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What will your verse be?

03:25 AM May 10, 2016

I am taking a two-year Buddhist psychology class at the Tibet House in New York, where my classmates are mostly psychotherapists with doctorate and medical degrees.  I find the stories they tell in class about their experiences with patients absolutely fascinating.  At the same time, having all these shrinks as classmates makes me uncomfortable in contributing to the class discourse, for fear that anything I say might be psychoanalyzed and reveal something broken in me as a human being.

The other week, we had Sharon Salzberg, a beloved American Buddhist teacher, giving the lecture. She talked of how her suffering got her into exploring Buddhism in India and Southeast Asia back in the 1970s, which allowed her eventually to “reparent” herself and heal her traumas as a child.

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One interesting topic Sharon discussed was the concept of the “good-enough mother,” which came from the work of D.W. Winnicott, a 20th-century British child analyst. According to psychologists, the best parents are attuned to their children’s needs only 30 percent of the time. That children can be nasty is a fact, and parents are allowed a certain degree of hatred, albeit temporarily.

The good-enough mother, therefore, is one who can withstand and hold her child’s rage as well as her own feeling of hatred, without retaliating against or abandoning the little one.  Psychotherapists use this concept when they “reparent” their patients. Those who practice mindfulness and compassion also talk of reparenting themselves, essentially self-healing, as a way to live life more fully.

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It is this ability to reparent ourselves that allows people, even those with severe childhood traumas, to thrive later in life. This is one of the conclusions of the book “Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.” The book reveals the findings from the longest study ever undertaken, following the lives of 268 men (including the late US president John F. Kennedy) who went to college in the late 1930s up to the present, when only a few participants remain alive, to understand what makes people’s lives flourish.

It concludes that childhood is not destiny. No one in the study was doomed at the outset, but nobody had it made either. While being unloved as a child is a big handicap, some manage to develop this capacity in spite of everything. Lives change, and things get better, but the people who do not learn early to love pay a high price later in life.

My main takeaway from the book is this: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” It is a person’s human connections—or relations with other people—that is the main determinant for human flourishing. The researchers arrived at this conclusion through a test they called the “Decathlon of Flourishing”—10 facets of late life constituting what most people consider as success. Of the 10, the four factors relating to human connections were the most predictive of Decathlon success.

And you must be thinking at this point: Well, I did not need an 80-year study to get to that conclusion.

Exactly.  We all know what is good for us. Yet, most of us continue living our lives as if we don’t know what really matters. In our relentless pursuit of external success, measured by wealth and power, we forget about love, we forget about beauty and poetry and romance, the things “that we stay alive for,” according to “Dead Poets Society,” my all-time favorite film. Here is that monologue from the movie: “To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life! Of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish; … what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here—that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

I gather from Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School alumnus and currently a professor there, that many of his classmates’ verses turned out, without them initially setting out to do so, to be all about those that did not matter most. One of his classmates was Jeff Skilling, the Enron “villain” now serving a 24-year prison sentence, who, he says, was a good and decent person.

In his book “How Will You Measure Your Life,” written after he overcame cancer that earlier killed his father, Christensen talks about the resource allocation problem—a business theory, as applied to our personal lives.  He says that high achievers end up allocating their resources in a way that seriously undermines their intended strategy, stemming from the fact that getting a bonus or a promotion provides more instant and tangible gratification than their relationships. It seems like your old friends will always be around, the children will always find new ways of misbehaving, and the spouse will always be there waiting when you come home. So not investing enough in those relationships does not feel like it costs anything. That is, until it’s too late.

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It’s not yet too late. So go and find that verse. I wish, for your sake and those you love, that whatever it is you finally decide on, you will not regret when the day of reckoning comes. You can do much worse than giving prominence, in that verse, to the ones who love you and those you love.

Joel Villaseca ([email protected]) is a lawyer living in New York City.

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TAGS: “Dead Poets Society”, Cancer, D.W. Winnicott, Harvard Business School, John F. Kennedy, Sharon Salzberg
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