(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.