(This was a follow-up to a brif post at AVI) Hmm.  Perhaps I overestimated how much deep thought was going to result from Arthur C Brooks’ essay. I am having many thoughts, but they don’t seem to be leading very far. Certainly not to any coherent whole.

I see an advantage to the career I fell into that I had not noticed before. (Note: I am a semi-retired psychiatric social worker who has worked with the acutely and dangerously ill at the NH state hospital for over 40 years.) The amount of fluid intelligence needed for the job is above average, but not enormous.  I always made my way through by finding side specialties to learn about, or took on special projects, or mostly, just finished my work as soon as possible so that I could chat up the very intelligent people who I found around there. I recommend neurologists as a go-to resource for that, with psychiatrists second. Psychologists who do testing or research I would rank pretty high as well. Of course, those three categories also inclued some of the worst people to spend your time with, but some risk is always present in conversation.   But mostly, my fluid intelligence always went to things outside of work, and those are still largely available to me.

Thus, coming in to cover for other people’s vacations requires an adaptability and willingness to endure unfamiliarity and chaos that most people don’t like, but I’ll have enough fluid intelligence for this gig even after anticipated decline. This part of the life adjustment is not bad at all, and I can see myself doing it indefinitely.

His opening story about the elderly famous person who was feeling useless did sting a bit. I had thought that the problem in those years might be regrets at not having accomplished more, yet here was someone who accomplished a great deal. Current usefulness is the issue for some. I had a glimpse of this in 2000, shortly after my mother died.  I took my stepfather out to lunch and he mentioned that he was not useful anymore. I nodded that I had seen the first of that the year before for myself, as my second son came to the end of his highschool years. We had not fully decided to bring the two Romanians into the family at that point, and I still considered that raising the first two sons had been the Great Work of Tracy’s and my life. What would I do after? Work was a job, not a career. Perhaps getting the new church off the ground would be the key.

My stepfather cut me off dismissively, that I didn’t understand at all – very typical of him, but I at least see his point.  He had been successful in his career, president of a mutual fund and made millions.  He had just gone through the arduous two years of losing a second wife to cancer. My comment must have seemed shallow to him. No one needed him anymore, not for anything.  I still had children at home and a wife.  I had a job to go to. That earlier success actually makes the transition harder had not quite occurred to me, thought it makes sense. We get used to a certain level of status and accomplishment as normal and perceive sharply any diminution.  My semi-retirement two-and-a-half years ago was an opposite for me.  I was greatly relieved at not having so many things depend on me every day. To walk away from permanent anxiety was blessed release. Maybe that will look different in four years.

I was a little irritated at Brooks going the Hindu mystic route – I have never had much patience with Americans trying to get the hang of Eastern religions. The advice he received and passed on was more practical than mystical, however. I had read something like this before.  It does seem wise to change goals to what is more appropriate for those who have seen much.  To see things and understand them and pass them on may be among our more useful tasks, not a consolation prize. Dragging in David Brooks and his new book did make me wonder whether Arthur understood this as deeply as I thought.  To focus on eulogy virtues instead of resume virtues is a nice phrasing, but is this really so profound?  I’ve been thinking about death since I was a child, and have had a life of sermons, books, conversation, and Bible studies that taught the vanity of earthly accomplishment and the preeminence of building a self for the next world.  Isn’t it simply…well, I suppose it still needs to be taught, new every morning.

11 thoughts on “Denouement”

  1. The deep thoughts on the night are where a man’s mind is made. I am facing the same. My kids are mostly gone. I have a 16 year old (adopted) who is quickly becoming a man. I am so very proud…and afraid. I am a single father of 4 who has spent the last 20 years rearing children. I simply don’t know what to do. Hunt more? Backpack more? Do all those things I didn’t because I had to take care of a family, alone? I’m still wrestling with it and I’m flat out afraid of my youngest leaving. Sure, it’s natural and all but I was defined by what I had done. I no longer have a definition of myself. My faith helps but finding “usefulness” is still illusory. As a once combat marine, finding black and white purpose was once an easy task. Mostly, it would find me. I find some solace in my grandkids but I’m looking for me. I feel like I should climb some mountain, strip naked and cry to the heavens for answers. Like some rite of passage. To dramatic? Yup. Ah well….I’ll probably do something like that anyway. You’re not alone, brother. In the next life, we will be made whole, to be sure.

  2. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
    What does man gain by all the toil
    at which he toils under the sun?
    A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.

    Pride is the root if all sin, and it’s also the root of career decline.

    The author of that piece didn’t have to travel to India to ask a guru what the answer was. We in the West have a long tradition of the seasons of life and Memento Mori, but it is interesting how some people just have to discover it for themselves. As if the act of struggling that early in life leads to career success must be applied later in life to finding meaning.

    Nothing new under the sun, said the Qoheleth.

  3. @ Delta Lima. Our last three were adopted. We thought we would be done parenting around 2001 but it went all the way to 2017. God had other plans; sometimes your next tasks will come find you, as before. I recommend the sigh-of-relief part where you take a little while to enjoy the lack of pressure. Something may occur to you pretty quickly.

  4. “Learning at a younger age of membership in a study of intellectual giftedness was related to … less favorable psychological well-being at age eighty.”

    I was a National Merit Scholar and am 81. My father, who had dropped out of high school at age 15, was not encouraging and even told me to forget about college. I went on without him and struggled a bit but graduated from medical school first in my class all four years. I became a surgeon although my first wife refused to move to the place I wanted most to train. I had good training and began a career that was not what I had hoped for but was successful for 30 years. An old back injury ended my career at age 55 and I decided, once I had recovered from the surgery , to try a new career that involved a more sedentary occupation. Unfortunately, my idea of analyzing quality of care in Medicine was not one that interested the people who should have been my clients. Finally, an old friend and professor of medical education got me interested in teaching medical students clinical skills. I did that for 15 years and spent 7 years interviewing and examining military recruits. That was pretty interesting and I learned quite a bit about our present military. During some of that time, about ten years, I reviewed workers compensation claims for a company run by a friend. Medicine has the advantage that it has many roles one can play even to the age of 80, when I finally quit. Along the way, I wrote and published two books, one a medical history for medical students who are no longer taught the history of their profession, and a memoir that I wrote from recollections I had saved along the way.

    Now, I am reviewing the Calculus I learned many years ago as a means of keeping the brain occupied.

    I have been married three times, twice to my second wife who was an ICU nurse but got into trouble with alcohol. We were divorced for 25 years but got back together again about 5 years ago. I have 5 kids and 5 grandkids. About to have another (grandchild) this week.

  5. I don’t like the term ‘giftedness’, particularly when used in the context of ‘special classes for the gifted’, or words to that effect. Much better to speak in terms of ‘accomplishment’…don’t call if the Gifted class, but the High-Performance class, or the Achievement class, or something like that.

  6. My own take on this is that, as we grow older, we go from doors opening to doors closing, for the most part.

    We’re one, we can walk
    We’re two, we can use the toilet
    We’re three, we can go out and play in the back yard, and tie our own shoes.
    We’re six, we can go out and play in the front yard.
    We’re eight, we can go down the street to our friend’s house
    We’re 12, we can ride our bikes to the store a dozen blocks away
    We’re 14, we can hop a bus to go to the public library
    We’re 16, we can drive
    We’re 18, we can sign for ourselves, vote, and so forth.
    We’re 22, we go out into the world and start getting our own lives independent of others.

    Then it starts to go the other way…

    We’re 30, we (likely) can’t join the military or begin to become a doctor
    We’re 40, it’s a lot harder to start an entirely different career
    We’re 50, it’s a lot harder to start a new family
    We’re 60, it’s a lot harder to THINK about starting a new family.
    We’re 65, many places find excuses not to hire us.
    We’re 70, we can’t go anywhere without medications
    We’re 80, we can’t drive any more
    We’re 90, we can’t get out of this damned box.

    Yeah, some of that has been twisted by modern Helicopter Parenting, but you get the jist… For the first 25-30 years, doors tend to be opening for us.

    After that point, they tend to be closing, not opening.

    Part of “aging gracefully” is learning where that can be challenged, and how, and, of course, recognizing when you look stupid doing it (60yo guy hitting on a 22yo girl…? Generally not too bright).

  7. I was “gifted” by a Catholic high school that announced one day in the fall of my senior year that we were going to take a “test.” No prep. It was the SAT and to this day I don’t know my score. There were no prep courses or redos.

    I was notified I was a finalist and they sent (I learned later) a financial disclosure form to my parents. It was an academic scholarship (I think the first year of the National Merit.) and my father threw the form away. My mother told me years later. I got a letter congratulating me and informing me that, since I did not need financial aid, I got a certificate instead.

    I had been accepted to Cal Tech and had my dorm room assigned. But I had no money and was not smart enough to write and ask them if they had other sources of funding. I was contacted by alumni of U of Southern California and l got a scholarship there. It had a weak Engineering school and I ended up in medical school after some missteps.

    White Privilege 1956 style.

  8. @ Mike K – It was likely the NMSQT, because of the offered scholarship and use of the term “finalist.” That test later merged with the PSAT. The cutoff score for finalist was usually from 137-141* which would be roughly equivalent to an SAT of 1450-1490 or so, old scoring. So that would be your likely minimum for an SAT.

    *It is was slightly different from state to state and whether you went to a prep school in the 1990s., but don’t know if that was also true for earlier years.

  9. I don’t know the details but I was one of the finalists who were followed for years by the National Merit Foundation.

    My point was not so much to toot my own horn but the point out that all the nonsense about “White Privilege” is just that. Had I known enough about applying to college I might have written CalTech, which I much preferred, and had a quite different life. They sent a professor to interview me in Chicago.

    None of my immediate family had gone to college and my father had dropped out of high school at 15.

    After I graduated, I sent him a copy of the year book from medical school that listed my awards. He had a tavern and showed it to friends and customers.

    After he died, I paid his bills and settled his affairs. That included selling his tavern. Some of his friends berated me for being less than grateful for his sending me through medical school. I never said a word. It was my final gift to him.

  10. Is there anything here beyond the idea that we trade seeing quickly for seeing deeply? Of course it helps to have a job with a significant intellectual component.

    There are a lot of professions that don’t allow for a graceful transition. Two that I can think of are police and firemen. Both have a real need for intelligence but are too physically demanding for anyone much beyond 50, nor are there many less demanding positions. Most, probably find some way forward but enough don’t that there are lots of regrettable stories.

    From the inside, looking out, I still feel surprised when it turns out that I’m the one that is supposed to be the expert at times. I suppose I’m slower than I was, it doesn’t seem so. I won’t even mention the words that have to go through all of our minds from time to time.

  11. Dirac is just wrong. So many examples expose that lie. Penrose, Leonard Susskind, Einstein himself ….

    For Neuroscience, Robert Sapolsky is perhaps the best teacher I have ever been exposed to. This is worth the 40 odd hours it will take to audit:

    As he says in the intro: “How many of you believe in free will … show of hands … that’s gonna change” ;)

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