At birth we are given the greatest gift - life - and as our first birthday present, we are presented with a fantastic world in which to live. These gifts, though we may often depreciate and abuse them, will always be our most real and valuable possessions. Even so, as Thoreau noted in Walden, most of us will have so little respect for life that we will reach the point of death without ever having lived at all. Erich Fromm echoed this fear when he stated that the greatest tragedy in life was the fact that most human beings died before they were fully born.
My mother and father lived instinctively in the knowledge that life and living were arts to be celebrated. From outward appearances, they would seem to have little reason for celebration. They were penniless Italian immigrants attempting to make a new life in a friendless foreign land. They had neither the language nor the sophistication to adapt easily to their newly chosen culture, but they took up the challenge with gusto, abandonment, love, faith and a great deal of humor.
They found a modest place to live which they painted pink with white trim and which, within a few months, became even more shockingly alive with gardens of flowers and seasonal fruits and vegetables.
The birds were the first to accept their new neighbors, for they could always count upon Papa for a fresh drink of water and some nutritious sunflower seeds on their winged way from here to there.
Mama was the gastronomic envy of all. Her gnocchi and ravioli dissolved in your mouth like puffs of meringue. Her risotto alia Milanese and polenta, which she stirred lovingly for what seemed an eternity, were masterful. The aroma of garlic, anchovies and olive oil simmering noisily in her bagna calda caused mouths to water for miles around. Her artful singing was classic. Her large, soft eyes were always full of acceptance.
Papa and Mama became neither famous nor infamous during their lifetime. They lived each day simply, beginning with a giant bowl of cafe' latte and ending with an arm-in-arm stroll through the neighborhood. They accepted tragedy and death as warmly as they did joy and birth - as simply life.
They were married for over 60 years. Mama died at 82; Papa at 86. Mama was almost as beautiful at the time of her death as she was in the lace gown of her wedding photograph. Papa was slim, active and vital at 86. His final request, after learning of his impending death, was a short trip to San Francisco's North Beach area, where he could bask in a bit of old Italy. He also requested a weekend in Las Vegas so that he could make one last attempt at breaking the bank on the five cent slot machines. Both wishes were granted.
He so loved living that even after his illness had blinded him, he was able to say, "It's all right. If I'm given a little more time, I know my way in the garden and I can still feed the birds."
I was raised in this life-filled setting. Of course, it was not always easy. There were times of tears and despair when, if it had not been for the music, the laughter, Papa's wisteria over the driveway, and Mama's delicious cabbage and stale bread torte, we might not have been able to keep body and spirit going. But my "start" was a good one which has been reinforced over the years. I learned to love. I learned to feel passionately and express it without shame. I learned to laugh. I learned to see. I learned to listen. I learned to care. I learned to take full responsibility for my world. I learned to make each day a new adventure. I learned that to take from life was a privilege and that to give my uniqueness to life was my responsibility.
The thought that my family and I had any special way of life never occurred to me. It was simply a matter of living fully as the unique human beings we were. As I grew up, I had no idea of choice, free will or self-actualization. As those around me, I had allowed myself to embrace life and the rest came naturally.
Since then, through my education, my work, and in my daily life, I have had some rude awakenings. Most people are not happy and do not expect to be so in this life. Mental health statistics continually show a frightening increase of patients in mental hospitals and outpatient clinics. There are some 300,000 people now contained in 324 county and state mental institutions in the United States. Over 200,000 individuals are being treated in outpatient clinics. Some 125,000 chronic depressives are in desperate need of treatment which is offered piecemeal or is entirely unavailable to them. It is believed that one out of every seven Americans will require some psychological treatment prior to middle age. There are more than 1,200,000 emotionally disturbed children and adolescents between the ages of 5 and 19; some are receiving token help but most are left to fare as best they can.
Fifty thousand men and women commit suicide each year in America. There are eight to ten attempts for every one completed. This statistic is rising at an alarming rate. In the past, the highest suicide population was in the 65-year-old age group and above; but frighteningly, the fastest growing group now is among those in their early teens!
Divorce rates have reached such a level that modern marriage is no more than a trial-and-error, societal phenomenon, without meaning for many couples. In some states the divorce rates even exceed the marriage rates.
Child abuse has become an epidemic and is the prime cause of childhood hospitalizations. It is not uncommon to hear of parents who have beaten their children into imbecility, blinded them, burned them with cigarettes, scalded them in boiling water, or committed other atrocious crimes.
Though I should, by this time in my life, no longer be shocked by these facts, they continue to astound me. I cannot understand why, given a choice between joy and despair, people will so often choose despair. My daily experiences bring me into contact with individuals who seem totally lifeless and frighteningly apathetic. Most disturbing is their complete disrespect for their personhood. Most of them dislike themselves and where they are, and would choose, if they could, to be someone else and somewhere else. They are suspicious of others and guarded about their own selves which they keep securely buried, even though they are painfully aware of its presence.
They fear risks, lack faith and scoff at hope as if it were romantic nonsense. They seem to prefer to live in constant anxiety, fear and regret. They are too frightened to live in the present and almost totally devastated by the past; too cynical to trust, and too suspicious to love. They mumble negative and bitter accusations and blame an uncaring God, neurotic parents or a sick society for placing them in a hopeless hell in which they feel helpless. They are either unaware of or unwilling to accept their potential, and take refuge in their limitations. Most of them kill time as if they had forever and never seem to seek other more viable solutions to their miserable situations.
They ignore the fact that time is running out and that no matter who they are, no one of them will get out of this world alive. They see existence as a period between an unasked-for birth and a death they live in terror of - to be lived out as painlessly as possible. They have little concern with their lifestyles or personal actualization. They engage in vague speculations regarding afterlife, reincarnation and realignment of energies, and ignore the essential reality - that they are alive now; that they have a life to live now; that whatever they are now is not all there is, but the basis for what they will have to work with in creating themselves tomorrow; that they can at any time be reborn and reorchestrate their lives to live in peace, joy and love.
It is not surprising that they avoid these insights. They have been taught so little about change and joy and growth. Life for them has always been such a vague, metaphysical condition, avoided by scientists and educators, defined for them mainly by verbose philosophers and mystic poets. The philosophical and poetic conclusions, though intriguing to some of them for some time, seem like ambiguous semantic nonsense which serve chiefly to mystify and hardly seem to reflect the "hard facts of life."
In the last two decades, the study of human life has taken a new turn. It has become the active concern of the behavioral scientists who have engaged themselves in the observation of life being lived and human behavior as it manifests itself in the daily routines of living. They have attempted to chart emotional growth, observe differing lifestyles, evaluate the quality of observable and varied emotional phenomena such as joy (Shultz); loneliness (Moustakas); courage (Tillich); isolation (Satre); love (Fromm); self-actualization (Masiow); and death (Kubler-Ross), with great practical benefits for us all. They have made us more aware of our life and death roles, of the many viable alternatives available for our choosing, and they have offered suggestions for improving the quality and style of the life we select. This has given us a whole new perspective on humanity, humans and the life choices available to all of us.
Humanist Buckminster Fuller has assured us, after over 80 years of searching, that whatever life is, it doesn't weigh anything, cannot be touched, boxed or measured upon a scale. Life, he feels, is certainly not our physical body (for we can lose forty pounds of our body and still be ourselves). The body, he says, is basically water and waste. He believes life to be an awareness. The awareness of which he speaks involves much more, of course, than just comprehending.
Human persons are not specialized like other primates. What makes us unique is our brain, like the brain of no other living being. The main functions of this brain are to interpret, differentiate and store significant input from the environment. The results of this activity will determine what we will refer to as our mind. Mind grows from experience perceived through the senses, and from these experiences, our personal worlds are created. As long as we remain consciously aware, we are engaged in the process of assimilating our environment and forming our lives. This is a continually active process, and we grow to the extent to which we are forced, willing or able to accommodate this onrush of new experiences.
At each stage of our lives, we will be required to make personal adjustments regarding our changing world as we engage more and more in the active process of acquiring it. In this way, each of us becomes a unique patterned unit continually being regenerated as a part of a constantly changing universe. Our main challenge in this process is to uncover, develop and hold on to our unique selves. To do this will require that we be fully aware, sensitive and flexible. It will also require the keenest sense of humor. Even then it will not be an easy process. We live in complex societies, constantly surrounded by individuals who themselves are engaged in becoming. They, too, will make it necessary for us to engage in constant adjustments.
Tags: Personal Growth