by cheri block sabraw
For the first forty years of my life, I operated on automatic. Whatever needed to be accomplished, I did. Serious problems–financial ruin, death, divorce, betrayal, disease–only occurred in the rich literature I was teaching to my high school students and in the lives of other people.
I began to reflect about the meaning of life when lung cancer forced my father to drop out of the earthly life experience, but even then, I was busy, so I jumped back into my English saddle and cantered on my rocking horse facing the wall. I continued to produce, to meet the needs of others before my own, to base my worth on my work and my appearance.
About five years ago, my handsome husband took a new exciting job far from our home, at the same time I was hitting menopause. I began worrying about how I looked, dressed, and appeared to him and to others. Thoughts that had never entered my mind, did. For the very first time, I realized that I was aging and would look different from the person that others had been attracted to for my figure, my face, and my enthusiasm. What would be left of the essential Cheri if her face looks old, her figure sags a bit, and her enthusiasm wanes on occasion? Would I still be attractive in a different way?
All of these questions terrified me.
Then my mother moved to town and had two strokes within one year, leaving her a changed person. My mother is alive but is not the same person I knew. This grief I shared but didn’t fully process.
Joe died last year and with his death, I lost a husky male friend who could help me understand what older men might be experiencing themselves. Our conversations were rich with authenticity.
My friends, many of them, moved away.
All of these events forced me into a deep contemplation.
Deep contemplation at the Rancho is possible because of the silence here.
I stopped talking so much and started listening to my inner voice.
I stopped jumping through every hoop in a childish need for approval.
I stopped trying to control the comings and goings of my family members.
I stopped cheerleading (after 40 years of it).
I started thinking of important things in life that had nothing to do with me, my happiness, my appearance, and my ego.
Then, I enrolled in a class at Stanford that helped me integrate many of these feelings into one paper entitled How to Live a Real Life. I got an A on that paper but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had gotten a B+. 🙂
I’m going to post the criteria I included in that paper before I post a few selections from it.
Criteria for living a real life: A cumulative list
- Reflect. We must be willing to examine the truth about our lives and to change, if necessary.
- Listen. We talk and interrupt. We miss messages sent from the self, from other human beings, and from Life (God, Divine Mind, Higher Power, The River).
- Simplify. We must be willing to clean out clutter from the external self—things and obligations, for example—that contribute to the preoccupation and distraction that camouflage the present moment.
- Move away from vanity. Modern culture worships youth, skin, breasts, hair, and clothing. While looking our best contributes to self-esteem, making physical appearance more important than spiritual and moral development is self-destructive.
- Let go of control. We can control very little in our lives. This realization and practice removes some of the stumbling blocks to being authentic such as anger, narcissism, and fear.
- Set others free. Although a by-product of #5, choosing to set our spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends free from our controlling thoughts releases both the captive and captor.
- Accept loss. As we age, we lose people we love. Some of us lose parts of our lives that we naively hoped would last forever: physical health, sexual attractiveness, professional acknowledgement, personal freedom, and intellectual acuity.
- Practice intimacy. When we love and share our thoughts and fears, we create connection, that which we desire the most.
- Be better than you really are. We are imperfect but we can transcend this imperfection, if for only a moment.
- Become a Mensch. If we practice the first nine criteria, we will be able to devote our time to other people and their needs. We will be righteous, unselfish and honorable. Our nature will be to think of others before self.
If you would like to add or amend any of the criteria, let me know. I’m open.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is perhaps one of the greatest plays ever written. I cried unabashedly when I read it as a high schooler and could never teach it without breaking down several times (this became an urban legend at the high school where I taught…).
It captures the essence of my list.
May your holidays be introspective. The cold winter is a perfect time to do this.