In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my transformation into Tech Girl, a mature woman who would swoop in to rescue digitally challenged elders who were being attacked by electronic personal assistants and harassed by poorly designed log in routines. And, while I am still looking forward to that superhero assignment once I retire and have the time I need to become a proper superhero–wardrobe, branding, licensing and insurance coverage—I am increasingly concerned that I am actually losing other superpowers. Actually, what seems to be to be superpowers at age 66 were talents I took for granted a few decades ago. These seem to be simple enough tasks but it should be remembered that even a genius like Siri can’t do these things very easily so I should give myself a break as well and not be too concerned with these changes.
These superpowers once in hand no longer easily accessed include:
The Begats. Keeping the names and the progeny of friends and family members straight and remembering without effort who gave birth to whom and in what order. Like the Old Testament in Genesis with all those begats. This contemporary version is harder because it seems back then everyone had his own name and you didn’t have to keep straight all the many Mallorys, Melanies, Melissas and Madison who are in your life.
Old dogs: no tricks. Adults are often surprised beyond reason when they hear a toddler speak perfect French. Well, maybe not like the French majors at the Sorbonne but French that is better than mine despite years of adult effort. While learning algebra or verb tenses seemed to be a normal part of growing up, learning some things grows harder as you age. It seems the memorizing part of your brain diminishes and the area of your brain some idiot designed for forgetting swells up. This is like saving something special in the refrigerator for lunch and having your partner pitch it in the trash (over and over again.)
Disappearing acts. In my earlier days, I could cavalierly reject the advice from Benjamin Franklin or Felix Unger—a place for everything and everything in its place. I could find things no matter I misplaced them. I had a great memory. My bathing suit? At the bottom of the swimming pool. My driver’s license? In that pair of pants I wore last summer. My keys? Somewhere in the house. None of these things were really missing. Just temporarily not in my possession. Now, I am seriously constrained. I spend way too much time putting things where they belong. The ease of the spontaneity has gone. Now, I have a Container Store mentality—I can’t not worry about storage and filing and I hate it. Now, when I lose things, I know right away that they are seriously lost. There is no mystery or hope or wonder.
Mindlessness. There is a lot written about the brain’s executive function. As I understand it, this is your brain’s control center. Like an air traffic manager, this function manages thoughts in and out; it lines up activities. It is a big to-do list maker, directing everything from brushing your teeth to ordering your bigger priorities. I used to leave this function to operate itself. I was confident in the management of my brain. In fact, I would be happy to give it a outsized salary and stock options; it was that high-performing. However, after a decade of disappointing results, I mounted a hostile takeover of operations. Never mind, I grumbled, I’ll do it myself. Now, I spend more time managing things—to do lists everywhere in every format. I write them over and over again. It is weird, no doubt. It is like ordering yourself to do work, like a memo from a manager who doesn’t want to deal with you face-to-face. I have moved from the pleasure of automatic pilot to to-do list automaton. I miss the mindless me.
A tale thrice (or more) told. There is no question but that I was blessed with a reliable memory. Not only could I remember a personal story, I could also recall when and with whom I had shared the tale. Now, when I am about to make a point with that story, I preface the presentation with, “I may have said this to you before” only to have the other party nod as quickly as they can so they don’t have to sit through another rendering. Not only is this embarrassing because it appears you have no recollection of this important conversation you had with your colleague, it is also makes it virtually impossible to lie effectively. To be a great liar, you have to keep track of your tracks and if you can’t do that, you need to be careful with your truth. Maybe, that is why the very young find their grandparents so lovely. Children sense that these elders are not as scheming as their parents because they can’t be. They don’t have good enough memories to cook up an airtight tale. They do, however, have enormous powers to make up things because the facticity of things seems to matter less.
In any case, all these powers came very easily to me in an earlier version of myself and now that they don’t, I am thinking I should make plans to cover my deficits and move onto to some important work legacy-like work. And, in fact, I think the powers that I will discuss below are sufficient compensation for any of the superpowers that I have lost.
I am thinking about the next stage of my life and what I need to leave behind. Erikson’s theories of development suggest that in the last two stages of development that adults are first directed to fashion accomplishments that will outlast them. These efforts are often directed to some work or activities that result in a positive impact for others. The final stage of life is a reflective one where a feeling of fulfillment and contentment may surface if one feels satisfaction from earlier stages.
To guide me in this important work, I draw upon two reservoirs of wisdom: first, the theory of mattering and second, the idea of the summoned life. Mattering is a social psychological concept developed and tested by Professor Gregg Elliott at Brown University. Of all the reading I have done in this field, the appeal of mattering stands out in its power and simplicity. Elliott’s work focuses on adolescent development and mattering explains much in a few empirically tested premises. Three elements are at play here. First, does this child feel that it matters to others that he shows up? Or does he feel invisible when he enters a room? Second, does she feel that other people are invested in her success? Do they indicate that they are on her team? Will they take an extra step for her? Will she feel that she is the object of their special attention? And finally, does the child understand that others can rely on her? That they depend on her to take care of them in some way? Does she appreciate those qualities that she has that others recognize but may be invisible to her?
In my read, mattering works in two dimensions: Am I important to them and are they important to me? Elliott proposed that for children, the former can balance out an absence of the latter. In other words, a child can be neglected by his parents (or the opposite—subject to the object of too much of the wrong kind of attention) yet feel as if he matters if he feels his little brother is relying on him for protection, if his aunt can trust with him to complete his chores, or if a teacher understands that this child will protect more vulnerable children and the child acknowledges that her faith in his goodness.
Although designed to help us understand the treacherous waters of adolescence, mattering has significant practical appeal at each stage of our lives. As an older adult and faculty member, I use every opportunity to help my students understand that they matter. I offer investments and interest–Can I write you a letter of recommendation? I missed you in class on Monday; are you OK? I help them to recognize their strengths, as I understand them. You have such strong analytical abilities, I say. Have you thought about graduate school? Or, I saw how upset you seemed by that comment from that other student. You showed great restraint and did a wonderful job returning our class discussion to a more productive exchange. That takes real emotional maturity. We are lucky to have you in this class.
I think about a younger generation of colleagues and the challenges they face in moving up and finding their place in the world. For someone with my career trajectory—finding my calling at age fifty—I am a good example of someone who has led a life of experimentation and ‘try and see’. But things seem much more serious for this generation I consider all the messages they receive about how to value their lives. E.E. Cummings once wrote, “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
That sense of constantly working towards who we are is a profound recognition of the second source of wisdom, lessons about the summoned life to use the term coined by David Brooks. On the surface of it, the summoned life appears to stand in direct opposition to living to execute one’s passion. Brooks suggests that there are two paths of living one’s life. The first is to drill down and find one’s passion and direct one’s energy toward fulfilling. This path seems to be the chief and only commandment adopted by career guidance services and admissions offices in colleges. We will help you put your passion into practice. You will never be happy until your passion aligns with your actions. But, the truth of is that we can move through many stages of development in our lives and that the individual who knows his passion early on may be the rare case.
The alternative path is the summoned life where contingencies and circumstances call you to action. We may be without a driving dream but we do have an integrity that is so strong that others seek to engage it. We may lack passion because we are divided among multiple interests but someone sees that we find connections they elude others. We are the sort of people who integrate ideas not dice them into tiny bits.
Like being inspired by mattering, I am likewise energized by this idea of the summoned life and the sort of work I want to engage people in. I would like to create flight plans for enrolling others in the summoned life and in embracing daily practices of mattering. I believe these are important tools for legacy making, not in grand gestures but in generously and lovingly passing along our belief and confidence in generations to come. Both help us understand and activate Erikson’s concept of generativity—the concern for making a mark, for co-creating a desirable future, and for making a sense of optimism about the future grounded in purpose. Maybe, these are super-powers that can only be granted if we are willing and able to forego others.
Brooks, David. “The Summoned Self.” New York Times, August 2, 2010.
Elliott, Gregory, Suzanne Kao, and Ann-Marie Grant. “Mattering: Empirical Validation of a Social Psychological Concept.” Self & Identity 3 (2004): 339-354.