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Early acknowledgment of life’s additions, subtractions, a formula for easier living - 3/11/2016

Human beings are a crazy lot. From the moment we are born, we look to discover what we can do or be to gain recognition and love. Perhaps, it’s DNA, but your parents and society strongly reinforce this attitude.

You’re encouraged to crawl, walk and run at an early age. You’re rewarded for being the strongest, fastest, prettiest or smartest child in your family. You’re encouraged to excel at music, sports and academic pursuits. In essence, you are told in words and behavior that slow starters are losers who haven’t made their parents proud and don’t deserve attention or privileges.

The result is most of you are reluctant to admit your limitations and inadequacies, or to recognize you aren’t perfect. You can mouth the words “that no one’s perfect,” but it doesn’t excuse you. In your eyes, there always are other people who are able to do things you cannot; are smarter than you and more talented. The oddity is in many more instances than not, you discount your own abilities or fail to recognize them, while you aggrandize the talents of others.

If you have watched the television program, “Undercover Boss,” you know it’s a series where the senior executive of a company works undercover in his own company to determine how his firm really works and what his employees think. While undercover, the senior executive almost always discovers that he or she can’t work the register at, for example, one of the 350 hamburger stores he oversees, let alone remember an order or work the short-order line.

For many, that would result in your emotionally berating yourself or being totally embarrassed that an individual making $10 an hour excels at a job you can’t perform – the reason being, you look at the world through a lens that magnifies your every shortcoming or insufficiency.

Consequently, you fall into the addition game. You try to accumulate more and more credentials, trophies, degrees and achievements in an attempt to elevate your sense of sufficiency. But, ask yourself, how many accomplishments would it take to make you OK?

Let me tell you a story that dates back to when I was 27 years old. I was attending college. My wife was working as a waitress from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and I had classes from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. After class, I’d go home and change clothes for my first job, selling shoes in a department store. After closing time, I’d rush to my second job, at a bank clearing house, where I worked until 3 or 4 a.m.

Before changing clothes, however, I had 20 minutes to play ball with some of the kids living on my block. I was one of their favorite people. In my mind, I was just one of the guys. Then one week, I wasn’t available because I had tests at school. The next time I joined them, they started calling me Mr. Reitman. I almost looked behind me to see if my dad was standing there, because in my eyes I was still one of the boys.

All of a sudden, I felt I had to be responsible, and it was frightening. It made me realize I wasn’t a kid anymore, and I didn’t want to look at that. More than ever before, I realized I had to go to school, couldn’t fail and didn’t have time to “throw the ball” anymore. I had bigger fish to fry and to add to my list.

Time flew. My list of achievements increased, and my feelings of insufficiency seemed to diminish at least until December 2015. It was our 60th wedding anniversary and our daughter’s birthday. To celebrate, she arranged and paid for a trip to Costa Rica for the entire family. In the course of being in this island paradise, I found myself getting irritated, first with my son-in-law, because of his behavior, which contributed to our grocery shopping excursion lasting far too long; and second, with my grandson-in-law and future grandson-in-law, because I felt their pranks in the swimming pool were excessive.

There is something about me you need to know. I’m a “Type-A” person. I write. I have a long list of projects, I want to complete, another book I want to write, and a full-time clinical practice. What I’m ashamed to admit, however, is I go through life adding projects, so I don’t have to look at how inadequate I sometimes feel.

But, as I sat in this beautiful environment, all my “additions” slipped away. I wasn’t in charge. I didn’t have to go to work or write anything. I wasn’t the cook whose food everyone praised, because my daughter hired a chef. When we went rafting, there was a steep embankment I had to descend and, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t the first one down.

Worse, there were two steep inclines, where I had to allow the guide to support me. Then, on a zip line, after going three-fourths of the way down, I didn’t have the strength to hold myself up, and I felt embarrassed and weak. Similar to the realization I had at 27, I realized at 83, I was old and without my “additions” to hide behind, I was forced to see me for who I am.

Today, my eyes are open to the fact that I can physically no longer do some of the things I used to do. I accept I’m older, although I don’t like admitting it. I can see that when I wasn’t the chef, author, psychologist or in charge, I needed a smoke screen to help avoid facing myself. I now understand why women often experience problems when their children leave home, and men who retire morph into bitter old men, become alcoholic or die.

The intelligent adult in me really doesn’t care how long a shopping trip takes and fully accepts 20-year-olds should horse around in a pool. It wasn’t until I was able to look in the mirror and say, “You’re 83. There are certain things you can’t do but you’re still OK,” was when my unfounded irritation disappeared, and I realized how very fortunate my wife and I are that our family still wants us around.

I want to remember that at 84, so I won’t have to get angry over anything if I can’t work 12 hours a day anymore. It’s now apparent to me that most of us spend our lives trying to make ourselves acceptable to the world because we aren’t acceptable to ourselves. As you get older and divest yourself of activities and responsibility, i.e., start the subtraction game, it becomes more painful to face yourself. How much easier life would be if only we had learned to accept ourselves in the first place.

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