It used to be a simple task of looking at the watch on my wrist.
Or looking up to observe the sun’s position in the sky.
Or checking the level of the tide.
You could read the signs, or observe the message as plain as the face on a clock. Even now, digitally displayed.
Not so much any more.
What time is it?
What time is it in your day? What time is it in your life? What time is it in our culture?
As one gets older, one becomes (I become) more aware of the chronological and biological time in one’s life. After sixty-five, I became much more reflective on the journey I have been on, as well as the time I have left on the clock of my human existence. What time is it?
Erik Erikson offered one of the first psychologically based images of the life stages of humans that would guide in globally positioning one’s place in the time of life. I remember encountering his framework in my early twenties, reading about his life cycle stages. I had gone through the identity work, hammering out the sense of self that I inherited from my parents and my native land. This was a lot more complicated than it might appear at first glance, giving two therapists and a psychoanalyst some extra spending money, and a second home. “It’s complicated” was alive and well in my life a long time before Facebook’s profiles.
I wish that Henry Louis Gates would do his magic on my family tree, just for grins. I am quite certain that I am genetically linked to Larry David. Pretty, pretty, pretty sure. Even the creator of the phrase “identity crisis” found the process tricky as he gave himself the name of Erik Erikson….namely “son of Erik”. I thought of David Davison, but I was always a Rich’s man ( an Atlanta department store, as opposed to Davison’s, bought by Macy’s…sell-out!).
Immediately following getting some aspects of identity squared away, one is asked to begin the serious endeavor in the tricky process of sharing one’s self with an other. Traditionally, this meant marriage, but there are other forms of coupling. The key work was to not lose your identity in the process of this sharing, which Erikson called intimacy.
This oftentimes leads to a fusion of identities, where one member of the couple melds into that of the other. Sometimes when identity formation has not been completed, the person is merely attracted to a mirror image of one’s self in an other, entering into an simple infatuation with oneself. This is what I once infamously called a “homosexual marriage”, where a person couples with another person who presents a sameness that initially feels comfortable and familiar. It works in the short term, maybe even famously, but eventually the pairing becomes boring.
A lot of “adolescent” relationships, based in narcissism, yield lifeless marriages. Often, it takes about five to seven years for that to show up, painfully. Smart couples get into therapy and work on the relationship. Some enter into what we called “social therapy”, more colloquially known as an affair. Still others, many others, opt for what I call “zombie” marriages, the socially acceptable walking dead, simply going through the motions. Still others cut and run. As I said, this is tricky work.
The ideal is that this coupling happens with two developed, separate ego identities that intuitively recognize the “otherness” in the other person. It is this unconscious process that draws those opposites together as they hope to learn something they don’t already know. My teacher, Tom Malone, called this process “creative tension” which on good days brings about discovery and awakening to a new part of the self. On bad days, it leads to some hellacious fights as the two separate persons see the world and life from two distinct perspectives. Sometimes, it’s playful sparring, sometimes Ali’s rope-a-dope, but at times, it’s Texas cage fight to the death. The goal is that, through time, both members of the couple will learn from one another. Happily ever after is a nice end line for fairy tales but rarely pertains to real relationships. It’s always in process.
While I am talking about this interchange, let me take a comedic pause….to break the tension. This “creative tension” in no way refers to the hokey Unity Candle, a liturgical practice that was popular back when I first started hitching couples together. The bride and the groom would each take a lighted candle, together light a single Unity Candle in the center, and then blow out their individual flame. If there is a worse symbol in the world, I have not found it. I successfully avoided providing such a display my entire priesthood. If you did the Unity Candle at your wedding ceremony, and many did, I hope your relationship belied the terrible symbol, by becoming a vital coupling, complete with two intact persons. By the way, I have some doves to sell you for your funeral ceremony.
If one chooses not to be married and remains single, one can grow in intimacy in a number of other ways: in relationships, with vocational commitments, and as some of my monk friends tell me, with God. I couldn’t fade the celibacy thing so I opted for marriage as my bed of “creative tension”, which we just celebrated our 40th anniversary. Some of you who have read my writing in the past may be aware of the deep meaning of the number 40 as a Hebrew symbol and idiom, meaning “a long damn time”.
However you choose to do life, as a single, a couple, or in a more creative constellation, it generally entails hard work, and a life that is cast inextricably in relationship to a wider community. One must measure and balance one’s focus on self as well as our concern for our neighbor. In fact, in most marriage ceremonies, I highlight the hope that marriage might become the crucible for learning how to extend our care and compassion to others. My spiritual tradition speaks of loving one’s neighbor as one’s own self. This looks good in a Sunday School room bulletin board but gets difficult when one wants to press militantly the notion of personal freedom to the exclusion of the neighbor. I have been surprised to see the rabid assertion of “my rights” when the exercise of such privilege impinges on others significantly. I am specifically thinking of our difficulty in our moving compassionately through this pandemic. “Balance” is a skill that we Americans seem to struggle with, but it is critical in being a responsible person in this world that we share. Merely beating one’s chest and yelling “My Right!” will not get you off this ethical hook.
One more phase that stirs the pot on our life journey is what Erikson went on to postulate as the phenomena known as a mid-life crisis. This is initiated by the recognition that the time left in your life is less than the time you have lived to point. This places a sense of urgency in play and may lead to some spontaneous bursts of energy. It may open up doorways to new ways of being that enliven and enrich. But it can also prompt people reacting and abandoning long time loyalties in the hopes of finding and doing something different.
It’s been my honor to accompany many people who negotiated such changes by reordering how they do a career that has become stagnant, or limited. I have assisted them in forming what I have called a “personal board of directors” consisting of people that have know them from their early days, people who have known them through time, people who might share their experience in an industry or profession, along with a few “wild cards” that I throw in the mix, just for grins. Rather than leaving a profession such as law or medicine, I have watched people creatively reconfiguring how to do life and work, oftentimes with more balance, more meaning, and even more fun. Imagine that.
Finally, there is the time I find myself in presently, ‘the golden years”, one’s later years, or more honestly, when we feel “older than God”. My friend, John Scherer speaks of “retirement” creatively, that is, to put a new set of tires on the vehicle, ready for a new journey. As a noted organizational development practitioner, John literally got re-tired, going to Poland, in his seventies, to introduce his OD discipline to a culture that had no clue as to those dynamics. It birthed a new phase in John’s life that has continued to bear fruit.
In my own life, I decided to reorient my work to coaching people who need some assistance in making a transition in life. I have worked with CEOs who are looking to stop that particular work, and to begin a time, a new chapter, of a fresh endeavor. They don’t want to fade away into the sunset, but rather want to chase a dream yet unfulfilled. I have loved “coming alongside” these people as they think creatively and plan their next chapter.
I am working with people who have transitioned into a CEO role and are discovering what it means to truly be a leader, forming a vision, building a team. and making a difference in a wider community. Watching people embrace the servanthood power of leadership inspires me.
I am working with clergy from a wide range of traditions. Some are older clergy, like me, who are trying to redefine how they do their work and how they inhabit their skin. Other clergy are middle-aged, hitting their stride and discovering what it’s like to lead a large organization. And other clergy are just getting started, fresh out of seminary, figuring out who they are as professional ministers, vowing not to check their integrity and personal development at the door of the church house.
On top of that, I am writing. This weekly blog is often free-flowing from the experience of my current life and from the bubbling up of images in dreams, journaling, or memory prompts. I am also doing the hard work of writing that Hemingway referred to being willing to sit and bleed. One takes a memoir tack while the other is about leadership. My typical week includes ample time for research and study, including meeting times with people who share my passion. I am busier than ever, but more centered and focused, thanks perhaps to my blessing/curse of my knee injury. I might have been out on my sailboat headed for Bermuda or Cuba, but I have found this writer’s desk a good ship.
This is what time it is for me in my journey. It is fulfilling, demanding, but a time that I experience as a joy.
What time is it in your life? How did you get to where you are now? What remains for you to do? What dream is still waiting, begging for attention?
Mary Oliver famously and provocatively put the question this way: what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? That profound question grabbed me years ago, and shook me, screaming the existential question at me.
Curiously, the new truth for me is that is not just ONE life. The probing question begs to be doubled, tripled, quadrupled. You get my point. Maybe this emerges from age, but here it is: What do you plan to do with your many wild, precious, and evolving lives? ……I’ll wait.