anticipate the chances to celebrate your daughter’s accomplishments, you can catch yourself feeling that way and you can disapprove of it.  The feelings won’t go away immediately, but when you refuse to approve of them, they will weaken and as you feed the new relationship—the adult to adult relationship—those new feelings will get stronger.

Now the good news I promised.

The new relationship is a relationship you can only have with a friend.  The relationship children 9of oversight and provision is gone now [5] and in its place is a friendship.  The friendship runs, as do all your other friendships, on the things you have in common now; on the complementarity of your current skills and emotions.  This is a small ironic riff on the expression “friends with benefits” only here, the benefit is the past you share and enjoy together.

Now, you get to receive nurture from your daughter and if you are willing to do that, you will get to offer nurture to her as well.  If you are willing to receive advice and counsel from your son, you will get to offer advice and counsel as well, just as you do with your other friends.  This is the symmetry you were looking for; the symmetry that was worth going through all that turbulence for.  It is a rich and caring interdependence.

It was a rough go, you think, looking back.  When she left, I felt only the loss of her leaving.  As I was learning to celebrate her achievements and not to hover, I didn’t always hit the balance right and frankly, she didn’t assert her new independence with unfailing grace either.  But we both learned to do better and then we got really good.  And then we came to rely on each other to play our new parts with confidence and generosity.  And now we are friends who know how to depend on each other, to actively affirm who we are and to relish what we were.

That’s not bad at all.  It brings us back to the little West Wing quip with which we began.  You are friends with you son or your daughter because you do, in fact, find in them the things you look for in a friend.

[1]It’s the 17th episode of Season 5 and it’s called “The Supremes.” Nearly all the episodes of The West Wing are available in full transcript form.

[2]  So I don’t have to keep talking about “the child” and to free this narrative up for a little more breadth, I have invented a mother/child relationship in which nurture is the key virtue and a father/son relationship in which wisdom is the key issue.  I know those are stereotypes, but it does open up some more specific examples without adding a batch of unnecessary words.

[3]  It is easy to imagine that you will not grieve it or at least that you will not show it.  That isn’t at all likely.  We respond to losses at that deep level in ways that are easy to see and easy to understand by everyone but ourselves.  We are literally the last to know

[4] There are lots of good forms of “not nurture anymore” of which celebration is only one, but it isn’t a bad one.

[5]  OK, it’s never entirely gone.  Minds don’t work that way.  But the emotions and the habits of mind that are associated with the parent/child relationship can become something the two of you laugh about together (because you are adults and friends) and secretly cherish because you both have wonderful memories of an earlier time.

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It’s “Groundhog Day.” Again.

I will watch Groundhog Day again on Saturday. I watch it every year. I just don’t seem to be able to help myself. (Just kidding about that last part.)

In this well-known movie, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) discovers that his life doesn’t mean anything. Nothing he does has any consequence at all beyond the end of that day—whenever that is. [1]

Igroundhog 5t isn’t just that his existence is ephemeral, like a mayfly. It is not that it does not last beyond that day; it is that it has no meaning beyond that day. He starts off tomorrow, having learned a great deal from all the yesterdays that he (only) remembers. [2] He finds that terribly discouraging, eventually, but his first response is that it is a great opportunity.

He learns how to rob the bank truck every morning so he is rich for the rest of the day every day. He learns how to seduce a very desirable woman by building up the pretense of a long relationship because he remembers what he learned “yesterday” and she does not. He runs away from an aggressive insurance salesman because it takes him more than one day to figure out how to handle him more effectively. He kills himself in any number of imaginative ways, but nothing works. He still wakes up the next morning.

But at some point, he decides that when he has learned that “his life has no consequence,” he has learned too much. He has learned that life has no external consequence. It does, it turns out, have an internal consequence. He can feel good about himself that day because of all the good things he does that day. [3]

There are two kinds of things he chooses to do: the episodic and the cumulative. We seegroundhog 9 him on his “rounds.” He frightens the insurance salesman who always frightened him; he changes a flat tire for some old ladies; he catches a boy falling out of a tree; he performs the Heimlich maneuver for a man in a restaurant. Those are regular, but episodic.

He also does things that can’t be done in a day, even if they are done every day. He learns ice sculpture, for instance, and gets good at bar room piano.. And he learns to let go of his love for the only woman he loves because he realizes that to her, he will always be the jerk he was yesterday.

What happened?

Something happened to Phil Connors that broke the curse of inconsequentiality. [4] We don’t know what it was. It is tempting to think that the virtuous uses to which he put his endless February 2 were the breaking of the curse. It doesn’t change the “spell” but it is no longer a curse. Except he doesn’t feel that way after he learns the curse is broken. “Anything different is good” he tells Rita (Andie McDowell) the next morning.

groundhog 2So the curse wasn’t the arrogant person he was and all the action that inconsequentiality made possible. Had that been the case, the wonderful person he became when he saw the possibilities of inconsequentiality would have been the end of the curse. That’s not how he saw it. The inconsequentiality—the repeating of the same day with the same insipid radio host banter and the same songs and the same “chance” meetings on the street—was itself the curse.

So what was it? Was it his love for Rita? That’s possible. The movie is a lighthearted comedy, although you couldn’t tell it from the way I have been writing about it, and “love conquers the curse” is well within the range of the movie. So maybe that’s the answer. [5]

Does Phil Connors live a life without consequence? Does nothing “follow” from the actions he takes? (That’s the sequor part of consequence: “it follows,” as we say). I’ve been saying that he could live such a life and he did and he hated it. But now I would like to say that he could not and did not and his belief that he did is a misunderstanding.

Consequentiality Reconsidered

Phil Connors’ life had no external consequences. But the life he chose (eventually) to live had internal consequences for sure. The actions we take send out little signals like the chirp of a bat and by them we tell where we are (and, for humans, who we are) by hearing them bounce off things and return to us. Every time Phil acts—either the bad Phil (I don’t even floss anymore) or the good Phil (Not today, see footnote 3)—he send out a signal of who he might be. What he learns from hearing the signal return to him is the internal consequence of his action. Bad Phil’s actions have the consequence of confirming just how bad he is and how unsatisfying all that badness is. That’s why he gives it up.

Good Phil’s consequences—we are considering only inner consequences now—affirmgroundhog 7 him as the kind of person he really wants to be. He tried seduction and slovenliness and irresponsible work and theft and unconcern and suicide and found them to have consequences for his own sense of himself that he did not like. Now he is trying honest courtship and hygiene and solid professional work and honesty and compassion and he likes that Phil. It doesn’t break the curse (see the argument above on what the curse really was) but it gives him the richest life a person in his situation can have and either he likes it or his heroism in the face of inconsequentiality knows no bounds at all.  Jean Paul Sartre would marvel at an existential hero like this Phil Conners.

Some commentators have said that what works the magic for Phil Connors is that he finally realizes that today is the only day he has. Then they follow up by observing that that is true of all of us. But, of course, it is not. We make promises we intend to keep, for instance. Phil could not marry Rita using any wedding service I have ever heard without promising to love and cherish her for longer than the day they were married.

So I deny that the curse of inconsequentiality would be really good for us all. It did bring to Phil Connors an intense focus on that day. I won’t deny it. And like everyone else, I liked the good Phil and hated the bad one.

I’m not talking about the groundhog.

[1] We learn that it is not midnight, as Rita mistakenly believes it must be.
[2] He says to Rita that he is “a god” and maybe God’s trick is not that He is omniscient, but just that he had been around a long time and remembers everything.
[3] He laments the death of an old man whose life he has been unable to save. The nurse explains to him, “Sometimes they just die.” His response is powerful for a many who has only today to live. He says, “Not today.”
[4] Honestly, I don’t think I have ever had a chance to use that word before and I mean by it exactly what I mean. Although he redeems the day to the extent he can, he can never be to others the person he is now rather than the person he used to be. That is why it is a curse and why he is exhilarated to see it end, even though he has learned to thrive in it.
[5] In Woman of the Dunes, the Japanese story on which this is based, Niki Junpei, who is trapped the way Bill Murray is trapped, decided to stay because he has learned something valuable that he can teach to future generations. If Junpei’s imprisonment could be thought of by analogy with Phil Connors’ curse, then we would say that, given the choice, he chose the curse.

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