Monday, July 18, 2011

Reflective thinking...a sign of the times

We'd like to think regular reflection on our behavior and the behavior of others is customary and universal, but I don't know that's always true because of circumstance. As a matter of fact, I consider reflection, self-esteem, and psychological insight a modern day luxury born out of a reduced need for day-to-day survival. Reflection is sort of like disposable income - you use it when you have it but when you don't have it... Well, you need only spend time with old writings of others like I describe below to see what I mean.

Okay, it wasn't THIS bad
Looking back
When my grandmother passed away many years ago, my mother and I were left with sorting through nearly 90 years of stuff. She was my step father's mother and as an only child born to an older couple he couldn't bare the thought of going near it. My mother had been her primary caregiver after a stroke rendered her partially incapacitated eight years prior so for her it was just another thing that had to get done. So we did.

And a lot of stuff it was
My grandmother had lived a mostly privileged life and had wealth in the form of antiques and documents that stretched many generations. The money had long dried up with the healthcare needs of her and my grandfather, who eventually succumbed to dementia and literally died in the fetal position in a nursing home after my grandmother was a primary caregiver for nearly a decade.

A New Englander, my grandmother came from a long line of artists, educators, and medical people. They had money, they traveled, and they lived comfortably. She was a nurse, married an executive, and had one child, Bill. I remember being so impressed with their life in Vermont. My "Daddy Bill," as I called him, was a private pilot and he used to fly us in our single engine plane from Georgia to Whittier, VT. Their beautifully manicured three story home and lawn and the gentle, cool climate was so different from the GA red clay that never washed out of our clothes and clingy humidity that lived in our pores. I often felt I'd gone to another country when we'd visit which suited my nomadic spirit just fine.

Living the past in the present
Days into the sorting, we slowed down a bit partly from the exercise itself and partly because of the things we found. This was not my first time taking a dive into my grandmother's things. I can remember as a child lingering for hours at her house with the turn of the last century photo albums that were filled with those metal pictures (Daguerreotype) of people who almost never smiled because it took so long to take them.

I used to study them - the people's faces, clothes, the setting, the medium. Often I would try to figure out what was on their minds. Were they thinking about the excitement of this new technology or just dying to get it over with because they had a mountain of laundry waiting by the river or fields turning to dust from the lack of water for yet another week. Yea, these photos were just that old...

I found all of the faces compelling because they were fodder for stories I made up. I told myself it was an exercise in honoring those who came before me, but really it was less that and more a self-indulgent exercise that was plain fun. Eventually those fantasies snaked their way into the plays I'd write that I'd make my family sit through, the TV scripts I'd storyboard and play out with my friends, and voice overs for stories I'd record on my tape recorder long after my family had gone to sleep.

Pile of wood
Cord, chop, plow, and pick
Amid all that stuff I stumbled on several journals of my grandmother's relatives. Based on the writings in those journals, the life my grandmother lived was the result of what many a turn of the century family experienced - their money came from the toil of the soil. Those folks lived by the seasons not because they had some passionate, fervent existential crusade to campaign and demonstrate but rather out of a simple need for survival.

There wasn't much to the entries. Based on what season they were in at the time the man who owned the journals would either "cord and chopped wood," "plowed the fields," or "picked crops." These were the entries over and over again. Occasionally he'd include something that sounded akin to a Farmer's Almanac entry, but for the most part there was little to no reflection or personal insight.

Deviation from the season... A near reflection point
Analytical consideration of the journal content was exhausted for me in short order so imagine my surprise when just on the edge of tossing the whole lot into the "throw away" pile there was an entry that was clearly out of synch.  My ancestor had gone to a town dance and met a girl.

For a time he described with meticulous detail the activities he'd complete getting himself ready for the dances he started frequenting since meeting the girl. The combing and parting of his hair, which I imaged was black for some reason, the donning of the vest that he smoothed out with great care, the selection of just the right hat. The anticipation of seeing her poured from his words although he made little mention of her. Modesty of the day and simplicity of the writer likely kept him from diving too deeply into his feelings for her, but the detailed departure from his seasonal entries was clear. He was in love.

Back to the present
Sorry, dear reader, but the journals stopped there. I'm not sure what happened to the rest if there even was any beyond the ones I read. I'd like to think his love for the girl was reciprocated - they married and had a brood of kids. For a happy ending we could just believe the journals that never got written or were simply lost over time chronically recorded "cord and chopped wood," "plowed the fields," or "picked crops" with each season that continued to pass.

Or maybe not...insert modern day chatter
Is it possible either or both of them wondered if what they we're doing in life was a good fit with their "skill set" or if they ever wondered at some point if the other still loved them? Could they at some point wondered if there could be more to life than the life they are living? Was there ever a time in their relationship if they wondered why they don't talk like they used to or they aren't as affectionate?

Reflection is a matter of perspective (and the times) 
Just like I believe much of Freud's theory was a reflection of the Victorian times in which he lived, I think the questions noted above are a product of times when the basic necessities of life are less of a concern. One only needs to look at the disaster in Haiti, the atrocities in parts of Africa, and refugee camps in Afghanistan to understand questions like those are a luxury when compared with those who are working through some Maslow lower levels.

Grief is that way too. Losing someone dear, leaving or losing a job, business, house, dealing with an illness or a something involving a child... The mind typically shifts to a more practical place when faced with adversity.

Balance looking in with looking out
So the next time the chatter in your head about your life, your husband or wife, your boyfriend or girlfriend, your friends, or your work seems to get a little too loud, pause and look outside of yourself. Use some self-talk to question your questions.

How many of the questions are the result of a snowball that becomes an avalanche because life is a little hard sometimes and misery loves company? How many of these Qs are the result of what the media tells us we should be thinking and questioning? Take time to sift through the noise. Spend some time in someone else's shoes. Considering others' perspective might give you a fresh, new perspective of your own.

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