Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Passages: Sunday musings…8/2/2020

“I don’t think you’re doing this hobby thing right Dr. White.” –Concerned Patient in office last week.

Author Gail Sheehy is most famous for her earliest work, notably “Passages”, in which she chronicled what she viewed as typical life stages for American men and women. Our family has always been a bit more interested in her work since she went to college with my parents; all three graduated from the University of Vermont in 1958. I read “Passages” in a psych class at Williams. The professor led our discussion with a disclaimer that Ms. Sheehy had been accused of plagiarism in some of the relevant work making me somewhat skeptical. My Mom was a bit salty about Ms. Sheehy’s body of work until very recent years. She felt that there was a consistent thread of disrespect for women who made a conscious decision to stay home and raise their children rather than enter the “work world”.

As you know from my recent stuff I have been spending an inordinate amount of time in the space between my own ears. With our various lockdowns and social distancing efforts it’s been harder to get out, both literally outdoors and figuratively outside of my own head. My little Aussie is not much on conversation when we walk. Even my daily sojourn exploring the migratory patterns of the local dog population through the wonder of her nose has been spent largely in the company of my own thoughts. Kinda like if your brainspace was not only accessible in your favorite chair but also in a mobile home.

Dangerous ground, that space.

While not therapy in the strictest sense, writing for me has nonetheless been somewhat therapeutic over the years. Rather than continually rehashing challenging events or ideas, writing about them has more often than not allowed me to disgorge them from my “internal hard drive” and move on. Writing has opened up room for new ideas or the time to work through a new challenge. Some of those challenges over the years have been so common, shared whether I knew it or not with nearly everyone my age with a similar upbringing, that they ended up in the work of pop psychologists like Gail Sheehy.

By and large, with the exception of my challenging journey to turning 50 (The Hard Turn at Mile Marker 49), all of my passages have flowed rather seamlessly from prior to next. School transitions all passed so uneventfully that I don’t have any memory of even the faintest bit of stress in those journeys. Looking back I barely sensed the fact that I should be anxious about the whole school thing until I found myself agonizing about the outcome of my oral board exam at age 31. At age 60 I realize how not normal that may very well be, and I am quite grateful for that.

School on to marriage, children, and career have mostly seemed the same. Oh sure, we made a less than optimal call on my first post-training job, landing in an area that was a bit more rural than we expected. And for certain the decision to leave a thriving practice to start from scratch turned out to be a major challenge because I chose to do it just in time to get crushed by the Great Recession and a paradigm shift in medical economics brought about by the Affordable Care Act. But there always seemed to be a logical next step in each of those circumstances. Almost as if there was a map or a guidebook. Perhaps a chapter in “Passages” even.

Once again, on closer inspection, the one constant through every one of my passages since graduating from college is probably the reason that each one was traveled without much trauma. Our marriage has been the touchstone, the compass that has continually kept us moving through life’s stages with confidence and conviction. Potty training and the joys of pre-school? No problem. Beth was on it. Adolescence and the turmoil of junior high school and early high school? Turns out I was pretty good at taking the lead during that phase (at least as much as I could being at work all day). Moving on to post-graduations, marriages, and the arrival of grandchildren? It seems like we’ve found a natural rhythm to our intersecting roles there, too, finding our comfort zones and trying to help each other stay in them.

There’s no reason to expect anything different as we begin to move into another “passage”, as we move from that magical part of life where one is near a peak in everything. Knowledge built up over decades of study leavened by the wisdom of simply having lived for those decades. Physical health and prowess not nearly at the level of that in our 20’s and 30’s but still more than adequate to be active and to enjoy that activity. The next passage is as daunting psychologically and emotionally as it is as inevitable, the proverbial boulder starting to roll downhill. Here, though, for the first time since Turning 50 I find that the space between my ears is anything but tranquil.

Why might that be? Thinking back of all of the previous”passages” of my adult life the theme has been teamwork. Well, a bit more than that. Teamwork born out of love and respect, borne aloft through times of all sorts by a deep commitment to both the desired outcome and the health and happiness of my most important teammate, Beth. No change there. I’ve come to understand that my challenge is that for the first time in a very long time I can’t really see the print in the figurative guide book; the map seems to be all fuzzy. I know that successful passage into and through this next phase requires the continual development and nurturing of not only our shared spaces and pathways but also ones that are more individual in focus.

Not developing or nurturing those puts a ton of pressure on the rest of the team to somehow fill empty timespace and emotionalspace. To be a good teammate, a good partner, one must carry some of the load, eventually. There’s really no mystery about what is needed. Heck, I’ve even written about it (The Secret to Happiness? Three Friends). A couple of Harvard sociologists looked at men in the Harvard Class of 1955 to see what the happiest of them had in common. Two things came out in the end: love (those who were married were happier) and friendship built around shared interests. More than that was the finding that those friendships didn’t include your spouse, and that three was a magic number. It didn’t matter what you did with your friends, what mattered was that you had three or more.

Reading their stories it was clear that the majority of those male friendships included a common interest that had been shared across the various passages they’d had throughout life. Golf, travel, chess, Bridge, whatever. Beth has had this kind of interest through her decades long love affair with all things horse. In my 40’s I assumed that golf was my ticket. It sure worked for my Dad, and my brother has had year after year of joy and friendship through playing. A wrecked shoulder at 48 and the financial strife of the Recession made it a bit too easy to walk away from golf. Then there was CrossFit, both at home and country wide. For a time it looked as if all things CrossFit would fall in line as the next passage “easy button”. Alas this, too, fell away for reasons that seemed out of my hands both at the time and in retrospect.

Of course I really do know not only what I’m supposed to be doing but also how to do it, right? Where I’m really finding the challenge is in the reality that I haven’t done enough through this most recent passage to make the transition to the next one as seamless and imperceptible as those earlier in life. Some of that lack of effort can certainly be traced to my disappointment, my sadness at the demise of the seamless continuation of my golf and CrossFit lives. But still, when presented with the reality that CrossFit changed and went away, I turned away from the work of finding its replacement.

What I did was go to work. My patient nailed it. When she asked me about hobbies I was looking forward to in retirement I’d mentioned my professional speaking and consulting. Hardly hobbies, and for sure hardly the type of shared activities likely to allow me to create and foster those friendships so crucial to happiness at this stage in life.

Continued happiness, the kind of happiness I’ve enjoyed for pretty much my entire life, does not live in the office or the OR. Nor is it internal; it lies outside the space between my own ears. As easy as it is to simply remain there surrounded by my own thoughts, it’s time to get outside. Will outside be a golf course? I really do miss the company of golfers. Who knows? Might be something entirely new, though I have a sneaky suspicion that there’s an easy button hiding in the plain site of something I already know. Funny though, isn’t it? Just like my last rocky passage at age 49, once again it’s a tossed aside comment from one of my patients that has opened the guidebook and brought the map lines into focus.

It’s time to get out and live a little.

I’ll see you next week…

2 Responses to “Passages: Sunday musings…8/2/2020”

  1. August 4th, 2020 at 11:24 am

    Thomas crubaugh says:

    Hi Darrell. I really enjoyed this post. Now I am struggling to find your “Secret to Happiness, three friends” post. I would like to read it.

  2. August 4th, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    drwhite says:

    Hi Thomas. Long time! I hope this finds you well. Thanks for the kind words. I found this post http://drdarrellwhite.com/three-friends/ and I know there’s another one that more specifically quotes the Harvard study. I’ll keep looking. Cheers.

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