On Aging, "I got what I wanted" Barry Magid December 19th 2009

When I was 11 years old, the age my son is now, my father turned 50, and I was rather shocked at how old a dad I had, and I said to him, “Gee Dad, 50 years old! You’re old enough to die!” He didn’t care for that too much. When I turned 60, my son was gentler with me, and he wrote out a card that said, “Don’t worry, Dad. You're only one day older than you were yesterday, so you’re not so old.” The two different reactions I suppose typify our experience of time and aging, and most of the time, the way my son describes it is how I think most of us feel. We get old one day at a time, and one day doesn’t feel that different from the day before, if we’re lucky. The difference is imperceptible. On the other hand, we have this wonderful tradition of birthdays and counting years. When the odometer turns over, it’s by the decade, and we can’t help but mark it.

One of the ways we mark it, inevitably, is to think about what we’ve done or what we haven’t done in our lives up to this point. I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said that there are two tragedies in every person’s life. The first is not getting what you want, and the second is getting it. I think that certainly when one turns 60 it’s a good time to notice one’s reaction to those two basic tragedies in one’s life and see how one is responding to them. I think it’s very much part of our practice to look at what we’ve wanted and how we’ve responded to getting it or not getting it, to look at: Where did that desire come from? What did we want it for? What did we imagine it was going to do for us? And that, of course, is the basis of the second tragedy, the tragedy of getting what you want, because you have to confront the gap between the reality and the curative fantasy that you’ve carried around for a long time. The deep “if onlies” that we so often build a life on, build a career on, build a relationship on. If only. If only I was famous. If only I was rich.

Mostly I’ve had to deal with getting what I wanted, for better or for worse. I have become the person I wanted to be, who I thought that was, what I imagined, having a chance to be a psychoanalyst, be a Zen teacher, being able to put those two things together. That’s really what I wanted to do, and I’ve been able to do that, and I count myself very, very lucky that circumstances came together to allow me to fulfill that dream. By and large I don't have too many regrets about the way it’s turned out, even if when I started out I probably thought that Zen Master was akin to being Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. You know, when we went to Garrison and we did the dharma transmission ceremony, that was pretty close to being Gandalf. That was very cool. So I got to do all this stuff and it was fun.

When I think of the way my practice has developed and my teaching has developed over the years, probably I could say that it has all grown out of a single realization of the inherent perfection of all things just as they are, a deep sense that nothing is broken and nothing needs fixing. I suppose like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, I just had this one idea that I kept expounding in different forms year after year. It’s a realization that certainly has transformed my life and enabled me to work the way I have.

But it’s very, you could say it’s very one-sided, only half the picture. It’s not the kind of realization that propels someone to social activism. It’s the kind of realization that runs the danger of quietism, of seeing problems as basically internal rather than social or political, that allows people to come deeply to peace with themselves inside but isn’t directed outward necessarily in a compassionate activity, although I think it’s given me a great deal of empathy and compassion for the way people can suffer thinking that they are broken or lacking something. And it’s given me a great deal of impetus to help others see that that isn’t necessarily the case and that therapy or practice or life is not about always trying to fill some inner deficit or fix some inner damage.

But it is still one way of seeing life and the world. It’s not the only or the complete way. It can neglect perhaps the role that others play in our lives to the extent that we need the support and love of others to be fulfilled. There’s always the danger in this practice of feeling that our realizations make us self-sufficient and I think I’ve at times fallen victim to that. I have had to be reminded over and over again that all of us are dependent on one another and one another’s support and love. And we do not do this alone.

In many ways I have been able to do the things I’ve wanted to do and I’ve been able to live the life and practice the way I wanted, and always wanted to, and I suppose that if I look to the future at what I want in the next 60 years, I don’t feel ambitious for much except more of the same. I suppose I could be accused of leading a Groundhogs Day existence, doing the same thing over and over again with little variation, trying to get it better the next time, but that suits me.

I think this is probably a side of the fact that when you experience loss or some discontinuities in your life, you can get very attached to repetition and sameness, and I’m sure that’s happened to me. But at the moment I’m mostly grateful for the opportunity to be able to practice with you all these years. Nothing will stay the same. I’m sure we will not be able to do just what we’re doing now forever, without change. But for right now I am very grateful for the opportunity to have done it, and I hope we will all continue to be together for a long time to come.

Thank you.

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