Thursday, April 30, 2009
Life-Cycle; Optimist/Pessimism; LIFE...
My Grandma Gangl with Ray (my dad) and his brother, "Bud" in 1915.
Here is an interesting question from a former student of mine:
“Alzheimer's residents teach me, daily. They become the babies, again, often. Is that our life cycle?”
Many more wise than I have contemplated that very notion. Is our life-cycle taking us from infancy back to infancy? From many perspectives, one might have to say a resounding “yes.” But the journey from one to the other IS the experience of life, is it not?
That journey takes many pathways which, when seen from a distance, may even form a noticeable pattern. Now that I’ve “retired” I tend to have far more time to think – which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Too much thinking leads to TOO MUCH thinking and to too little doing or being… My thoughts, as I age and encounter physical diminishments, aren’t always productive or insightful, simply worrisome or maudlin. I’ve noticed that self-discipline is required more often in my thoughts than in any other area of life. If I could control my thoughts, I might be better able to control my words, actions, choices, and more.
Now some folks are naturally up-beat – the optimists among us. Then there are the rest of us, still seeing life from the half-empty side of things. It has been stated, by many authoritative researchers, that we can change our thoughts, perspectives, ideas, and opinions at any time throughout life. They say it is possible to change from essentially a pessimistic viewpoint to a positive perspective. While I believe that is possible, it also seems to me to be somewhat of an exaggeration of possibilities.
Probabilities, on the other hand, seem to indicate that once a pessimist always a pessimist and visa versa. Dramatic changes in circumstances, situations, and/or relationships can bring about major changes in one’s outlook on life – for better or for worse. Yet the probability that a major change from optimist to pessimist triggered by circumstance will be permanent in all situations throughout one’s entire life may be a bit, shall we say, optimistic?
I’m wondering if the underlying nature of an individual remains, no matter the changes from here to there, and tends to resurface more strongly towards the end of life. The elderly that I have known seem to revert to the personality at the core – unvarnished, childlike, happy or melancholic. My eighty-seven year old/young uncle has always been an upbeat, can-do kind of guy. Like my dad, he learned early in life to do for himself – to fix what was broken, to do what must be done, to make the best of all situations, to keep on keeping on no matter war, pain, loss, sorrow, ill-health, depression, or joy, peace, prosperity, good health, loving family, etc. He remains happy (with the temporary help of antidepressants) despite his constant physical pain (WWII war injury), the loss of his beloved wife several years ago, the cancers invading two of his childrens bodies, his inability to type on the computer and more. He can and does still dance amazingly well, and he is always off visiting others, cheering them up, telling funny stories of the old times, and generally being helpful to any and all. When I was last able to visit, it was 2004 and he gave me quite a ride in his PT cruiser – like the upbeat old pro he is and always has been.
Their mother and my grandmother, by contrast, was somewhat their opposite. Like my mother before me, these women focused on the negatives in life. They were often found trying to avoid some remote possibility of doom and gloom. Grandma lived a very long life, most of it unhappy, perhaps worsened by her own attitudes. But one must wonder if she was even able to change? Would it have been possible for her to become optimistic?
Grandma was the eldest of 12 children born to a strong German family. As the first daughter, I’m sure she was expected to care for the house and her younger siblings quite often. Here she is second on the right, at her parents 50th wedding anniversary. Their youngest daughter sits between them.
She married a very dashing, charismatic, yet alcoholic young man who accepted little responsibility and abandoned her frequently. She essentially raised her 4 children on her own, often having to live with siblings just to survive. Her eldest son, my dad, was denied a private school scholarship by the county welfare agency because, at 13, he was old enough to earn money to support the rest of the family. And so it was. Then came the depression making hard times harder. Two of her children were genetically predisposed to alcoholism. She herself suffered from major migraine headaches – it was said she was far healthier following menopause than she had been in her youth.
Grandma was also a highly resourceful, creative woman. She was rather tall and her posture was excellent. She served as a washer woman, a laundry clerk, and bookkeeper. She was a seamstress, who altered clothing, made artificial flowers, crocheted, hand-painted china, quilted, made hats, made lace doilies, beaded rosaries, and so much more. I still have several of her cotton lace doilies and her crocheted-top hand towels.
Here is a quilt her mother made featuring hand-embroidered birds of the 48 states, probably made from a kit in the early 1900's.
When she was 75, she fell and broke her wrist. She had been living in a second floor room with another older woman but her children became worried that she might fall down the stairs. Together, the four children decided to arrange for Grandma to go to a lovely, Catholic nursing home near her eldest son. From having a large, private, roomy space all her own, she was moved into a double room with another woman. Now kleptomania is common in nursing homes. Lack of privacy surely is one reason why, but also some folks lose their inhibitions and simply fall into less socially acceptable behaviors of all types. Grandma quickly became disillusioned with her living circumstances – understandably so. There were no small neighborhood stores to walk to, no old friends nearby, no public transportation that came close to the nursing home. Someone would have to pick her up in a car or she’d have to take a taxi to go anywhere. Since Mass was said daily, there was no reason to even leave the home once a week…
Grandma Gangl in 1965 at age 77
Grandma became more sullen in her later years, particularly after my parents deaths. She wanted to die, but couldn’t and didn’t. She hated seeing her first born die when he was 75 – she was 97. By that time, she was confined to a wheel chair for most outings, but she was still alert and did not suffer the mental impairments of senility. My uncle told me that he would go regularly to visit Grandma and that he would find her sitting in her chair facing the wall – not the window, not the hallway, but the wall. She was angry and depressed, to be sure. A few years later, she fell and broke her hip, leaving her bed-ridden the remainder of her life – to age 104.
I’ve heard and read stories much sadder than hers, of people who over-came such adversities and lived long, happy, productive, useful lives brightening the lives of all they encountered. Grandma lived a long, productive useful life – she was well loved by her family but she was never able to overcome her propensity to depression.
As medical research continues on the brain/mind, it is interesting to note some of the discoveries. Stimulate the brain here and someone feels happy. Do it there and they feel pain. While depression is finally considered a medical condition, it is still somewhat of a hit or miss adventure in the treatment aspect of the illness. Which drug works best for which patients? One steps into a world of try-it-and-see. Not a world of scientific proof, certainty or perfection of any sort.
Perhaps what my strange thoughts have brought me around to is this: pessimism may be inextricably connected to depression – a physical/biological state of being that one can not control by positive thinking.
So too, perhaps, the life cycle brings us from infancy back to infancy at the close – hopefully to be reborn into another reality thereby to experience more LIFE than we know exists…