Investing in Our Future

According to our long range plan, Bette and I will trundle ourselves off to a really good senior center by the time I am eighty years old. I met Bette when I was 68, so we’ve been talking about it for quite a while and as we have been talking, that remote event has become very nearly imminent. What was philosophical has become strategic and now it is tactical. I love the sequence. It seems to me just the way it ought to be.

Today, I’d like to look at the mechanics of the transition. I have thought through (and written about) the setting one leaves. And speaking of leaves, a leaf on a deciduous tree prepares for falling off its twig by forming an abscission layer. This is two lines of cells, one move prep 1on the leaf side and one on the branch side, that are stuck together with a kind of glue The glue is intended to get less sticky in the fall, so the leaf is less and less likely to stay attached. But—and this is the point—the abscission layer also protects the tree and probably, that is what it is for. When the leaf falls, there is no open wound on the twig. It is sealed and safe.

And what the leaf does by nature’s exquisite preparation, Bette and I hope to do by being thoughtful about it. We are not “falling off,” of course. If another metaphor were required, we could say we were moving to another tree. But in any case, we are leaving this tree and we want to seal off where we have been so our absence doesn’t give any difficulties to the neighborhood projects, groups, and coffee shops we will necessarily be leaving behind.

As I say, “leaving well” is important and I have given some thought to that already. Today’s idea has more to do with managing the transition to a new place. If we were to continue to use the unwieldy metaphor of moving to “another tree,” this essay would be about managing the transition to that other tree.

This is a very practical matter, so I’d like to start back at philosophy again. This is a substantial life change for us and the best way to make that change is to anticipate the new setting and all its attendant opportunities. There is no need to deplore our present setting—which is very nice—but it needs to be less desirable by comparison to our future setting.

A surprising support for this transition comes from one of Jesus’s parables—one of my favorites. You can find it in Luke 16. It is often called “the unjust steward,” but that only shows how wrong headline writers can be. I call it, in line with Jesus’s use of it, “the canny steward.” The man who had been managing his master’s affairs was about to be fired, so he looked at the resources he had access to at the moment and at the needs he was going to have in the future. Then he used the resources he had to support the needs he would have as a former employee. [1]

move prep 2Jesus thought that was smart (not right, but smart), hence my title, “The Canny Steward.” Well, as it happens, I will not be living much longer in the situation where I am now (my house) and I want to emulate the Canny Steward’s behavior in investing resources in the situation where I will be going. I don’t know where that is precisely, but according to the plans Bette and I have made, it will be a certain kind of place and we have been studying “places like that” for years now. What resources can we deploy that will ensure that we will be welcome there?

I have a third transition story to relate, but before we get there, I would like to stop and work with the principles a little. Here’s a story from Walter Mischel’s marvelous book, The Marshmallow Test. [2] This one is about Mischel himself.

So Mischel, having studied the tactics of several generations of preschoolers, did what the best of them did. He made his present practice abstract and his future practice concrete: his present practice unattractive and his future practice attractive.

Here’s the way he puts it.

Cigarettes were my continuous hot temptation, and I had to change them into something that disgusted me in order to cure my addiction. Whenever I felt a craving…I inhaled deeply from a large can filled with old, stale cigarette butts and pipe debris…I supplemented this step by deliberately reactivating that haunting image of the cancer patient [seen in the hospital corridor on his way to radiation treatment] to make the “later” consequences of smoking as hot, salient, and vivid for myself as possible. Perhaps just as important, I made a social contract with my three-year-old thumb-sucking daughter; she agreed to stop sucking her thumb and I vowed to stop sucking my pipe.

The likely consequences of his smoking were clear, but they were distant—much too distant to change his behavior. The visualizations he describes in this section bring that “distant” future close enough to be really distasteful.

That uses the mechanisms I am considering today; it just uses them in reverse. So the Canny Steward brought the unattractive features of his next life close—not strong enough to dig, he says, and too proud to beg—and caused himself to act promptly (and unethically) in his own behalf in order to prevent that kind of life. Bette and I are working at making our Senior Center future “hot, salient, and vivid,” as Mischel says, in order to prepare ourselves for it. We have not yet had to, and with any luck, will never have to, make out present lives in our home “something that disgusts us,” as Mischel did for his tobacco addiction.

On the other hand, the mechanics of the transition are what they are. Fixing on the bad aspects of the present situation and the good aspects of the future one will make you readier to make the transition. Conversely, fixing on the good aspects of the present situation and the bad aspects of the future one will make you more resistant to the transition. It’s just how we work.

move prep 4In fact, I am so confident in the diagnostic clarity of choices like these, that I would be fully confident that I knew what was going on if I saw them in full operation. If I saw a friend who was talking about the transition to a Senior Center doing things that would make it next to impossible, I would judge that, whatever she says, she doesn’t want to move out. If she, for instance: a) began collecting roomfuls of bolts of cloth for sewing projects or b) adding a new wing to the house [4] or c) began to invest in local political causes and groups that she would have to give up if she moved—then I would conclude that she is committed to staying where she is as long as she can. She might just as well dug a moat and installed a gate and a portcullis. Her intention is that clear.

I could run a series of activities that illustrated just the opposite, certainly, but I am counting on the clarity of the NOT MOVING example to make that unnecessary. Besides, I am going to be concluding with what Bette and I are, in fact, doing to prepare for the transition, and that might clarify things.

Here are three. We are looking at the libraries in the two senior centers that made the finals for us, with some knowledge what the libraries are like that only made the semifinals. Those will be important for me because I am offloading books from our house at an impressive rate and I will need a good library. [3] Bette will almost certainly volunteer in the library and if the center has any sense at all, they will put her in charge of it. [5]

Bette and I both like to share meals with friends. It will be important to make sure that there is, in the center we will be going to, a public space conducive to shared meals, and that there is good food, and that there will be opportunity for us to make our own food in our own place and invite friends. Checking out the food facilities will help us picture how we will use them and to look forward to sharing them with friends. Picturing those pleasant events will make it easier for us to look forward to them in vivid and positive ways.

Third, Bette and I both like to be in groups that are talking about things. Bette’s taste in “things to talk about” is a good deal broader than mine, but it is important to both of us. If the group is “about something” and I know something about it, I would like a chance to lead a group like that. So a place with a lot of active groups would be good and a fluid leadership structure would be good. We are looking at both of those things as we explore our options and it looks to us like the chances are really good at either one.

Of course, we will be giving up our present group participations, likely, when we take on the new set. Not our book group, of course: the Bookies will be a part of our lives as long as there are any left.   Reducing our investment in the ones we are going to have to leave and increasing our hot vivid anticipation of the ones we are going to join just seems like common sense. to me.

If anyone were watching our behavior with a view to drawing a conclusion about our “true motivation,” I really believe that he would conclude that we are preparing ourselves to move. If he listened to us talk about it, he would draw the same conclusion.

Or, possibly, if he read this post.

[1] We can pass over, for our purposes, the fact that he did this by royally cheating his master. What he did was wrong and nothing in the story says or implies that it was right. The point of the story, however, is that we, like the steward, will not continue in our present position (living) and that we would do well to use our resources to ensure that we will be well received in our future position (no longer living).
[2] This section, called “An Addicted Smoker’s Self-Generated Cure” appears on pages 136—138.
[3] The Multnomah County Library is also a good library, but I am thinking of something closer.
[4] These would be changes designed for her own use only, not changes to make the house more attractive for sale.
[5] She is an amazing librarian. I suffer guilt feelings every now and then for taking her out of circulation.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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