by Mitch Albom
Review by Debbie Hill on Sep 5th 1999
Also reviewed: Mary Pipher, Another Country : Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders. (Riverhead Books, NY) 1999.
Why do we baby boomers seem to talk different languages than our parents even when we have the best interests of the other at heart? Why do petty and not so petty childhood experiences (ours and their's) seem to get in the way of real communication, especially in times of crisis? Why can't we just talk to each other?
Communication between the generations is at the heart of the message Pipher is trying to send in Another Country: "From both generations I hear stories of conflict, frustration, guilt, and anger. While the old often feel abandoned and misunderstood, their younger relatives often feel unappreciated, stressed, and guilty." (p. 7)
However, Pipher contends that "The two biggest changes over the course of this century have been our move from a pre-psychology to a post-psychology culture and our move from a communal to an individualistic culture." (p.18-9) It's hard for us to believe that there was a pre-Freudian way of processing our experiences and that our parents and grandparents fashioned a reality that doesn't include the importance of "me." We tend to think that the generations are more alike than different, but the importance of the way in which people's thought processes are formed should not be underestimated. This difference has "led [the old] to a different set of conclusions about the world, conclusions that keep us from communicating easily and clearly with each other." (p. 92) Lack of connection among families and the cultures in which each generation grew up and on which they based their thought processes poses a lacuna that threatens to engulf us all unless we sit up and pay attention.
She posits two kinds of cultural diversity: time and place. Knowing what parents' childhood experiences were and where they spent time in their lives may help children better understand their attitude and behavior. "A person from a specific era will have a certain 'collective unconsciousness.'" (p. 68) About the 1950s, it became more common to live among people you didn't grow up with than ones you did. As we became more mobile in jobs and residences, the values of conformity, stoicism, duty to family and community gave way to individualism, self-actualization, and independence. Dependence became a dirty word. One's individual freedom became more important than the common good. Submission has given way to self-analysis. "We have no language for nurturing interdependency." (p.17)
In analyzing these differences, Pipher makes a distinction between young-old and old-old not so much by age but by health. The young-old have the time, energy and health to enjoy life and, therefore, are not as needful of their relatives and friends. The old-old are losing their health often along with their friends, relatives, autonomy, and pleasure in life. When adult children and grandchildren try to help the old-old especially, roadblocks tend to block efforts. The children often need to become the parents but it's a role-reversal that is not easy for either generation. May Sarton said that "[old age is] a foreign country with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged." (p. 15) [We have] a new kind of ignorance.... today we aren't likely to have much contact with old people until we are relatively old ourselves." (p. 17) The old may feel like their autonomy is being threatened and the young may feel overwhelmed by the demands.
However, Pipher doesn't just theorize; she gives us effective case samples of how to achieve these compromises in various situations. In every case, whether it is mentioned or not, it is evident that both the older and the younger generations are trying to find meaning in their relationships and the experiences they face. For Pipher, this means that the elders' lives become more "sacred," i.e., "move toward wholeness" and, as they realize the end of their life is inevitable, they tend to "[grow] a soul." (p. 270) She considers the soul to be "the governor of the system, the beliefs that motivate and explain every action. A soul is that which endures, that which gives meaning." (p. 270-71)
Tuesdays With Morrie is about Albom's sociology teacher in college, his favorite teacher. Although they were very close during Albom's college years, he did not stay in touch after graduation. He happened upon a "Nightline" broadcast one night that was an interview with Morrie, thereby learning his favorite teacher had ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) for which there is no cure. He decided to get in touch again and began the "Tuesday" sessions that became a memoir of how to die well. "Growing a soul" and becoming more whole were clearly the priorities as he lay dying. Finding meaning becomes more and more important as we age.
In the old-old, particularly, "illness [becomes] the battleground. . . ." (p. 187) Their behavior may range from being overwhelmed by emotions to feeling nothing. They are "ordinary people for whom all hell has broken loose" (p. 181). The day that Morrie learned his diagnosis, that there was no cure, little treatment and that he would die an agonizing death, he "was stunned by the normalcy of the day around him. Shouldn't the world stop? Don't they know what has happened to me? . . . Now what?" (Albom, p. 8, author's italics) According to Howard Brody, because one copes with illness with the strength of one's convictions, the "illness experience must be given an explanation of the sort that will be viewed as acceptable, given the patient's existing belief and worldview." (Brody, p. 6) It may force a change, "so that the story that will be told of one's life includes the previous life plan up until the sickness occurs, followed by a reexamination and a formulation of a new life plan." (Brody, p. 83) and this involves grieving the old life.
Mourning all kinds of losses may be a large part of coping with serious illness, whether or not it is life-threatening. In asking Morrie whether he felt self-pity sometimes, Morrie replied, "'Sometimes, in the mornings . . . that's when I mourn. I feel around my body, I move my fingers and my hands--whatever I can still move--and mourn what I've lost. I mourn the slow, insidious way in which I'm dying. But then I stop mourning. . . . I give myself a good cry if I need it." (Albom, pp. 56-7)
Our systems of thought endow pain "with a time-bound meaning--whether theological, economic, scientific, or psychological. We make sense of pain in much the same way that we make sense of the world. Sometimes pain can even reveal to us beliefs and values we did not know we held." (Morris, p. 45) For Morrie, "The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning." (Albom, p. 43, author's italics) The dying man researched (as he had all his life) different cultural and religious perspectives on death as well as life afterward and arrived at an amalgam that suited him.
The losses that plague the old-old are also of community: their friends and relatives die off one by one, they may be invalid and unable to experience first-hand the outdoors. These upsets often lead to a reactive depression. Robert Jay Lifton likens this to the survivor who "struggles perpetually to find significance in his survivals. . . . [If] he fails in this struggle, he becomes locked in despair . . . , [numbness] . . . and static negativism as [he] maneuvers to avoid the full pain of lifeless, separated, and disintegrated existence." (Lifton, p. 196)
Pipher reminds us that "The old look for their existential place." (p. 15) Her entire book, really, is about how people die. Unfortunately, most of her cases indicate that many of us are not ready and don't believe that we really will die. Tuesdays With Morrie, however, is an entire book about learning a lesson on how to die well. "Learn how to die, and you learn how to live" says Morrie. (Albom, p. 83) Albom learned that Morrie wanted to die the way he lived--by having lots of friends and relatives around him, by being able to love until he died. After attending the funeral of a dear friend who had died suddenly, Morrie decided to have a "living funeral" so he could hear all the nice things his friends and relatives would say about him while he was still alive!
Albom had intended the "Tuesdays" to be just about Morrie, "Study me in my slow and patient demise. Watch what happens to me." However, somewhere along the way, it became about both of them. " Learn with me." (Albom, p. 11, author's italics) It involved how each of them grew up and where, what childhood experiences they each had that influenced the choices they made as adults and how they viewed the world. Morrie's dying changed Albom's outlook on life, made him rethink his own priorities and choices.
Pipher, too, spent a lot of time letting the young-old and the old-old just talk to her about anything and everything in order to try to understand who they were. It is clear that they made a profound impact on her life; she is trying to convey that we, too, can be deeply moved by learning who our (and others') parents and grandparents are.
Another Country is a weighty but very accessible book. Unfortunately, there is no index so it is harder to use this as a reference work. I would have preferred more depth in the consideration of the impact of chronic illness and pain but, as I have mentioned, there are many books that accomplish that. The author's goal was to make clear the differences between the generations, how we can learn from each other and how we can learn to communicate again. She has succeeded admirably at that task by compassionately but clearly making us aware of the seriousness of the situation and the remedies for it.
Morrie's story, as told by his student, is a needed message for old and young alike--no matter what the age. It has lessons on dying and living. Morrie would have definitely agreed with the thought that "It is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us." (Hammarskjold, p. 138)
Brody, Howard. Stories of Sickness (Yale: New Haven) 1987.
Hammarskjold, Dag. Markings (Ballantine: NY) 1983.
Lifton, Robert Jay. Broken Connection: On Death & the Continuity of Life (Basic: NY) 1983.
Morris, David B. The Culture of Pain (UC: Berkeley) 1991.