May 27, 2014

Thoughts on My 85th Birthday

This year my May 26 birthday coincided with the Memorial Day holiday, which is strange to someone old enough to remember Memorial Day as May 30 (and Columbus Day as October 12, and Washington’s Birthday as February 22). Thanks to the 1971 Monday Holiday Law, my 85th birthday came at the end of the three-day holiday weekend.

My housemates offered to throw a big gala for the birthday. I nixed the idea. The only thing worse than a big party would have been a surprise party. I encouraged them to visit relatives in Chicago over the long weekend... and so off they went.

Sunday after breakfast, I went out on the back porch with my coffee, the Sunday New York Times and Washington Post, and several smooth jazz CDs. As I settled into my rocking chair, I noticed something unusual – quiet!

All I could hear was the waterfall bubbling in my back yard pond, and the birds chirping as they lined up for access to the birdfeeder. In the distance, I heard the call of a great horned owl.

The Sunday of a Memorial Day weekend must be the quietest day of the outdoor season. No power lawn mowers. Very few jet planes en route to National Airport, on the flight path that often passes directly over my house. None of the birthday phone calls I’d get the next day.

The temperature was 65 degrees. Washington’s horrible humidity was non-existent.

I was overcome with a feeling of peace and contentment I’d experienced only once before, about 15 years or so ago. That time, it was a gorgeous fall day and I’d just pedaled up the three-block hill (now a mountain) to my house after a long bike ride. I still remember just standing there, feeling happier than I’d ever been.

So I put aside the newspapers and the CDs and simply sat still for two hours, reflecting. After a while, I picked up a pen and began jotting down some notes on the thoughts that were popping up. Here are a few of them:
  • Solitude vs loneliness:  I felt so happy. It was the the middle of a long weekend that I was spending by myself, except for a Sunday night birthday dinner with my daughter, my son, and his significant other. A few months ago, I was depressed during three weeks of traveling alone on my South America cruise. When I got home from that trip, I browsed through Anthony Storr’s book Solitude, because I remembered he had some good thoughts on solitude and loneliness. Here’s one of them: “Perpetual travel or frequent moves of home are often engaged in... by those who, for other reasons, find it difficult to create a place they can consider ‘home.'” I now have a home that's more comfortable and more happy than any I’ve ever had. I still enjoy travel, but it’s not what we in AA call an attempt at a “geographic cure” for inner emptiness.
  • Why do I remain uncomfortable admitting to depression?  I have no trouble discussing my physical ailments. In fact, as friends know, I’m often guilty of offering too much information. Intellectually, I know that mental illness is no different from physical illness -- both are a mix of factors we control and those beyond our reach. Still, the old stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses is still there. I’ve gone through several bouts of depression. But if I discuss this topic at all, I pretend it has nothing to do with me, describing it as my “typical Parkinson’s depression.” Get over it, John!
  • 5-HTP, levodopa, serotonin, and Parkinson’s:  One of the things that made Sunday morning so remarkable was that I was taking notes in smooth, free-flowing handwriting, not the usual cramped and barely legible script that's a symptom of my Parkinson’s. I've had other similar experiences lately, as I explore new schedules and intervals for taking my levodopa and 5-HTP pills. The levodopa combats the disease’s assault on my brain’s dopamine production, and the 5-HTP boosts my serotonin. I recalled that on Friday a member of my Parkinson's support group reported on joining a trial to assess using 5-HTP along with amino acids to get a curative serotonin/dopamine balance. That program is described in a 2011 peer-reviewed article on an NIH  study. Hope springs eternal.
  • A common thread to my musings:  Toward the end of these porch ruminations, I realized there was a theme I've encountered before: the importance of finding balance. Noise and quiet... temperature and humidity... solitude and loneliness... serotonin and dopamine. I've so often careened from one side of the road to the other. But today, my life is better balanced than ever before. And I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
But those musings didn’t produce a good answer to the question I’m frequently asked by one of my nearest and dearest:

What Is The Meaning of Life?
My friend badgers me with the question, mostly in jest. But most of us have thought about it. Late Sunday night, I received an email that provided the best answer I've seen to that question.

My favorite blog posts come from Mark Medish, who writes each week about his son Vadim. A year ago March, Vadim, while in his second semester at Harvard,  was stricken with a rare autoimmune disorder. In Sunday night’s post, Mark writes that he and his family “rack our own limited brains asking Why, as all humans who have suffered inexplicable loss must ask of the silent cosmos.” He then turns to his own favorite blog, Brainpickings, written by Maria Popova for her “thoughtful entries on the anguish of Why and the search for meaning in grief.”

One of Maria's posts that Mark cites concerns Victor Frankel, the Nazi concentration camp survivor who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning (one of the few books I’ve read more than once).


I'll end with these quotes from Frankl's book:
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.... Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.
--    --   --   --   -- 
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. 
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross.


Anonymous said...

Happy birthday John! Thanks for all your inspiring thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday. And thank you!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful words for someone turning 85 or 49 or 27. Each song must be sung by the person writing the music.

Jill said...

a superb blog jOHN
Alll credit to you and a v happy birthday
with love

hhgust said...

Happy birthday John and thank you for your post. We loved seeing you about two years ago at one of our backyard dinners in Palisades and wish we could see you again - Heather & Marc Gustafson
PS Do you have a new email address or is it the same?

John Schappi said...

Nice to hear from you both. Email address is the same.