Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now - by Gordon Livingston Md

1: If the map doesn't agree with the ground, the map is wrong.

This is the map we wish to construct in our heads: a reliable guide that allows us to avoid those who are not worthy of our time and trust and to embrace those who are. The best indications that our always-tentative maps are faulty include feelings of sadness, anger, betrayal, surprise, and disorientation. It is when these feelings surface that we need to think about our mental instrument of navigation and how to correct it, so that we do not fall into the repetitive patterns of those who waste the learning that is the only consolation for our painful experience.

2: We are what we do.

Happiness is not simply the absence of despair. It is an affirmative state in which our lives have both meaning and pleasure.

We are not what we think, or what we say, or how we feel. We are what we do. Conversely, in judging other people we need to pay attention not to what they promise but to how they behave. This simple rule could prevent much of the pain and misunderstanding that infect human relationships. Most of the heartbreak that life contains is a result of ignoring the reality that past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior.

The three components of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.

Love is demonstrated behaviorally. Once again we define who we are and who and what we care about, not by what we promise, but by what we do.

We are entitled to receive only that which we are prepared to give. This is why there is truth to the adage that we all get the marriage partners we deserve, and why most of our dissatisfactions with others reflect limitations in ourselves.

3: It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place.

The motivations and habit patterns that underlie most of our behavior are seldom logical; we are much more often driven by impulses, preconceptions, and emotions of which we are only dimly aware.

This question, "What do I owe my parents?" frequently distorts people's lives well into, and sometimes throughout, adulthood. In fact, our children owe us nothing. It was our decision to bring them into the world. If we loved them and provided for their needs it was our task as parents, not some selfless act. We knew from the beginning that we were raising them to leave us and it was always our obligation to help them do this unburdened by a sense of unending gratitude or perpetual debt. Well-functioning families are good at letting their children go. Poorly functioning families tend to hold on to them.

4: The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.

If the person I'm talking to appears wedded determinedly to the past and unwilling to contemplate a better future, I grow impatient. It is misplaced kindness to offer only sympathy, even where it is clearly justified. It is hope that I'm really selling. If, after extended effort, I cannot persuade someone to buy, I am wasting both our time by continuing.

5: Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least.

6: Feelings follow behavior.

When applied to people who abuse food, alcohol, or other substances, or who simply require medication to control their anxiety, the term "disabled" removes not only any sense of responsibility for overcoming one's problems, it damages irrevocably the self-respect that comes with the sense of being a free person on the earth, able to struggle with and overcome adversity.

7: Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.

8: The perfect is the enemy of the good.

The problem with perfectionists and their preoccupation with control is that the qualities that make them effective in their work can render them insufferable in their personal lives. I treat a lot of engineers and accountants and computer programmers. To be less controlling in their jobs would render them ineffective. The best one can hope for is to introduce them to the paradox of perfection: in some settings, notably in our intimate relationships, we gain control only by relinquishing it.

9: Life's two most important questions are "Why?" and "Why not?" The trick is knowing which one to ask.

Once we acknowledge that there exists below our consciousness a swamp of repressed desires, resentments, and motivations that affect our day-to-day behavior, we have made an important step toward self-understanding.

Ignoring the existence of our subconscious tends to have troubling results. We notice first the consequences of such unawareness: destructive patterns of behavior in which we find ourselves surprised that we repeatedly make the same mistakes.

If people are reluctant to answer "Why?" questions in their lives, they also tend to have trouble with "Why not?" The latter implies risk. Steeped in habit and fearful of change, most of us are to some degree risk-averse. Particularly in activities that may involve rejection, we tend to act as if our sense of ourselves is fragile and must be protected.

Everyone accepts the idea of a learning curve accompanied by sometimes-painful mistakes before we become adept. No one would expect to become good at skiing without falling down. And yet many people are surprised at the hurt that routinely accompanies our efforts to find someone worthy of our love. To take the risks necessary to achieve this goal is an act of courage. To refuse to take them, to protect our hearts against all loss, is an act of despair.

10: Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses.

Practically any human characteristic--competitiveness, orderliness, even kindness--when indulged to an extreme can produce undesirable results. Perhaps this is just another argument for moderation in all things. But we need to acknowledge that those qualities of which we are most proud can prove our undoing.

Impermanence mocks us. Our efforts--to learn, to acquire, to hold on to what we have--all eventually come to naught. This is the final and controlling paradox: Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have. The intensity of our connections to those we love is a function of our knowledge that everything and everyone is evanescent. Our ability to experience any pleasure requires either a healthy denial or courageous acceptance of the weight of time and the prospect of ultimate defeat.

11: The most secure prisons are those we construct for ourselves.

The fear that we might try and not succeed can produce a crippling inertia. Keeping our expectations low protects us from disappointment.

Whenever, as happens frequently, I point out to people the discrepancy between what they say they want and what they actually do, the response is surprise and sometimes outrage that I will not take their expressions of intent at face value but prefer to focus on the only communication that can be trusted: behavior.

12: The problems of the elderly are frequently serious but seldom interesting.

13: Happiness is the ultimate risk.

14: True love is the apple of Eden.

If Adam and Eve have anything to teach us with their spectacular fall from grace it is that the union of two people offers us the primary compensation for all the burdens of being human: the need to toil, the "thorns and thistles," and the lifelong knowledge of our mortality. What did that forbidden fruit contain that made its taste worth the anger of God? "The Garden is lost, but I have found him and am content."

15: Only bad things happen quickly.

It is obvious that any process directed at changing, even a little, our well-established patterns of thinking and behaving is going to be an extended one and will involve efforts at gaining insight, reevaluating behaviors, and trying new approaches. Under the best of circumstances, such change takes time. The same is true for all the other personal characteristics and habitual patterns that don't work for us but that we keep repeating: impulsivity, hedonism, narcissism, irritability, and the need to control those around us. To imagine that such traits can be changed overnight or as soon as we become aware of them is to discount the well-established strength of habit and the slowness with which we translate new knowledge into behavior.

Virtually all the happiness-producing processes in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new things, changing old behaviors, building satisfying relationships, raising children. This is why patience and determination are among life's primary virtues.

As with anything else in life, however, it is the act that defines us, not the cause we use as a rationale.

16: Not all who wander are lost.

Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between two points, life has a way of confounding geometry. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition, and a willingness to be surprised.

17: Unrequited love is painful but not romantic.

18: There is nothing more pointless, or common, than doing the same things and expecting different results.

The process of learning consists not so much in accumulating answers as in figuring out how to formulate the right questions. This is why psychotherapy takes the Q&A form that it does. This is not, as many think, a trick on the therapist's part to lead the client in a known direction. It represents a joint exploration, an inquiry into motives and patterns of thought and behavior, trying always to make connections between past influences and present conceptions of what it is we want and how best to get it.

Nearly every human action is in some way an expression of how we think about ourselves. There are few behaviors that are "self-esteem neutral." I frequently suggest to patients that this criterion can be applied to any important life decision: How will this make me feel about myself? In particular, how does being with this person make me feel? Can we say with Jack Nicholson's character in As Good as It Gets, "You make me want to be a better man?"

"I believe in what works. What you are doing now isn't working. Why not try something else?"

19: We flee from the truth in vain.

20: It's a poor idea to lie to oneself.

Worse than the concealment of embarrassing moral lapses are the interpretations that allow us to continue doing things that erode our sense of ourselves. We routinely invoke theories of accident, coincidence, and forgetfulness to explain behaviors that we do not wish to examine closely. Lying to ourselves disables us entirely from making needed changes.

The most damaging lies that we tell ourselves involve promises. Good intentions are more than paving stones on the road to hell, they are distractions from the serious task of evaluating who we are and what we really want. If we spend our time imagining some ideal of beauty or self-improvement, it drains energy and distracts our attention from more serious and attainable objectives.

The truth may not make us free, but to lie to ourselves in the name of temporary comfort is the ultimate folly. Such deception appears to be a benign dishonesty. No one else is cheated or disadvantaged, but life decisions not based on reality are bound to be faulty. To see ourselves plainly is, perhaps, impossible; it's hard to get through the day without a rationalization or two. It is when our dream of what we could be collides with the truth of what we are that the clang of cognitive dissonance both deafens and blinds us.

21: We are all prone to the myth of the perfect stranger.

22: Love is never lost, not even in death.

23: Nobody likes to be told what to do.

It seems too obvious to mention, and yet look how much that passes for intimate communication involves admonitions and instructions.

How are we inclined to react when told what to do? For most of us, resentment progressing to obstinacy is the most common response. Our desire for control and a belief that we know how things should be overcomes our common sense about how people react to orders.

24: The major advantage of illness is that it provides relief from responsibility.

One of the basic rules of animal psychology is that any behavior that is reinforced will continue; behavior that is not will extinguish. A monkey will pull a lever for a long time if he is rewarded by food, even at intermittent and unpredictable intervals. If the food stops completely, the lever-pulling will, over time, cease. So it is with people. We do those things repetitively that produce some reward. It is just hard sometimes to discern what that reinforcement might be. Of all the burdens that weigh on our lives, being responsible for ourselves and those we care for can be the most onerous. People endure numbing routines, jobs they hate, unsatisfying relationships, all in order to fulfill the expectations they have of themselves. When no other relief is available to us, some form of illness or disability is one of the few socially acceptable ways of relinquishing the weight of responsibility, if only for a little while.

It is also true that the longer someone is disabled, the greater the chance that the illness will become a part of a person's identity--the way we think of ourselves. This is a dangerous development in that those aspects of our characters that we incorporate into our sense of ourselves are subconscious and resistant to change.

25: We are afraid of the wrong things.

Though unpleasant to experience, fear can be an adaptive emotion if it results in actions that protect us from harm. For this to happen, however, threats must be identified realistically. This requires accurate information and the ability to integrate it into useful knowledge. If we are deceived by those we trust to inform us (our government), or if our sources of information have a stake in keeping us afraid (the news media), then it is little wonder that we spend our time worrying about remote threats like contaminated mail, while ignoring real risks such as global warming.

The sum of our fears is the knowledge of our vulnerability to random misfortune and the certainty of our eventual mortality. If we can take comfort and meaning from some religious belief with its promise of eternal life, so much the better. But even skeptics can learn to savor the moments of pleasure that our brief lives contain. It is not denial but courage that allows us to do this. That and an unwillingness to let the present moment be drained of joy by fear of the future or regret for the past.

26: Parents have a limited ability to shape children's behavior, except for the worse.

27: The only real paradises are those we have lost.

To know someone fully and love them in spite of, even because of, their imperfections is an act that requires us to recognize and forgive, two very important indicators of emotional maturity. More important is the fact that, if we can do this for other people, we may be able do it for ourselves. It is our fallibility and uncertainty that make us human. Our constant challenge is not to seek perfection in ourselves and others, but to find ways to be happy in an imperfect world. We are impeded in this effort if we cling to an idealized vision of the past that insures dissatisfaction with the present.

The problem with our longing for the paradises of the past is that it distracts us from our efforts to extract pleasure and meaning from the present. Nostalgia also sends a message to those around us who did not share in our golden youth that the world they inhabit is inferior and getting worse. As our own powers decline and we are in increasing need of the kindness and attention of others, this seems to be the wrong message to give them.

28: Of all the forms of courage, the ability to laugh is the most profoundly therapeutic.

Pessimism, like any attitude, contains within it a multitude of self-fulfilling prophecies. If we approach others in a suspicious or hostile way, they are likely to respond accordingly, thereby confirming our low expectations. Fortunately, the opposite is likewise true. As with any rule there are exceptions and those we encounter do not always mirror our attitudes. If habitual optimism cannot protect us against occasional disappointment, habitual pessimism is a close cousin of despair.

29: Mental health requires freedom of choice.

The cardinal rule of anxiety: Avoidance makes it worse; confrontation gradually improves it. In the case of depression, the behavior that needs changing generally involves overcoming inertia and fatigue enough to do things that predictably make us feel better. This is a lot to ask when someone is discouraged, pessimistic, and feeling worthless.

Mental health is a function of choice. The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be.

30: Forgiveness is a form of letting go, but they are not the same thing.

Somewhere between ignoring the past and wallowing in it there is a place where we can learn from what has happened to us, including the inevitable mistakes we have made, and integrate this knowledge into our plans for the future. Inevitably, this process requires some exercises in forgiveness--that is, giving up some grievance to which we are entitled.

Widely confused with forgetting or reconciliation, forgiveness is neither. It is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves. It exists, as does all true healing, at the intersection of love and justice. To acknowledge that we have been harmed by another but choose to let go of our resentment or wishes for retribution requires a high order of emotional and ethical maturity. It is a way of liberating ourselves from a sense of oppression and a hopeful statement of our capacity for change. If we can relinquish the preoccupations and pseudo-explanations that are rooted in the past, we are free to choose the attitudes with which we confront the present and future. This involves an exercise of consciousness and determination that is a certain antidote to the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that underlie most of our unhappiness.

By placing responsibility outside ourselves we miss out on the healing knowledge that what happens to us is not nearly as important as the attitude we adopt in response.

For most of us the process of nursing blame for past injury distracts us from the essential question of what we need to do now to improve our lives.