My husband and I marked my 70th birthday in February with ten days of non-stop partying in New Orleans. I mention this because I know all too many people who can’t imagine the 70th birthday as anything other than a disaster to dread and mourn. I haven’t found it so. I’ve faced my share of difficulties – not the least of which was working as a gay psychotherapist in the Castro throughout the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco – and I’ve certainly learned that being a human being is no free lunch – but overall, I’ve found this life very much worth living, and I come to the latter part of it happier and more optimistic by far than at any previous time in my life.
A few lessons stand out. Like many people in my generation, discovering that I was gay (in 1962!) precipitated an emotional crisis, and mine took more than seven years to resolve. After years of soul-searching, pain, and psychotherapy intended to cure me, (Yes, I am a survivor of reparative therapy. I went through it right here in San Francisco. In those days it was standard practice in my field.) all of the turmoil and confusion boiled down to one issue. I wrote it in a journal: “Life is asking me a simple question, and that is, do I or do I not have the courage to live the one and only life that is in me to live?” At the time, I imagined that this question was addressed uniquely to me. Later I came to understand that, in one way or another, life eventually seems to ask it of virtually everyone. When that happens, do you listen to the voice of the spirit, or the heart – or whatever you call it – that tugs inside of you? Do you live an authentic life that expresses what you hear – or do you live a counterfeit life that may feel safe, but which forecloses on any possibility of real happiness? Because, I’ve learned, soul misery is the inescapable consequence when we betray ourselves.
At bottom this question is really a spiritual one, and in my case I was able to answer it because of a spontaneous spiritual awakening which happened to me in my early twenties. The experience I’m talking about was not “religious” as most people use the term – it was a sudden, direct experience of my connection with all of life, and a felt sense that I am a part of the world, not something that stands on the sidelines and watches the world. It was a confrontation with the mystery that is succinctly described by Rumi: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” Nothing is a more radical cure for our “self-esteem issues” than being enfolded in that vision! I have come to regard spirituality as essential to human well-being; “spirituality” understood as tending to that in us which never separates, but unites; and which never shames but affirms.
Over the years I’ve encountered just about every form of therapy and self-help process that is on offer, and have practiced many of them, but there is one practice that towers in effectiveness above all the others – and that is regular mindfulness meditation. I know that I don’t have to explain what it is in much detail, since it’s all the rage now, and everyone seems to have at least heard of it. Mindfulness means getting out of our normal busy-ness, our constant “doing” mode, and resting in “being” mode. It means just being present to whatever is happening without judging or trying to change anything. I’ve been so impressed with the power of mindfulness practice to improve almost every aspect of life that it is almost all I teach as a psychotherapist anymore. If you want to have a deeper understanding of yourself and life, there is nothing I know that is more effective than simply to pay attention to what is actually happening in front of your own nose.
What I’m outlining here are, I suppose, the guiding values of an introvert – pay attention to what is happening inside of you, and be loyal to what you find there. To come home, again and again, to the silent witness that is always there inside of us, is the only way I know how to survive the insanity of this dark moment in our country’s history. Almost everyone I know who is awake these days seems to swing between rage and despair, and have to fight to resist being consumed by depression. The Enlightenment values of reason, civility, respect for factual reality, and just plain ordinary human decency, are all under assault in the era of Trump, while irrationality, tribalism, intolerance, cruelty, and extremism are so ubiquitous that it is essentially impossible not to be affected by the toxicity. In times like these, the most effective way I know to keep our own sanity and act effectively is to be able to be still, and to hear the quiet voice of one’s own soul.
Finally, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in this life is just how indispensable are connections with others, and just how much I have gone astray whenever I’ve tried to go it alone. It’s important that we know what is inside of us, but it is equally important that we are connected to what is inside of others as well. My greatest good fortune was to be born in San Francisco, and to have been able to live and work through my whole adult life in the LGBTQ community here. More of you than I can ever count have held me up when it seemed as if I could no longer stand on my own two feet. To all of you who have followed my thoughts in this space over the decades, I have felt your silent presence constantly, and your support and encouragement has meant more to me than I can ever put into words.