Nostalgia’s Lure

The move is 95% complete, meaning apart from my fancy pants $10 pen and running gloves, I can find most things most of the time. It also means I’m piecing my routines back together, including the morning green tea latte and the evening viewing of Grand Design.

Taking stock of everything we own has inspired lots of thinking. In particular, taking stock of our photographs and related mementos of people and experiences. I can’t help but wonder, why are we so insistent on taking, storing, framing, and otherwise archiving so many pictures? More simply, why does the past have such a hold on us?

Positive psychologists keep telling us that meaningful relationships with family and friends is the key to happiness. I wonder, do the seemingly endless images, photographs, and related memorabilia of people from our past, whether alive or not, constitute some sort of community? I’d be more inclined to think that they represent some sort of social capital, if we looked at them and talked about them with some regularity, but we don’t because we have way too many. Most of them are out of sight and mind all of the time.

And I wonder if there’s an opportunity cost to nostalgia for the past. I’ve wondered this for at least 15 years, about the time I started going to my childrens’ recitals and school plays. Inevitably, many of my peers arrived armed with tri-pods and the smallest, newest video players, working hard to record the events to the best of their abilities. Sometimes I thought those events were pretty grueling live, and couldn’t imagine gathering friends and family to watch them again at a later date. Watching legions of amateur videographers made me wonder if you can be fully present when in “recording” or “documenting” mode?

There’s also an opportunity cost to the ease of digital storage today. An author of a recently released book states that U.S. citizens take more pictures in two minutes than were taken by everyone in the world in the 19th century. The end result, is endless hours of video and tens of thousands of images that make any one minute of video or any particular image much less valuable. We’re left with no needles, just digital haystacks.

I’m always skeptical of wildly popular trends, and mindfulness is getting close to qualifying, but I’m down with it because it’s main emphasis is on being fully present, meaning not living in the past or future, which of course sounds much easier than it is. What if we were to delete some of our images we haven’t looked at for years or chuck entire photo albums from the 1980s? Could it help us be more mindful, more present with those we will interact with today?

Ultimately, I suspect our penchant for photography and videography are manifestations of our fear of being alone and of dying someday. If I’m right, as we age, those impulses will intensify. But taking more pictures won’t extend our lives, so I’m going to swim against the status quo current. I’m going to take fewer pictures to both appreciate them more and be more mindful.

I’m not trying to convince you to join me in taking and storing fewer pictures. Like a lot of what I write, I could have this all wrong. Maybe my minimalist tendencies are getting the best of me. Maybe you’ll end up convincing me that I need to stop with the incessant questions and get a lot more snap happy.

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How to Grieve

I don’t know. It’s been almost four months since my mom died. And this week, another gut punch via telephone. This time it was news that my wife’s former campus pastor who through three decades of friendship became a second, spiritual father of sorts to her, had died.

We are especially fortunate to have a foundation of friendship at times like this. After listening to and empathizing with my wife, she asked how I was adjusting to my mom’s death.

I told her I’m failing miserably at striking any kind of balance because it seems like I can either regularly stop and think about the permanence of my loss and be overcome with sadness or succumb to avoidance by filling my day with activities that distract me from thinking about her passing almost entirely. There has to be a large middle ground, I just haven’t found it.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday night I was sitting alone at an outside table at Vic’s Pizza while my wife went to the bathroom and gathered silverware and napkins. A three year-old boy at the table right next to me sized me up and then pointed right at me and said to his mom, “Does he have a mommy?” “Don’t point,” she curtly replied. When my wife joined me a few minutes later, he said to his mom, “He does have a mommy.”

Carol Byrnes and JSwanson would’ve laughed heartily at that and I love the image of them laughing together even though they didn’t know each other.

Besides a lighthearted story, I have one grief-related insight to share. More accurately, I have one end-of-life-related insight from Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. “Death,” Rohr writes, “is largely a threat to those who have not yet lived their life.”

Carol Byrnes and JSwanson lived full lives. May you and I do the same.

Long Live the Memory of Erwin Byrnes

I am Don and Carol Byrnes’s son. Don’s, Karen’s, and David’s brother. Erwin Byrnes’s nephew.

Long live the memory of Erwin Byrnes, 1928-2014. Read his obituary here. And an article about how he planned his death here.

“It took a lot of nerve on his part,” Tom Byrnes said. “He was like, it’s 10 o’clock, let’s go.” “We just know this is the way we want to get treated,” Erwin said a few days before. “People may not agree with us, but that’s our choice, not anyone else’s choice. We have to be kind of the driver of our own bus.”

imgresAnd on writing women’s obituaries.

Pivoting Towards Gratitude

Seventeen years ago I got an unexpected call at work. My 69 year old dad had died from a massive heart attack, in his car, at a red light, on his way to his office. Today, Mother Dear’s health is precarious.

My story isn’t unique because the cycle of life doesn’t discriminate. Baby boomers’ parents are dying every day. How do we avoid being overcome by grief?

My dad’s sudden, unforeseen death taught me important lessons. A few weeks afterwards I realized I had a stark choice to make. Should I continue being upset at the fact that he’d never get to know our daughters, that our friendship wouldn’t continue deepening, that my mom wouldn’t enjoy his company anymore, that a taken for granted future was cut short? Or should I be grateful that he was a great grandfather for a few years, that he was my father for 34 years, and that my mom and him spent fifty plus years together.

I chose to be grateful for the time we enjoyed together. “And,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “that has made all the difference.” In the short-term, this intentional pivoting towards gratitude doesn’t inoculate anyone from tremendous sadness. But it’s indispensable in avoiding longer term paralyzing grief.

On a Thanksgiving Day car trip, the conversation with Betrothed turned to our parents’ declining health. I shared this perspective with her and my related opinion that since our parents are in their early 80’s everything from here on in is “extra credit”. We’ve been blessed beyond belief to have them as parents. We won the lottery of life without having to buy tickets. We’re blessed to have a treasure trove of positive memories with them. We need to consciously choose gratitude by celebrating the quality and quantity of time we’ve enjoyed with them.

As a cyclist, I reminded the Good Wife that I run a real risk of getting hit and possibly killed by a drunk or distracted driver. I told her if I die at 52 or 62, I wanted something from her. I said, “Grieve with gusto. Be as sad as you want for a few weeks or months. But then consciously choose to be thankful for the three or four decades we spent together. For the fact that we met. For the specialness of our friendship. For the team we made. Our daughters (who may be younger or the same age I was when my dad suddenly died) will need that modeled for them. Show them how to choose gratitude.”

The Great Equalizer

As this recent New York Times article poignantly illustrates, Horace Mann was wrong, education is not the great equalizer of men. Or women.

As always at the end of the year, most major newspapers list the most newsworthy deaths of the calendar year. Some provide a few paragraphs about each person. The “newsworthy deaths” compilations are a nice reminder that death is the great equalizer. Of men and women. The rich and poor. Hawk and dove. Religious and secular. Well known and anonymous. Prepared and unprepared.

I imagine most people who read those “famous deaths” compilations think to themselves, “Wow, a lot of famous people died this year.” That’s the thing about death, it’s kind of consistent. A lot of famous people die every year. In the United States, in 2013, someone will be born every 8 seconds and die every 12 seconds.

Poor form I know, but I can’t help but wonder if the comrades—Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro—will feature prominently in next year’s “famous deaths” lists. And what about Mugabe, Bush Sr, and Mandela, all quite skilled at postponing the great equalizer. Will they make it to 2014?

More importantly, will you and I make it to 2014? Psychologist Russ Harris suggests a simple exercise for being more conscious of The Great Equalizer (as described in The Antidote: Happiness for those Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking). Imagine you are eighty years old—assuming you’re not eighty already, that is; if you are, you’ll have to pick an older age—and then complete the sentences “I wish I’d spent more time on. . . ” and “I wish I’d spent less time on. . .”

Whatever your age, that wonderfully simple exercise will improve your chances of reaching death having lived life as fully and as deeply as possible.

I hope this isn’t your year or my year, but just in case, let’s live it like it could be.

Thank you for making time to read my writing this year. Peace to you and yours.

The Essential Dilemma of Human Intimacy

Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, with its discussion of Stoicism, has me thinking about the Newtown parents. Burkeman and the heartbreaking portraits of the dead first graders. With their beautiful, innocent smiles, and future promise.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more difficult to overcome than a parent having to bury their six or seven year old child. Friends of ours watched helplessly for a year as their eight year old son died from leukemia. I tried to empathize, but probably failed to scratch the surface of their heartbreak.

The Newtown parents didn’t have any reason to take a little extra time the fateful morning of the shooting to be especially present and loving. One wonders, how will they survive the shooting? Right now, their sadness is bound to overwhelm ancient Greek wisdom and everyone’s best intentions. The best way to support them is to respect their privacy and make sure our representatives enact meaningful gun control.

But what if we shift things a bit to think about Stoicism and our lives, and the people we’re closest too, and their eventual deaths. And the essential dilemma of human intimacy—the closer and more meaningful the friendship, the greater one’s vulnerability, the greater one’s vulnerability, the more intense the pain upon death.

There is a way to minimize the probability of intense grief, keep friendships superficial. But who wants to compromise the quality of their life that way? So what are we to do? Being intimate and dependent upon others doesn’t mean we’re doomed to debilitating sadness upon each of our close friends’ or family members’ deaths.

The ancient Greeks wrote about the impermanence of everything and encouraged people to reflect on the worst things that could happen to them. The result being greater appreciation for their material well-being, their health, their work, and their family and friends. Taking time to think about worse case scenarios, or negative visualization, also mentally prepares one for inevitable changes in life, including especially sad ones such as the death of a loved one.

The ancient Greeks also emphasized living in the present, an “easier said than done” cliche if not developed more fully. Think about how different birthday celebrations might be if everyone committed to living more in the present. Instead of giving the birthday person gifts (kind of an odd practice if you think about it, “Hey congrats on being born!”), and asking him or her to make a wish for the upcoming year, the party would be a celebration of the previous year. The message being that life is fragile and isn’t it wonderful that we had another year to enjoy the birthday boy’s or girl’s friendship. Each person could reflect on the birthday person’s previous year and share what has been most memorable and what they most appreciate about them. And yes, of course we can keep the cake and ice cream.

My dad died suddenly at age 69. I was 33. I was devastated in part because it wasn’t until my mid 20’s that we started to understand and appreciate one another. I thought we had the luxury of time for our friendship to flourish. But shortly afterwards, I started to think like a Stoic before knowing anything about Stoicism. I realized I could be upset that our friendship didn’t get to mature or I could be thankful that we enjoyed a positive and more personal 5-10 years. I’ve chosen the later. And that decision informs the way I try to live. I want to love boldly, fully appreciate my friends and family, and celebrate each passing year as an undeserved gift.

My hope is that with the passing of time the Newtown parents can make a similar switch from understandable anger at the time they won’t get to spend with their sons and daughters to appreciating the six or seven years they did get with them.

That math and psychology will be tough. Godspeed Newtown parents.

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