This should probably go in the marmot, but here I am.
Read this piece this morning in Financial Times. If you don't click through, it's an interview with Pete Betts, a UK climate negotiator at end of life due to a brain tumor. It's an interesting read from the climate standpoint, but I was interested in what he had to say about confronting his own mortality. It's toward the end of the piece.
He talks about his therapist, Julia Samuel:
She said there were two things that help people. The first is a sense that one is loved and valued; the second is a sense that one’s life has been useful.
"A sense that one's life has been useful." I think it's fair to read "useful" as "meaningful." One's life had some purpose, made a difference somehow.
Hopefully, I'm not near the end of my life. It is safe to say, however, that although it is never far away for any of us, it is nearer than it has ever been. And it does, at least for me, sometimes prompt reflection.
Back before therapy, when I was a very unhappy man in an unhappy marriage with a career that was slowly unraveling, I often looked for some "purpose" in sticking around. Of course, it was my kids. I don't know that they really know it, but they actually helped save my life.
Ultimately, we're responsible for saving our own lives; but we all need a lot of help along the way; and my kids helped me, more than they know.
During this period, my brother experienced kidney failure. It was an acute thing, idiopathic, nobody knows why. But he needed a kidney.
I was the oldest sibling, and I wasn't sure if the navy would let me donate a kidney. I was already at my terminal rank, commander, and I wasn't much intimidated by captains anymore, so I call the commanding officer of Portsmouth Naval Hospital (may have been called Norfolk Naval Hospital, but it's in Portsmouth), and asked him if there was any prohibition on being a kidney donor.
To his credit, he said, "I don't know, but let me find out and I'll get back to you." He could have just blown me off. I'd have found out some other way, but it's just one of the things that makes you feel like there's more here than meets the eye when you're on the right path.
He called me back and told me there was no official prohibition, but I wouldn't be able to make a disability claim from the VA when I retired. Sounded like a square deal.
My boss at the time was also very helpful, he gave me permissive temporary duty orders to go donate a kidney. That means they don't fund my travel or give me per diem for meals and lodging, it's all at my own expense; but I didn't need to burn my accumulated leave to do it, and I was going to be out a few weeks.
And, of course, the whole thing was fully funded by Medicare. Socialized medicine.
All that went well. My brother still has my kidney, soon to be 26 years later, and it's still functioning well. That itself is a bit remarkable. When we started, they hoped to get 20 years out of it.
Anyway, there were still days of depression ahead. I didn't start seeing a therapist until 2000 or so. But there were days when I was feeling really low, and I could lean on this idea that I had done at least one good thing in my life.
So I suppose my brother also had a role in saving my life too.
It's interesting, because this was after I'd been XO in JOHN HANCOCK and performed over thirty burials at sea. I'd had that epiphany, and discovered meaning in what we were doing, but it hadn't yet achieved some status in terms of how I viewed the value of my own life. That did come later though.
I don't think people kind of orient their lives around "being useful." We're caught up in the day-to-day grind. Chances are, like in It's a Wonderful Life, we have been useful, we're just unconscious of it, because our attention was elsewhere, even if our intention wasn't.
This is becoming a recurring theme of late, I know. But one of the advantages of getting old is perspective, and time to look back and reflect.
I never did anything, back then, with the idea that I was "making meaning." I guess the most I could say was that it seemed like "the right thing to do."
Which I guess is a clue. When you're doing the right thing, you're making meaning. You're doing something useful.
How many opportunities to do the right thing do we miss every day? How does our ambition, or our fixed narrative of what our life is supposed to be, interfere with seeing the opportunities before us?
I think I see that a lot, especially in political leaders. I mean, it's the most visible there, in public life.
It's asking too much to expect perfection, but it's remarkable how many easy opportunities are thrown away to pursue some meaningless, short-term gain or advantage.
As an oldster, I guess I get frustrated at my inability to kind of convey this. I mean, I guess that's what I'm trying to do here. I don't do NFTU just to vent my spleen, though I do that as well.
I live in a state where my elected officials have just been having an orgy, not just missing opportunities to do the right thing, but gleefully embracing doing the wrong thing. I wonder, at the end of their lives, what their interior experience will be. Will they be able to compartmentalize all the harms they caused? Is that sort of thing just forgotten? They'll have some kind of highly edited recollection of what they thought the meaning or value of their service was?
Or will they experience regret?
I don't know. And why should I care? It's their experience, not mine. I have regret in my life, but it's not at the center of it. I feel as though I've lived a pretty good life, maybe even wonderful. I know I'm loved. I know I helped people. I know I've kept faith with the values I believe in. Not always, of course. I'm not perfect by any means.
But underneath all that is gratitude. I didn't set out to do this. I had a lot of help, from good parenting to a good education to all the opportunities and advantages that accrue to being a member of a privileged class. I didn't earn any of that. No one gets to pick their parents.
Dad wanted me to join the navy, because he loved the navy. I loved my dad. There was a brief period where we weren't necessarily in alignment on all that. But he set me on a good path.
I'd like to see more people in public life appreciate the opportunity they have to make meaning in their own lives. To do the right thing. Not be blinded by zero-sum thinking, or some desire for power or recognition.
Some people get it. Donna Deegan, candidate for mayor of Jacksonville, Florida is one. But a lot of the people in this area don't. This is all a big chess game to them, and the object is to win at any cost.
I think that cost is pretty high. I think the end of their days will be impoverished, diminished.
And many people that might have been helped, will struggle with burdens that were made heavier by the desire and ambitions of selfish people, locked into a narrow view of what life is all about.
So it goes, I guess. I wish I had something better to offer.
Originally posted at Notes From the Underground 06:45 Thursday, 4 May 2023