In the mid-1970s when I was living in Boston, an exciting new bookstore opened in the downtown area. Up until that point bookstores tended to be small and focused on certain genres. In order to get the book you wanted you needed to know what store to go to. But that year there had opened a mega-bookstore with thousands of books of all different types and genres. Not only was it a great place to get the book you wanted, for a voracious reader like me it was a great place to just to hang out. The name of the store was Barnes and Noble, and it was known as “The World’s Largest Bookstore.” I loved it.
One day while at B&N I came upon a book I had heard something about; the book was Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by an investigative reporter named Gail Sheehy. I bought the book, went out to the large green space in the middle of town called the Boston Common, and began to read. Most people familiar with Passages know it as a book that helped popularize the idea that all adults go through somewhat predictable stages of development. While this idea of adult stages was well known by those working and studying the field of psychology, Passages made that theory come alive for the regular person. I certainly appreciated the book for those insights, but it was something that occurred in the first chapter that made this book profound for me.
Sheehy begins the book by relating an experience she had in 1972 while in Northern Ireland working on a story about Irish women. For reasons that are not explained, Sheehy found herself caught in a firefight between Catholic and Protestant forces during the civil war in that country. Bombs and bullets flew all around her, and even though she found refuge in a third floor flat with several others, she had the terrifying awareness that at any moment soldiers could break through the doors and kill them all.
As she lay there fearing for her life, she recalls thinking: “As I joined the people lying on their stomachs, a powerful idea took hold of me: No one is with me. No one is safe. There is no one who won’t leave me alone.” (p. 4). Only a few pages into the book I was grabbed by that idea: Ultimately, all of us are alone. No one can live our lives for us. We may have many companions along the way, but ultimately each one of us must live our own life by ourselves; no one can do it for us.
To be honest I don’t recall if Sheehy used that idea of aloneness in talking about the various stages of life, but that idea of aloneness has stayed with me ever since that day on the grass in the Boston Common. Psychologists like to make the distinction between loneliness and aloneness; the former can be debilitating, whereas the latter is a fact of life. Theologians, philosophers and spiritual teachers make the distinction between loneliness and solitude; the former and existential struggle and the latter a preparation to openness to transcendence. Over the years I have found these distinctions helpful.
Yet it is the reality that I alone can live my life, make my decisions, choose my directions, and develop my relationships that has stayed with me. Certainly others can advise and even influence me, but ultimately, I must live with the consequences of my commitments, my actions, my words, and my decisions; I can not blame others or hold them responsible. At times it might be easy to blame others, especially when our lives are dramatically altered by another’s decision or action: a boss decides to lay you off; a parent or a dear friend dies; the stock market goes into recession and one loses their home. But even there, ultimately how we respond is up to us alone. We can choose to play the victim, or we can find ways to move forward in spite of the obstacles.
This is one of the things that has so often impressed me about people we label as “poor.” They may not have much in the way of material goods, social advantages or financial resources. But so often I have seen these “poor” people come to each other’s aid, share their resources, make ends meet and move forward with commitment. Those of us with a higher social and economic standing have much to learn as to how to be resilient from those we so easily dismiss and look down upon.
These days I am reflecting on the next phase of my life. In a couple of weeks I will be officially retired, living off my pension, Social Security and other saved resources. For nearly 40 years I have been consumed and sometimes overly defined by my work, but now I have no formal work position. It is a change of life I am trying to move into responsibly and with a sense of expectation. The insight I came to nearly 40 years ago, still guides me: This is my life and my life alone. That does not mean I am lonely. Sometimes I am, but most days I know have a wonderful family and great friends. I have people I know I can call on. I have friends and colleagues to whom I am connected. What I mean is: it is my life, and I alone can make of it what it will be. That insight has guided me all these years, and I trust will sustain me in the months and years ahead.