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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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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Life and Death as a Minimalist

Mark Albert was one of my best friends when we taught together at the International Community School (I.C.S.) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia twenty-two years ago. A University of Pennsylvania grad, Mark was super smart, quirky/funny, outgoing, sports crazed, and overflowing with energy for middle schoolers and math. After watching most of his classmates go to Wall Street, he decided to teach math in West Africa as a Peace Corp volunteer. After three years in Gabon, he started his international teaching career at I.C.S. He arrived with a treasure chest filled with all of his worldly possessions which consisted mostly of math textbooks, some beautiful West African shirts, and an acoustic guitar. A model of minimalism. Maybe one can’t help but be a minimalist when living on a Peace Corp stipend.

Today, like me, Mark is 50 and a part of the Sandwich Generation (SG). The SG consists of people mostly in their 40s and 50s who are “sandwiched” between aging parents who need care and their own children. According to the Pew Research Center, just over 1 of every 8 Americans aged 40 to 60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent, in addition to between 7 to 10 million adults caring for their aging parents from a long distance. US Census Bureau statistics indicate that the number of older Americans aged 65 or older will double by the year 2030, to over 70 million. SGers face many challenges including saving for their own retirement while trying to save for their children’s education.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about common challenges SGers face after elderly parents die:

As older parents approach death, they often leave lengthy to-do lists for their children. The tasks can be both physical and financial. Some children must deal with a tangle of arrangements—everything from heating-oil contracts to trusts—along with jumbled stock certificates, car titles or life-insurance policies for which there may be no backup copies. Others must sift through boxes or rooms full of belongings. Sometimes siblings get involved, complicating matters further. When the chores become overwhelming, it can be difficult for family members to recover sentimental treasures or tie up financial loose ends. At the extreme, the sheer volume of stuff can clutter a house and weigh down its value—a problem if the home must be sold quickly.

Often the heir(s) get so overwhelmed they procrastinate indefinitely. I didn’t realize how many estate sale and related companies exist to help heir(s) tie up every imaginable loose end. Probably a growth industry given the aging population.

While reading the article I reflected on how extremely lucky I am that my mom and in-laws have wills; have made arrangements for and already paid to be cremated; and have provided detailed, organized info on their finances. Their end-of-life planning is a natural extension of their lifelong love.

Another blessing, they’ve begun giving away things, but all that means is they have a tad bit less than a lot. Which got me thinking about my own death and how radically simplifying my life could be a powerful final act of loving kindness for my wife and/or daughters.

The mindless cliche, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” is exactly backwards because the larger your material footprint upon death, the more onerous the task for your heirs to divide up, toss, sell, and just plain deal with everything.

What if, as I age, I gradually shift from run-of-the-mill decluttering to radical minimalism. And how cool if I could time my death to give away everything except a token or two for memory sake—say my iPad 56 with pictures and video of our life together. So after the funeral, my heirs return to a near empty house, relax in a peaceful unhurried manner, open a bottle of wine, and say nice things about the guy who left so few loose ends.

Think Legacy not Longevity

I think it was my ten year high school reunion somewhere in Orange County, California where I reconnected with one of my best friends from the 6th or 7th grade. At the start of junior high we were tight. I learned to ski on trips to Big Bear with his family and I spent a memorable week backpacking with them in the Sierras. He was a stud, a good running back and hurdler who gave both up for surfing and partying which he also excelled at. In high school, I was his designated driver.

Must have been the drugs, because at 28, he was pretty whacked out. Despite not looking especially healthy, he pigeoned-holed me and was going on and on about living to something like 125. I should have humored him and told him I was really looking forward to our 100th reunion. Pills; 1,000 calories a day; filtered carrot juice, can’t remember all the bullshit stuff he thought would get him to triple digits.

Granted, my childhood friend is more extreme than normal, but most of us don’t like thinking about dying. Many people spend lots of energy trying to delay it as long as possible.

In hindsight, I wish I had encouraged him to think legacy not longevity. It’s not the length of our lives, but the quality of them. Whether 40, 60, or 80, do you leave your world—whether it’s your family, the places you worked, the physical environment, or your community—better off?

I have to credit Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania, for this reminder. This sentence of his stopped me dead in my tracks. Pun intended:

In a collective denial of aging. . .we employ all available technologies to simulate youth, misunderstanding that the secret to immortality lies not in the individual but in the society we leave behind.

I can’t express it any more clearly than that.

Steve Jobs

John Gruber of Daring Fireball quotes Steve from his 2005 Stanford commencement address:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Puts the negative press coverage of the iPhone 4S in perspective. We forget we’ll be dead soon and lose sight on what is truly important and instead focus on the status phones provide, stock prices, and market share.

[Besides the commencement address, fav read from last night—The Steve Jobs I Knew by Walt Mossberg]