Triggering Introspection

One of my favorite columnists is Charles Blow of the New York Times. I appreciate his writing for two seemingly contradictory reasons: as a Black male, he provides this White female with insights from a perspective that is alien to my own experience; on the other hand, he frequently reinforces perceptions and insights common to those of us who spend some time thinking about the human condition generally.

A recent column fell into that second category, and I hope readers will indulge me in a bit of (non-political) Sunday philosophizing.

Blow was pondering what he called the “second phase of adulthood,” which begins, in his estimation, when one’s children graduate from high school or college and leave home. (By that calculation, perhaps those of us who have watched our grandchildren leave the nest are in our third or even fourth “phase of adulthood.”)

No matter how we calculate the phases of our lives, death becomes an inescapable intrusion. As Blow notes, parents decline and die, we lose friends and relatives, and those losses change us.

This seemingly sudden intrusion of death into your life changes you. At least it is changing me. It reminds me that life is terribly fragile and short, that we are all just passing through this plane, ever so briefly. And that has impressed upon me how important it is to live boldly, bravely and openly, to embrace every part of me and celebrate it, to say and write the important things: the truth and my truth.

Blow enumerates some of the changes he is making in his “second phase”–as he says, he’s started to manage his regrets, to forgive himself for foolish mistakes and poor choices, and “to remember that we are all just human beings stumbling through this life, trying to figure it out, falling down and getting back up along the way.”

He also recognizes the need to adjust our goals and expectations. In his case, he says “When I am gone, and people remember my name, I want some of them to smile.” (That seems do-able. In my case, I’ve gone from early dreams of writing the great American novel to wanting to die with my own teeth…a more achievable goal that I regularly share with my dentist.)

I think this particular column touched me because my husband and I are in the midst of one of those inflection points we all face. We’re downsizing–we’ve sold our home, and are packing and discarding, preparing to leave flights of stairs that have become harder to climb, and tasks of home ownership that have become more onerous as we age, and we are moving into an apartment that’s all on one floor, where management will be responsible for maintenance.

Transitions of this sort–common to all of us as we age–tend to prompt introspection. Where has life taken us? How do we want to spend the years remaining? What hard-won insights, wisdom or support do we have to offer our friends and families as they confront those same questions?

Those very universal questions seem more poignant, somehow, in our very polarized country–perhaps because there seem to be so many of our countrymen who refuse to ask them, so many unhappy people unwilling to see the shared humanity of neighbors who look or worship or vote differently, so many unwilling to consider the possibility that their way might not be the only way.

Learned Hand famously said “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” If there is one “marker” of maturity, one insight that comes with second–or third– phase adulthood, I think that recognition might be it.

I think Charles Blow would agree. Happy Sunday….


  1. The old rabi claimed “Life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies”. I think, to a degree, that is a good summation. I like Blows writing as well, one of those mistakes he talks about forgiving is my old self when I was “conservative” thru and thru was dismissing he frequent posts regarding racial inequity. Ah the mistakes of youth ( until age 59) . Watching friends roughly my age pass got me to retire at age 62,( my wife constantly suggesting I do so probably helped make that decision). And yes, the downsizing. Amazing how much stuff one accumulates in 2 decades at one abode. Thanks again for another thoughtful post.

  2. Thank you for sharing this writer’s thoughts and your own. In this age of division and isolation, it is good to know one’s life experience is universal in every sense of the word. St. Benedict’s prayer “to keep my death before my eyes daily,” is not morbid but affirming of the steady and unrelenting fall of each grain of time’s sand and tge need to make each moment useful and memorable.

  3. I greatly appreciate today’s comments, especially re: changing your life’s goal from writing the great novel to keeping one’s teeth! I too hope “when I am gone, and people remember my name, I want some of them to smile”.

  4. The inward journey is truly all there is to this life. I emphasized the stuff and forgot who I was and why I was here. Major life events have a way of getting our attention.

    I don’t think too much about the legacy stuff because I am sure it will be a mixed bag. Besides, we’re not done yet. My best moments lie ahead, and so do my biggest heartbreaks.

  5. Is there something in the air? My best friend for either 68 or 70 years, we are disagreeing on the numbers, are going through an introspective phase mentally and physically tossing out “stuff” we have held onto for decades. She and I are 84 years old; people in their 50s and 60s seem to be a bit young to me to be going through this “downsizing” at this time. Maybe the Covid-19 Pandemic after four years of Trump “deconstruction” of our government and baring the underside of America has given us a new prospective on life, bringing about this introspection of many at this time…or is it those of us drawn together on this blog?

    A few lines from the Joni Mitchell hit song of 1967; “Both Sides Now”:
    “I’ve looked at life from both sides now
    From win and lose
    And still somehow
    It’s life’s illusions I recall
    I really don’t know life at all.”

    That those of us from different generations are “Triggering Introspection” at this time must mean something…or maybe it has no meaning at all. Is it simply this electronic age with the Internet at our fingertips which put us in touch and this has been going on all along without our being aware or sharing our thoughts? Whatever; each of us is still alone to live through this time of introspection. Will we come out the other side better for the sharing?

  6. My whole life perspective changed when my Dad died in ‘75, when I was 15. It’s good to see others reassess their life but mine started so much earlier. I think it hardened me because I refused to put up with sh*t from anyone after that. To get to 61 years old is a feat in itself.

  7. Well, definitely a thread worth introspection!

    I guess introspection leads directly to circumspection and or to nóima tis zoís (the meaning of life).

    I look at my children and grandchildren, and, like my mother, a parent should never have to bury a child.

    Both of my brothers gone at a very young age for nothing but nonsense. But my grandmother, lost many of her brothers to nonsense! My great grandmother died from grief because she lost so many sons. Five to be exact!

    What made humans decide that other humans don’t deserve the life that they themselves crave? And, what is the self righteous thought process that would allow them to be some sort of judge and jury?

    The above quoted Greek term for the meaning of life, is an age old adage! Across every ethnic and racial boundary, that question is asked! If we are just a “Mistake From The Lake,” then why is life so precious for humans?

    Animals kill and eat each other, land animals, flying creatures, sea creatures, will even eat their offspring!

    Should humans be any different? With all due respect to Charles Blow, when a human loses its teeth, he can have new ones made! When an animal loses its teeth, it dies! I think dying with your teeth is a very very small and insignificant goal that, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing!

    Rollo May a certain prominent psychiatrist stated; “The only adequate structure for morality is that based upon the ultimate meaning of life.”

    Wow! There’s that word again, morality! Morality is directly related to conscience, and conscience a trained conscience is one that will prevent many evils of this world.

    C.G.Jung, a fairly significant Swiss psychiatrist that has an Institute here in Chicago named after him, and is known worldwide, stated; , “the more negligible the individual becomes.” He feels “overwhelmed by the sense of his own puniness and impotence” and that, as a result, “his life has lost its meaning.”

    So in many instances when a person feels that life has lost its meaning, or they have been relegated to the trash heap of humanity as insignificant leavings, they will do something for everyone to remember them by! Crimes or commissions that can be so completely immoral, they are remembered the annals of history.

    I read this particular quote somewhere, I’m not sure of the author, but it goes as this; “a fish is connected to the water, it derives its life from the water, if you separate the fish from the water, it dies! A tree derives its life from the soil, you remove the tree from the soil, it dies! Humanity derives his life from God, remove man from God, he dies! I heard that many years ago and never forgot it, it seemed to make sense to me.

    I suppose we can all feel the weight of life and the feeling of insignificance. Is there anything more? Or, are we know better than the slime in that Lake that is supposed to be our great ancestors!?!?

    Job brought up a very very good point about integrity, this includes morals and conscience! Job 27:5; 31:6; 19:25-27.

    King Solomon had this particular thought and deemed it important enough to write down in a book that has survived millennia. “Who knows what is best for a man to do in life during the few days of his futile life, which he spends like a shadow? For who can tell man what will happen under the sun after he is gone?” (Ecclesiastes 6:12)

    King Solomon also said in conjunction with the above-mentioned, “The conclusion of the matter, everything having been heard, is: Fear the true God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole obligation of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

    So, is there something bigger than self? Or, do we scrape out a life, carve out a footprint, only to have it vanish in death? If there is nothing more than that, then why bother? It really, should then be considered meaningless.

    What’s the point of loving your neighbor? Loving your enemy? Taking care of the widow? Taking care of the orphan? Treating the foreign resident with respect? Morals? Conscience? Empathy? Compassion? Are these all just suggestions? Or are these the laws written on our hearts by/for something greater than us?

    “For when people of the nations, who do not have law, do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. 15 They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them, and by their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.” (Romans 2:14, 15)

  8. Learning who you are and being happy to be you are the best things anyone can do in this life. We have much to be thankful for.

  9. Aging L Girl

    Yes, losing one’s father at a young age can have a profound effect on one’s direction in life. The same with losing a mother. A large portion of that anchor has been cut off and can leave you adrift. I had a new wife and one and a half children when my father died. He was 49. My youngest brother was 13 believe and I was 22. I had no idea what to do. In retrospect I wish I would’ve done things much differently! This directly led to death my younger brothers way before their time. If I would’ve had stronger faith I would’ve made better decisions, unfortunately, I didn’t acquire stronger faith until much later in life. I will always regret that.

  10. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. We baby-boomers are often now faced with a degree of ONGOING introspection. I know this wasn’t a main focus of your thoughts this morning, but I can especially relate to your comment, “wanting to die with my own teeth…” Having Sjogren’s Syndrome most of my adult life (it affects saliva production), this aspect of growing old has been the most difficult to accept….losing my teeth!! It’s difficult to face our twilight years, but as an old friend has told me – it beats the alternative!

  11. When I was 10 my mother took to me to visit a great aunt in her 80s. One thing she told us has stuck with me: She had been giving her treasures to people, mostly family, she knew would love and use the the things she gave them. She said she didn’t want them fighting over the stuff when she died, and wasn’t using it anymore, so why not have the pleasure of gifting it now?
    Ever since, I have gotten a lot of pleasure out of enjoying things for a few years, and then, if I notice that someone would really treasure something, I hand it on. The person can be an acquaintance. No matter. No need to wait until I’m eighty!

  12. It seems my life’s curve is different from the other comments, but not different from millions of caregivers throughout America.
    The man I adore, a Vietnam Veteran, is 13 years into Parkinson’s Disease. I knew it was chronic and progressive , but nothing prepared me for the dementia along with hallucinations and delusions that requires around-the-clock care. While my daughter – in her forties – will do anything for both of us, as his caregiver I am faced with a bleak future.
    So what do I wish for? His death, which will free me from the constant repetition of urine soaked laundry, trying to keep him safe from falling (again), and the heartbreak of losing my friend and lover? That would be a high price to pay for for a form of freedom, and yet it is inevitable.
    Sorry, but I find it impossible to be either optimistic or philosophical.

  13. Anita,

    You will get your answers one day, but not today. I’ve got two female friends who’ve lost their son to suicide and their husband to debilitating strokes. The mother who lost her teenage son wants answers while the other wanted to die with her husband but also found freedom in his death.

    That’s the mystery of life. Our brain wants to make sense of it all so it can be at ease. We just have to accept what is because that is life one moment at a time. One day it will all make sense and you’ll just know. The most difficult part is stopping the mind today from trying to solve the problem which doesn’t exist (worry). Let go of the future and just focus on this moment in time. Quite frankly, it’s all there is.

  14. Something written by someone else on Facebook that is pertinent here today:

    “I don’t understand the whole “I got them to 18” method as a parent. Having children is a LIFETIME commitment. Maybe I’m just different but I want my kids to come take groceries and toilet paper out of my cabinets when they are 22. I want them to stop for dinner when it is their favorite meal at age 34. I want to watch their eyes sparkle when they are opening gifts they wanted for Christmas at 40. I want them to know I’m one call away and it doesn’t stop at age 18. They are forever my kids not temporary assignments”

    We too are discarding the flotsam and jetsom of life while enjoying ties to what is important and lasting.

    Our bodies pass on but the memories of us live on in others.

  15. Anita Mary Kirchen

    I understand wholeheartedly!

    My mother-in-law and father-in-law had strokes on the same day, my mother-in-law ended up in hospice six months later and died at home after a month in hospice care.

    My father-in-law lost his sight, he is also a severe diabetic and quite the character he refuses to leave his home to stay with us. There are many pitfalls in life. But is keeping busy with him, and those friends, neighbors, orphans, widows, and foreign residents, along with our children and grandchildren, keep us quite busy. But, getting older, presents its own issues and, will there be anyone to care for us when we get to a certain point of being unable to care for ourselves?

    Like I said in my above comment, is this all that there is? Because, if it is, we are all to be pitied.

    By every kind of toil there comes to be an advantage, but merely the word of the lips [tends] to want. (Proverbs 14:23)

    James 3:2 Reads; ” For we all stumble many times. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able to bridle also his whole body.”

    A sympathetic awareness of another’s suffering or adversity coupled with a desire to alleviate it. One of the Hebrew words conveying the sense of compassion is the verb cha·malʹ, which means “feel (show or have) compassion; spare.” (Exodus 2:6; Malachi 3:17; Jeremiah 50:14) The Greek verb oi·kteiʹro means “show compassion,” while the noun oi·ktir·mosʹ describes the inner feeling of compassion, or tender mercy. (Romans 9:15; 12:1; 2nd Corinthians 1:3; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12; Hebrews 10:28)

    Accept any help you can possibly get, and give yourself a break as much as possible! That in itself is essential for self-preservation and self sanity.

  16. From Rabbi Marc Gellman’s “God Squad” column today, a story:

    “God, I no longer trust you. I often dreamed a dream of walking with you on a beach. I could not see you, but I knew it was you walking by my side because when I looked back, I saw two sets of footprints in the san. Then, during this crisis in my life [our getting older??] , I dreamed the dream, but I only saw one set of footprints. God, you have abandoned me.”

    “Then God said to the suffering dreamer, ‘You only saw one set of footprints because during your worst times, I was carrying you.'”

  17. Having lost my teeth many years ago to bad genes and no fluoridation, and having lost my life’s partner to congestive heart failure less than a month ago, the introspection and sense of the comimg end of my own journey make each day a challenge for me. The challenge? To keep looking forward instead of back in longing for what has been lost without my partner at my side. The pain of grief is certainly not unique to me but my experience of that pain is unique, as it is the each of us when we are faced with loss of love.
    The lesson of today’s blog is simple. Remember that the only true legacy worth passing on is love. If you love someone, tell them. Your memory will be a blessing.

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