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15 - How Then Shall We Live?

The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love.

—W. Somerset Maugham

James W. Prescott is the founder of the Developmental Biology Program of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Human Development. When he conducted a survey of forty-nine traditional cultures, he found that some took pleasure in killing, torturing, or mutilating their enemies, while others did not. What, he wondered, could account for the difference? The answer, he found, was “physical affection—touching, holding, and carrying.” Those societies that inflicted physical punishment on their children produced brutal adults. To put it technically, a low score on the Infant Physical Affection scale correlated with a high rate of adult physical violence. And Dr. Prescott discovered something else, too. He found that those societies that lavished physical affection on their children produced happy and healthy adults. In such societies, people were more trusting of one another, and their lives were characterized by more pleasure and less violence.

One of the hallmarks of the societies that exemplify healthy aging is that children are loved, held, and cared for constantly. They are rarely if ever scolded or shamed, and the idea of striking a child is completely foreign. Those in modern society who favor corporal punishment of children believe it is necessary to teach them right from wrong. But in these societies where no child is ever hit, children are remarkably well behaved and discipline is almost never a problem. Having been treated with respect, children naturally respect their elders.

Cultures like Abkhasia, Vilcabamba, Hunza, and traditional Okinawa have no need for orphanages. This is not because parents never die. Rather it is because when they do, the children are quickly taken in by other families and by the whole community, who do all they can to be sure that the little ones not only have their basic needs met, but also feel continuously cherished, loved, and upheld.

It seems to be a defining characteristic of societies where healthy aging is the norm that people are rarely if ever abandoned or rejected. When people are in need, be they old or young, they are always taken in and cared for. People who are disabled or who have special needs are never ridiculed, shamed, or isolated, but are helped to participate as they can in everything that goes on. One of the great secrets of these healthy cultures is that no one is ever made to feel flawed, imperfect, or unworthy of love.

In modern society, of course, it is not always that way. Abbie Blair tells a story that speaks, I think, to the timeless human longing for a way of life in which no one need fear rejection, in which all are welcomed and all are loved: I remember the first time I saw Freddie. He was standing in his playpen at the adoption agency where I work. He gave me a toothy grin. What a beautiful baby, I thought.

His boarding mother (the woman at the orphanage responsible for his care) gathered him into her arms. “Will you be able to find a family for Freddie?”

Then I saw it. Freddie was born without arms.

“He’s so smart. He’s only ten months old, and already he walks and is beginning to talk.” She kissed him. “You won’t forget him, Mrs. Blair? You will try?”

“I won’t forget.”

I went upstairs and got out my latest copy of the Hard-to-Place list. I wrote, “Freddie is a ten-month-old white Protestant boy of English and French background. He has brown eyes, dark-brown hair and fair skin. Freddie was born without arms, but is otherwise in good health. His boarding mother feels he is of superior mentality, and he is already walking and starting to say a few words. Freddie is a warm, affectionate child who has been surrendered by his natural mother and is ready for adoption.” Yes, he’s ready all right, I thought. But is there anyone ready for him?

It was 10 o’clock on a lovely late-summer morning, and the agency was full of couples—couples interviews, couples meeting babies, families being born. These couples nearly always have the same dream: They want a child as much like themselves as possible, as young as possible, and most important, a child with no problems. “If he develops a problem after we get him,” they say, “that is a risk we’ll take just like any other parents. But to pick a baby who has a problem, that’s too much.” And who can blame them?

I wasn’t alone in looking for parents for Freddie. Any of the caseworkers meeting a new couple started with a hope: maybe they were for Freddie. But summer slipped into fall, and Freddie was with us for his first birthday.

And then I found them.

It started out as it always does—a new case, a new Home Study, two people who wanted a child. They were Frances and Edwin Pearson. She was 41. He was 45. She was a housewife. He was a truck driver.

I went to see them. They lived in a tiny white frame house, in a big yard full of sun and old trees. They greeted me together at the door, eager and scared to death.

Mrs. Pearson produced steaming coffee and oven-warm cookies. They sat before me on the sofa, close together, holding hands. After a moment, Mrs. Pearson began. “Today is our wedding anniversary. Eighteen years.” “Good years.” Mr. Pearson looked at his wife. “Except—”

“Yes,” she said. “Except. Always the ‘except.’ ” She looked around the room. “It’s too neat,” she said. “You know?”

I thought of my own living room with my three children. Teenagers now. “Yes,” I said, “I know.”

“Perhaps we’re too old?”

I smiled. “You don’t think so,” I said. “We don’t either.”

“You always think it will be this month, and then next month,” Mrs. Pearson said. “Examinations. Tests. All kinds of things. Over and over. But nothing ever happened. You just go on hoping and hoping, and time keeps slipping by.” “We’ve tried to adopt before this,” Mr. Pearson said. “One agency told us our apartment was too small, so we got this house. Then another agency said I didn’t make enough money. We had decided that was it, but this friend told us about you, and we decided to make one last try.” “I’m glad,” I said.

Mrs. Pearson glanced at her husband proudly. “Can we choose at all?” she asked. “A boy for my husband?”

“We’ll try for a boy,” I said. “What kind of a boy?”

Mrs. Pearson laughed. “How many kinds are there? Just a boy. My husband is very athletic. He played football in high school, basketball, too, and track. He would be good for a boy.”

Mr. Pearson looked at me. “I know you can’t tell exactly,” he said, “but can you give us any idea how soon? We’ve waited so long.”

I hesitated. There is always this question.

“Next summer, maybe,” said Mrs. Pearson. “We could take him to the beach?”

“That long?” Mr. Pearson said. “Don’t you have anyone at all? There must be a boy somewhere.” After a pause, he went on. “Of course, we can’t give him as much as other people. We haven’t a lot of money saved up.” “We’ve got a lot of love,” his wife said. “We’ve saved up a lot of that.”

“Well,” I said cautiously, “there is a little boy. He is thirteen months old.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Pearson said, “just a beautiful age.”

“I have a picture of him,” I said, reaching for my purse. I handed them Freddie’s picture. “He is a wonderful boy,” I said. “But he was born without arms.”

They studied the picture in silence. He looked at her. “What do you think, Fran?”

“Kickball,” said Mrs. Pearson. “You could teach him kickball.”

“Athletics are not so important,” Mr. Pearson said. “He can learn to use his head. Arms he can do without. A head, never. He can go to college. We’ll save for it.”

“A boy is a boy,” Mrs. Pearson insisted. “He needs to play. You can teach him.”

“I’ll teach him. Arms aren’t everything. Maybe we can get him some.”

They had forgotten me. But maybe Mr. Pearson was right, I thought. Maybe sometime Freddie could be fitted with artificial arms. He did have nubs where arms should be.

“Then you might like to see him?”

They looked up. “When could we have him?”

“You think you might want him?”

Mrs. Pearson looked at me. “Might?” she said. “Might?”

“We want him,” her husband said.

Mrs. Pearson went back to the picture and spoke to it. “You’ve been waiting for us, haven’t you?”

“His name is Freddie,” I said, “but you could change it.”

“No,” said Mrs. Pearson. “Frederick Pearson—it’s good together.”

There were formalities, of course, and by the time we set the day it was nearly Christmas. I met the Pearsons in the waiting room. “Your son’s here already,” I told them. “Let’s go upstairs and I’ll bring him to you.” “I’ve got butterflies,” Mrs. Pearson announced. “Suppose he doesn’t like us?”

I put my hand on her arm. “I’ll get him.”

When I went to get little Freddie, he looked at me intently. “Going home,” he said cheerfully. I carried him upstairs to the little room where the Pearsons were waiting. When I got there, I put him on his feet and opened the door. Freddie stood uncertainly, rocking a little, gazing intently at the two people before him. They drank him in with total acceptance.

Mr. Pearson knelt down. “Freddie, come here. Come to Daddy.”

Freddie looked at me for a moment. Then, turning, he walked slowly toward them. “Going home,” he said, and they reached out their arms and gathered him in.

LOVE AND LONELINESS

Stories like the adoption of little Freddie are so profoundly touching because they beckon to some of the deepest callings of the human spirit. They evoke the yearning for a world in which all are cared for, in which no one feels alone, unloved, or unwanted. They remind us that love is the most powerful, magical force in the universe, and remind us of our ability to love unconditionally.

Unfortunately, many in the industrialized world are without caring support in their times of need. Twenty-five percent of American households today consist of one person living alone; half of American marriages end in divorce (affecting tens of millions of children); more than a third of all U.S. births are to unmarried women, many of whom are not in committed relationships. Even within many families and marriages that are intact, there is profound disconnection and loneliness.

There sadly seems to be something about the direction of modern Western civilization itself that undermines a sense of community and makes it harder to sustain positive relationships. A few years ago, when the Unitel Corporation moved a hundred telemarketing jobs out of Frostburg, Maryland, the company’s vice president, Ken Carmichael, explained that the move was made because the area’s residents weren’t pushy enough on the phone. The problem, he said, was “the culture and the climate in western Maryland, one of helping your neighbor and being empathetic and those sorts of things.” The trend toward isolation is taking place all over the industrialized world. Nearly half of all British adults are now unmarried. In Germany, the divorce rate has doubled in the past fifteen years. In Iceland, the out-of-wedlock birthrate is now 65 percent. I’m sure that to some extent these statistics represent a shakeup of traditional lifestyles, and that many couples who are not married are living together in committed relationships. At the same time, these numbers also suggest the degree of isolation that is seeping into modern life and taking a terrible toll.

In almost every culture in the world, eating dinner together has been a place for families to strengthen bonds. The French in particular have long cherished mealtime as a family ritual, so much so that children have traditionally not been allowed to open the refrigerator between meals. But the days of sitting for hours around the table savoring small portions of several courses and relishing each other’s company seem to have passed. Instead, it has become commonplace for the French to eat in front of their television sets, while talking on the telephone, and even alone. As McDonald’s has become more popular in France than anywhere else in Europe, the average French meal, which twenty-five years ago lasted 88 minutes, has been reduced to only 38 minutes today. The French have long been known for their propensity to talk with one another, but according to the French National Bureau of Statistics, the time spent in conversations in France has declined more than 20 percent in just the past ten years. Thousands of French cafés are closing every year. Meanwhile, the number of prescriptions for mood-elevating drugs is now higher in France than anywhere else in the world. There are clearly forces at work in the modern world that separate us from one another and lead to a sense of alienation. As I’ve come to appreciate how crucial our relationships with each other are to our health and well-being, I’ve grown in compassion for the emptiness that besets so many lives. And I’ve better understood why even people who take excellent care of their diet and exercise can still at times fall prey to illness. The isolation and loneliness of our times are not merely emotional realities. They take a profound toll on every cell in our bodies.

How many of us numb ourselves with cigarettes, tranquilizers, drugs, alcohol, or unhealthful diets in an effort to escape how isolated we feel? How many of us become chronic workaholics or become preoccupied by other unhealthy obsessions in an attempt to avoid the inner barrenness caused by the breakdown of relationships, family, and community?

When a psychologist recorded how many times couples in cafés casually touched each other in an hour, the results were revealing. In some traditional cultures, couples touched each other as many as 180 times per hour. In the United States, on the other hand, couples touched each other only twice per hour. In London, it was zero. Of course, the issue of touching and personal space is experienced quite differently in different cultures, and this study may not be a reliable indicator of personal connection. But as human beings, we thrive when we get enough positive physical contact, and we wither when we don’t. Touch is one of the most basic forms of communication between people.

On October 17, 1995, twin girls were born at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in Worcester. They were extremely premature, and weighed only two pounds. They were placed in their respective incubators in the newborn intensive care unit. After a week, one was doing well, but the other was struggling with a host of problems including breathing difficulties, troubling blood oxygen levels, and heart rate aberrations. At least one nurse did not expect her to live. But then another hospital nurse, Gayle Kasparian, did something that was against the hospital rules. She placed the babies together in one incubator. Almost immediately, the healthier of the two baby girls wrapped an arm around her sister. When she did, it was as though a miracle had happened. The smaller baby’s blood oxygen saturation levels, which had been frighteningly low, began to rise. As her breathing improved, her frantic movements subsided, her heart rate stabilized, and her temperature returned to normal. In the days and weeks that followed, she continued to improve and thrive. The doctors later said the turning point was clearly when the twins were placed together. In the years since, the cobedding of premature twins has thankfully become standard practice in more and more hospitals.

Another technique that has been found to be extremely helpful with premature infants is called “kangaroo care.” The practice involves prolonged skin-to-skin contact between parent and infant, and has repeatedly been shown to have critical benefits for the little ones, producing better digestion, a steadier heart rate, improved breathing, greater contentment, and deeper sleep.

Of course, it’s common sense to recognize that babies need to be held and touched. But it’s not just babies. I don’t think we ever outgrow the need for affectionate and respectful human contact. One of the most insightful and effective therapists I’ve had the pleasure to know, Virginia Satir, used to say that regardless of your age, “four hugs a day are necessary for survival, eight are good for maintenance, and twelve for growth.” Among the exceptionally healthy and long-lived peoples of the world, touching, hugging, and other forms of respectful and affectionate contact are common daily experiences throughout all phases of their lives.

Of course, these peoples still experience psychological and social struggles. They have their share of hardships, and sometimes more than their share. But they do not undergo the kind of debilitating loneliness and social turmoil that are unfortunately becoming increasingly prevalent today in the West. When they suffer, they can count on the support and friendship of others who know them deeply and are concerned for them. They have friends, neighbors, and relatives who will smile at them when they are sad, reach out to them when they feel most alone, and care for them as they age.

ELDERS ALONE

The more I’ve come to understand how important caring relationships are to healthy aging, the more my heart goes out to those elders who do not have a web of connectedness with others to draw on for support. Though it is not impossible, I see how difficult it can be in modern Western culture to begin creating meaningful relationships late in life. It can be a painful and lonely experience to be old and alone, with no one who knew you before.

In New Jersey recently, an 84-year-old man died alone in his apartment. His rent, cable TV, phone, gas, and electric bill payments continued to be automatically deducted from his bank account. This went on for more than two years without anyone’s realizing he had died, until a neighbor had a visit from a blind woman with a Seeing Eye dog and the dog’s behavior alerted them that something was amiss next door, leading to the discovery of the man’s body.

While this is an extreme instance, it is regrettably not a cultural anomaly. Today, a painfully high percentage of American elders live alone, spending their hours and days watching TV by themselves. Many residents of nursing homes go years without seeing a child. Their only human contact may be other old people and their care-givers. They may feel that they mean nothing to anyone, that no one loves them and that their love doesn’t matter to anyone. Meanwhile a small but sadly growing number of American children have never met their grandparents. There is something very wrong with this picture.

And it’s not just the United States. Italy has long been renowned as a family-centered society. But in 2005, Italian physicians said that thousands of Italian grandparents had spent a lonely Christmas in hospitals because their families did not want them at home. Roberto Messina, head of a Rome-based charity for elderly people, spoke of the pain experienced by elders who know they are unwanted. “The saddest thing is when an old person remains alone during visiting hours,” he said. “They pull the covers up, close their eyes and pretend to be asleep, but in reality they are crying and clenching their teeth.” The loneliness of elders in the modern world today is sometimes so profound that they literally die of broken hearts. In the world’s most long-lived and healthy societies, on the other hand, elders are never shut away from the unfolding of life. Instead, they are part of extended families and continually have opportunities for mutually nourishing contact with younger generations. In Okinawa, sibling rivalries can become most heated over who will get to take care of their aging parents.

An elder Abkhasian woman who was famous for knowing many curses was asked what was the most terrifying curse that can be placed on a human being. Her answer, the worst curse she could imagine, was this: “Let there be no old folks in your house to give you wise counsel, and no young people to heed their advice.”

GENERATIONS TOGETHER

Although I did not know my own grandparents very well, I consider myself extremely fortunate now to live in a harmonious three-generation household. Not everyone in the contemporary world has this opportunity, of course, and I feel grateful to have so much compatibility and alignment among the members of my current family. I live with my wife, Deo (we’ve been married forty years), our 33-year-old son, Ocean, his wife of thirteen years, Michele, and their twin five-year-old sons, River and Bodhi. We all feel greatly enriched by the arrangement. Deo and I do not think of Michele as our daughter-in-law, but as our daughter-in-love. We couldn’t love her more if she were our biological daughter.

I’m sure that raising twins is a handful and a half in the first place, but River and Bodhi were born two and a half months premature and have had many special needs. You’ve probably heard the expression that it takes a village to raise a child. In this kind of situation, I sometimes think we need two villages.

But with four “parents” in the house, and many friends who also help out, we seek to provide the little guys with as much undivided attention and unconditional love as we can. Deo and I both love playing with the twins, and Deo, in particular, puts in a terrific number of hours, for which Michele and Ocean are tremendously grateful. They both work from a home office, and are co-presidents of an extraordinary nonprofit organization (www.yesworld.org).

One day, Michele was reflecting on how thankful she felt to Deo and me, and how glad she is that we are here. Thinking about the huge number of hours that Deo devotes to the twins, Michele told her, “I can’t believe how much money you’re saving us in child care.” Deo shot me a quick smile that spoke volumes about how she didn’t want Michele to feel indebted, and how greatly she always enjoys taking care of the little fellows. Then she turned to Michele and said, “That’s one way to look at it. But do you have any idea how much it would cost if we had to go out and rent grandchildren?”

CELEBRATING THE ELDERLY

Although our living arrangement—three generations under one roof—is unusual in the United States today, it is actually very common in many tribal and traditional societies. In Okinawa, Abkhasia, Vilcabamba, and Hunza, great value is placed on extended families, marriage, and children. The generations are not artificially separated, and people at every stage of life feel a part of things and have something to contribute. Grandparents, still sprightly and spirited, romp with the new generation of babies. Great-grandparents also help out with the children and enjoy the respect of younger generations. As they get even older, people are always cared for and are never left to fend for themselves.

One of the most defining features of the cultures known for the health of their elders is a profound respect for the elderly, and a commitment that all members of society—particularly those who are most vulnerable—should be as well taken care of as possible. The elder Okinawans believe that if someone fails, whether through bad luck or any other reason, there is an obligation on the part of others to help. Indeed, they have a proverb that translates as “One cannot live in this world without the support of others.” In Okinawa, the elderly are provided with excellent medical care and many other benefits at minimal cost. When I spoke to one Oki-nawan man in his late eighties, he told me why he thought this was a good idea: “Sure, I’m for helping the elderly. It’s only right. And besides,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m going to be old myself someday.” Another elderly Okinawan told me she was struck by the contrast between the way elders are treated in Okinawa and what she has learned of how they are sometimes treated in the West. “Of course we live long lives,” she said. “We love life. Who wouldn’t want to grow old in a place like this?” In every culture where healthy aging is the norm, elders are revered. Not only are they fully included in the society, they are honored and celebrated. When Okinawan elders reach the age of ninety-seven, a major celebration takes place (called kajimaya), where people gather to honor them, rejoice in their lives, and affirm their return to having the free spirit of a child.

It has been said that the moral test of a people is how they treat those who are in the dawn of life—the children—and those who are in the twilight of life—the elderly. By this standard, the societies that have produced the greatest and most vibrant life expectancies have something profound indeed to teach us.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE  

Each of us has our own unique ways of expressing love and building meaningful relationships. Here are some tips to help you create and sustain positive connections in your life.

Be kind. You do not need to know what burdens others are carrying to know that they are heavy.

No matter how great the faults of another person, strive to be aware also of his or her good qualities. Know that there is something worthy of commendation in almost everyone, even though it may lie dormant and as yet undiscovered.

Make time for hearing your loved ones’ struggles and challenges. When a friend speaks, listen with your heart rather than your judgment. You may not be able to take away another’s pain, but you can hear it. Afterward, write them a card or bring them a flower to acknowledge and thank them for entrusting you with their vulnerability as well as their strength.

If you are dealing with an illness or personal struggle that may be shared by others, join (or start) a support group where you can meet regularly to talk about your challenges, fears, hopes, and dreams among others who will understand.

Look for opportunities to enrich the lives of others. Ask a friend if there’s a way you could be a better friend to him. Recall someone who helped you when you needed it. Write or tell her of your appreciation. Recognize someone in your extended family or community who has provided outstanding service. Make a certificate or plaque he can put on his wall, or send her a note with flowers or food.

For emotionally significant communications, don’t use e-mail. Meet in person, talk on the phone, or write letters that you can mail or hand-deliver. People love getting letters. It can be rare to get anything special in the mail anymore.

Learn the art of massage, so you can use your hands to touch others with healing and respect. Give and receive hugs daily. Lots of them.

Rather than buying gifts for friends and family, give experiences. Massage their neck and shoulders. Write them poems or letters expressing your appreciation and love. Take them for a walk, clean their house, make them dinner, babysit, help them plant a spring garden, plan a picnic or other special outing to enjoy together, take them for a day exploring back country roads or an evening of theater, or find some other creative way to express your affection and caring. If you have just a minute, call and leave a message letting them know that you are thinking of them, or mention a specific quality or experience you are remembering and appreciating about them.

Read selections from your favorite books to your family and friends. Give away copies of your favorite books. Tell others what these books have meant to you.

If you want to change the way you feel about someone, change the way you treat him (or her).

Remember that love is necessary for great relationships, but it is not sufficient. Great relationships don’t just happen because you’re in love. They take work, and lots of it.

Beware of the temptation to take others, especially your spouse or intimate partner, for granted. Rather than using your relationship for convenience, use it to become a more loving person.

Step back every now and then and take an objective look at your own behavior. If someone important to you is being defensive, ask whether you are doing anything to make them so.

Listen before you react to anger. Look for solutions that benefit everyone.

Nurture the friendships with which you feel at ease. Move on from those that take enormous energy and stress to maintain.

Respect people for who they are, not for the roles they play.

Read a story to an elder who can no longer see fine print. Record your reading on tape so they can play it back and listen whenever they wish. Help an older neighbor with home tasks, such as washing windows, shoveling snow, or painting. If there is a pet in the house, offer to take the dog for a walk, clean the cat’s litter box, or shop for pet food and supplies.

Be the coach or friend or teacher who notices a child’s efforts and says “Good job.” Be the older friend who sees that a child is capable of more than his behavior indicates, and lifts him toward his higher potential by helping him to show good manners, kindness to others, and responsible behavior. Be the family member who is honest with a child and in so doing reminds him or her how to be truthful. Be the teacher who validates the inner life of children by asking for their ideas and opinions about topics that are important to them. Be the eccentric relative who shows a child that it is okay to be just who he or she is.

If you don’t have a young person in your life, go to your nearby day-care center and offer to read a book or help out there. Volunteer to rock babies at your local hospital. Take kids from your neighborhood on a nature hike. Walk a child to or from school. Express your caring for children who are not your own. Take neighboring kids to the library when you take your own child. Provide them with healthful snacks and an accepting ear, remembering how much it matters to be listened to.

Gather with others to gain support in taking steps toward more loving relationships. Meet regularly, and decide together at each meeting on the step or steps that you will each take before the next meeting. Share both the difficulties you encounter and the successes you experience.

Learn from people who are different from you. Greet them with true curiosity, knowing that you can stay true to yourself no matter what the differences. Do not let differences of opinion become causes of estrangement.

Tell others what you appreciate about them. Make sure each of your friends knows that there is something special about them that you cherish. Write them cards or letters so they have something to help them remember that you value them.

Bake extra and share. Bring good food to people who are in transition, stress, or crisis. A few times a month, double what you are making for dinner and take the extra to someone who is having an especially busy or difficult time. It doesn’t have to be a complete meal—just something that lessens her load and reminds her that she is in your heart.

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