The Key To Life
I used to drive a taxi here in New York. This was long before I turned 40 in 1989 and decided on a career as a psychotherapist. But looking back, I consider my passengers to have been my first patients. Only more often than not, they were the ones teaching me. (Actually, that’s pretty much still the case). I spoke to them all – this was the time before cell phones, and before headphones, and besides, it was the only way I could stay sane.
The city was full of philosophers in those days: In work shirts and business suits, they all had something to say. One passenger coming out of an after-hours club at 5:00 am on a Sunday morning, during a long ride up to Harlem, laid it down for me thusly:
“The key to life is simple, my man,” he said. “All you gotta do is learn to turn anything that happens to you to your advantage.”
And there it was: Simple, elegant, only too obvious. I’ve spent the last 40 years trying to learn how.
What I like about this idea is that it presumes another key principle: We have no power over what happens to us, but all power over how to respond.
This helped me a few years later, in 1973. I was at sea. Hippiedom had died a long and tortured death. I had thought there was going to be total societal breakdown; revolution. So I had dropped out of school, and was stumbled through my early twenties, roaming the streets in my yellow jalopy. I was completely unprepared to face what everyone around me was now calling “the real world”. Debby, my lover for over 4 years, had finally had enough with my stagnation (as a pothead, and as something out of a Harry Chapin song), and left me. She was tired of being different, she said, and wanted to “grow up and become normal”. My friends had all split for one part of the country or another to make a life for themselves. I was lost, abandoned, bereft.
Looking back on it now, my life began then.
I clung to that Dylan lyric: “And here I sit so patiently/wondering what price/One has to pay to get out of/going through all these things twice.” – Memphis Blues Again.
Figuring the price might be the pain of facing myself, I put myself into therapy. I started writing my own songs. Seeking an end to my darkness, I switched to the day shift. Soon after, a passenger (Elly Shatzkin, who along with her husband Leonard Shatzkin was a legend in the publishing world) saw something in me and offered right from the back seat to hire me as a secretary for her company. I jumped at it. It took years, but Debby’s leaving me turned into a blessing in disguise. Actually, I turned it into a blessing.
It’s a neat trick when you can turn things around like that – akin to intercepting a touchdown pass. But sometimes, it seems, the other team just scores. Like now, for instance.
Those who read me know I like to stay positive and optimistic. But to be honest, this ageing thing sometimes just gets me down. Oh I know how to turn it to my advantage. As a therapist who could pass (with my big gray goatee) for even 5 or 10 years older than I am, people come to me for counsel and wisdom…wisdom I didn’t have even 5 or 10 years ago.
But my age doesn’t feel like much of an advantage when I just can’t think of that word I’m trying to find to make my point. Or when I can’t perform in the sack like I could even a year ago. Or when I sometimes start looking for something that’s staring me right there in the face. Or when I go into the bedroom looking for…uh, what was it again? Or when some damn fool is talking some right wing trash but I can’t formulate my rebuttal fast enough to matter. (Or when I use the phrase, “some damn fool”. When did that start?)
Somebody tell me how to turn those kinds of things to my advantage, please.
Actually, (damn) fool that I am, I still believe there’s a way. One of my heroes, Ram Dass, did just that after his stroke. It paralyzed and almost totally debilitated him. (And almost killed him.) A few years later he wrote a book about it and called it Still Here, as a pun on his plight. It’s a wonderfully useful read for anyone needing to learn how to deal with ageing or even turn it into an asset. I read it over and over.
But sometimes, ageing just gets the better of me. It seems to be completely out of my control, which I hate. That’s why I dig that Buddhist book with its title, When You’re Falling, Dive. Yes, that’s the way to do it!
But sometimes when I’m falling — like into old age — I just panic and start screaming bloody murder.