Double Nickels

 Today is my birthday.

I’m 55. Double nickels.

Birthdays naturally call us to reflection, to assessment, to accounting. “What, I wonder, should I celebrate on this birthday – a life well spent or a future where more needs to be done?”(Doug Thompson’s 2002 article, “Dealing with the Double-Nickel“)

I could focus on the past, where there have been adventures and loves and moments of “glad grace.” I could spy, scattered among the litter of years left behind, all of my greatest experiences and best impulses. It seems only yesterday…there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I could shine (see poem, below).

Or, for a different take on the past, I could remember the first time I gambled, at a casino in Colorado. I played the nickel slots all night, plugging my winnings back in, over and over. The coins turned my fingers gray, then black. When I left hours later, they poured all those shiny silver nickels into a counting machine – and handed back to me the same ten dollar bill I started the evening with. Sometimes my life, on reflection, feels like that night – plugging my nickels in over and over only to end in the same place I started. Breaking even; a lot of change with the only visible difference being the grime left on my fingers.

Or I can forget about both sorrow and cynicism, and instead of parsing the past look to the future as if there is much yet to be lived and gained and created; as if my life has been neither gloriously squandered nor tediously labored at with little to show – but instead spent (nickel after nickel) preparing for this day. And the next, if I am lucky.

Ah, birthday angst. What are you good for, huh? Perhaps a little perspective?

Last night, discussing the annual birthday funk, a friend shared the Billy Collins poem, below. The ten year old narrator in the poem laments the loss of his single-digit years, remembering their magic while recognizing that the sad realities of adult consciousness are upon him. The poem points to both the pathos we feel at the passage of time AND the absurdity of lamenting it at each mile-marker.

Last night also brought lessons in how to approach looking forward on the eve of another birthday. President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was moving and inspiring – reminding me that hope is never wasted. We – every single day – get to choose our stance. In the minutes immediately after the speech I thought of Viktor Frankl, whose words have so often pointed me in a positive direction: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. And into that moment of profound reflection, my dear friend Molly tweeted this: “Emotional re-set. Let’s all wake up tomorrow and be better. Do better. Lead better. Speak better. #goals”

So, that’s where I’ve landed this morning, smack dab on my double-nickels birthday: with perspective on the past and goals for the future. That feels about right. Here’s to believing that 55 is my lucky year – because that’s how I plan on using my personal power to choose.

On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

 

 

 

 

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Recognizing the “Will to Meaning”

I hesitate to mention it here, but I haven’t felt really well for several weeks now. It’s nothing serious, just one of those things that leaves you feeling tired and weak. And after a while, tired and weak leads to depressed – not clinically, but definitely down. I hesitate to mention it because there are people reading this post who are dealing with lasting, serious or chronic health conditions and I feel like a heel for complaining.

The reason I decided to bring up my respiratory infection is not, however, to have a wider audience for my complaints. I started crying for no good reason during a meeting today. I have spent the past two evenings at home feeling cotton-headed, and emotionally isolated. And all of this is the result of a not particularly debilitating condition. What if I felt this way all the time? How would I cope with that? These questions have led me to think about my role in working with young people – especially those who struggle with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation.

Some of you have heard me say that today’s students appear to have fewer coping skills and less resilience than the students I worked with when I entered my career twenty plus years ago. For some, this leads to an inability to take “normal” bumps in the road of life in stride (breakups, failed tests, etc.). For some, the life events they are attempting to take in are shockingly horrific. And this includes mental illness and personality disorders. A sobering truth: although college students commit suicide at a slightly lower rate than their age-mates who are not in school, suicide remains one of the leading causes of death among college students. This is a truth of which I am currently hyper-aware.

What can I do? My job is to do my utmost to keep them safe, to provide a safety net of concern, awareness and response when a student in crisis is brought to my attention. But what else am I to do as an adult who has successfully maneuvered through late adolescence and early adulthood? What are we all called to do to assist others who are struggling?

I try to stay away from making sweeping generalizations about our culture and how the “Jersey Shore” mentality is harming us all. But I do think the paucity of character and values in popular culture is detrimental to young people. And the influence of popular culture is multiplied by a vaccuum in their daily lives created by the disappearance of adults who are prepared to help them find meaning and purpose in life. Because we’re not talking with them about meaning and purpose. We’re talking with them about how to maximize their earning potential. We’re talking to them about filling their resume with activities that will help them stand out in a sluggish job market. They’re listening to their parents trying to figure out how to get above water financially, and they’re turning to vacuous tanned talking heads to escape their anxiety.

I’m not suggesting that we stop attempting to help our young people prepare for careers. I am suggesting, however, that we need to do a better job of recognizing the need for young people to feel that their activities, their work – their very lives – have meaning. That their lives have a purpose beyond that of basic survival and/or material comfort. And as sometimes happens when I am ruminating on such ideas, a perfect resource appears which can explain my jumbled thoughts better than I can. Yesterday, I saw the short film clip, below, over at The Better Man Project (a personal motivation blog I follow). I strongly encourage you to watch it – four minutes with the great Viktor Frankl, whose book Man’s Search for Meaning remains one of the most influential in my life. As always, Frankl speaks with eloquence and humor, and what he says is as true for today’s students as it was for the young people listening to his lecture in 1972. If we fail to recognize the “will to meaning” within an individual, we fail that individual. And the cost of that failure is very high – lives are, literally, at stake.