The same week I went on Medicare, I had a routine eye exam and learned I have cataracts. At check-out, I flashed my new red, white and blue Medicare card. The receptionisttold me I didn’t need to show it. She said, “So that you don’t lose it or have it stolen, carrying it around is not a good idea.”
In reflecting on aging, I see that I’ve had a lot of not so good ideas. Years ago, fresh out of graduate school, I figured I’d change the world of psychology and rework how countries deliver mental health services. Later I wanted my books featured on Oprah.
Now that I’m sixty-five, I still have lots of bad ideas. Having sat in my chair for years as a psychotherapist, I developed a manner of communication: “Can you say more about that?” “You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?” “Hmmm. Uh-huh.” My language and who I took myself to be worked well in counseling sessions. But professional skills don’t work so well out of the office. Awhile ago our 31-year-old son called from NYC to vent about his employees, “…this younger generation. They come in late or not at all, without even a phone call. They have no work ethic.”
I said, “You sound angry.”
He said, “Ma, don’t pull that therapy stuff on me.”
“Right,” I said, “I’m your mom. I forgot who I am now that I’m not my career.”
I wanted to transform yoga teaching too; focus on the philosophy, the ethics. But now that I’m retired, who wants to hear all I know about inner peace and maybe the Bhagavad-Gita? I mean, really.
I’ve asked one of my dearest friends, Cindy, to rehabilitate me from my helper-type tendencies, oldest child that I am. Cindy reminds me to stop trying to save the planet. At first, I’d sigh, “Ya but, if everyone did it MY way—the RIGHT way—the universe would be a better place.”
Cindy would ya-but me back, “Ya but you’re done fixing people, remember?”
I replied, “Oh, right, I forgot. So what’s my job?
If I can’t do this,
and I don’t do that,
what do I do now with where I’m at?”
Cindy wrote, “Even though you pose a complex question, you sound like Dr. Seuss. Why don’t you consult him for the answer?” She signed it, Little Cindy Lou Who from Whoville.
I searched and found this in Oh, the Places You’ll Go:
“Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.”
This echoed my grandiose grad school talk, decades before the Medicare card.
I read on: “Except when you don’t. Because sometimes you won’t.”
Ahhh. The lesson: to be humble.
A few pages later: “You’ll be famous as famous can be
With the whole wide world watching you win on TV.”
But so far Oprah hasn’t called, and even with my cataract eyes, I could see what followed: “Except when they don’t because sometimes they won’t.”
I noted Dr. Seuss’s hint at humility, then got another Seussian e-mail from Cindy: “With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.” Not-so-good streets seem to be what one of Seuss’s characters calls, “figgering on biggering and BIGGERING and BIGGERING.” Seems I could relax into simple.
In retirement, I hereby retire my big ideas. Cindy tells me it’s a beautiful thing to care in smaller ways. Maybe I’ll take my head full of brains and read the Bhagavad Gita quietly. The page I just opened says that the truly wise person is modest: “Be humble, be harmless.” (Gita 13.7)
I want to go down the humble, harmless street with the humility of ordinary participation in life. On that street I’ll try to remember Cindy’s latest message from Dr. Seuss: “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
Humble and harmless. Simple enough.