Category Archives: Meaning

A Beautiful Life Ends Beautifully



My godmother, Marian, died last Saturday. It was both sudden and not sudden. She had been fine on Memorial Day when I called, but then a fall on Tuesday led eventually to her being moved to the ICU in the early hours of Saturday morning. They started a morphine drip to make her more comfortable, and we knew she was slipping away.

Two of her children were with her at the end, the other two spoke to her via cell phones that we held to her ear. One drove for more than 4 hours, never expecting to reach her in time, but she kept on breathing quietly, as if she were asleep, for hours after the ICU doctors expected, so he arrived in plenty of time.

Starkey and Marian

Marian with Starkey

During the day, her friends including my children and many of her neighbors came to say goodbye. They sat with her, held her hands, touched her head, spoke to her about what she had meant to them, talked about her fantastic taste, even told her how her beloved little dog was missing her. We had 6 chairs around the bed, and at various times all 6 were full.

Finally at 4:38 in the afternoon with her two sons, me, and another extremely close family friend sitting around her, she took one long breath. Her son said, “Come on Mom, you can make it just a little longer.” He was thinking about his daughter who was on her way by train, due to arrive in about an hour. Then she took one more breath and was gone. Her face instantly looked different, I speculate because all the little muscles relaxed.

Marian knew how to laugh

Marian knew how to laugh, here with my mother

This week there have been many celebrations of her life with all her children and their families around, including 5 grandchildren — a Memorial Service, an open house at her house, countless small conversations, many of them laced with laughter. She was loving, wise, adventurous, and beautiful in many ways. Her hairdresser came to the Memorial Service and talked about how she had helped him learn to love the town that he’d grown up in. He also pointed out the beauty of her twinkling blue eyes, amazed that nobody else had mentioned that particular beauty. She also never stopped learning — she’d completed a PhD in Art History in her 50’s and was reading a book in the hospital about an English lord traveling around Yellowstone in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In the program for the Memorial Service, the family included a letter that Marian had written my daughter Laura five years earlier, after Laura asked her for stories about her long life. That letter, especially the last long paragraph, has an important message for those of us still marching on, especially young people.

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

The letter brings to mind her daughter’s comment that Marian always moved to the next stage of life without looking back and regretting the stage that had just passed and without trying to hurry through to the next stage. When she was a mother of small children, she was a mother of small children without wanting to speed up her children’s growing up. When she was a very old woman, she figured out how to enjoy the benefits of old age without (much) mourning of the abilities that had passed or the traveling she could no longer do.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Laura,

Marian with Laura

Marian with Laura at my MAPP graduation - when Laura made the request

You can’t imagine how flattering it is as an old woman to be invited by someone of your generation to reminisce about times past.

It was wartime when I emerged from college — as it had been throughout my college career. Pearl Harbor was attacked my freshman year at the University of Idaho, Hiroshima was bombed during my honeymoon in 1945, just after I had graduated from the University of Chicago. Besides the fact that women’s liberation was just beginning to take form, the chaos of wartime cultivated a lemming-like move to the altar: we all wanted to get married, have children, have homes. I had had the dream of becoming a journalist, but I quickly traded that ambition for the security of marrying Bill when he returned from the European front. He had a 45 day furlough before he would be sent on to Japan. What I want to convey to you is the chaos of world events and the unpredictability of my own world when I was at the point of my life that you are now.

So it was make-shift time for me. Instead of looking for a newspaper job, I became a receptionist at the University of Chicago Press, commuting on weekends to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where Bill was waiting for release from the army. By March, when he was again a civilian, we headed for New Haven where he resumed the first quarter of his junior year at Yale. I learned to cook, our apartment was a way-station for returning former students, we spent weekends exploring New York City and going to Dodger games, we often saw your grandparents who were living in New London, Conn. where Lou was stationed at the submarine base there. It was a carefree time and we made the most of it.

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

I did well in graduate school and was given a scholarship to continue beyond the Master’s degree, but didn’t seriously consider becoming a professional. I wasn’t eager to begin having babies, but I felt my role was as a supporting, not competing wife. When Bill had finished his graduate work and received a Fullbright Scholarship for a year in Paris to research his dissertation, I was blissfully happy with the choices I had made. We had a wonderful year, traveling the Continent, visiting your grandparents several times in Oxford. I came home pregnant — Peter was born the day after your mother, July 6, 1951. Your grandfather sent us a cable reading, “Kathryn Leigh arrived,” to which Bill sent the reply, “Kathryn meet Peter.” And so they did, a few years later.

The landscape where you stand, at the brink of your adult life, is so very different from mine. Women have been liberated, not just the exceptional ones but across the board. The choices and opportunities may be overwhelming, but at least you can’t feel limited. A few years of free fall are probably not a bad idea — just savoring life (as I would describe my early years of marriage in New Haven and Paris). Jumping from college into career or into marriage-with-children might prove too confining, even a mistake as you look backwards — as I am doing here — from your eighth decade. These are your luxury years, if you have enough money to give yourself freedom, when you can keep sensitive and searching for what your inner self really is trying to tell you. Pause and smell the roses. But don’t become passive and let the years roll on and over you. A few false starts aren’t necessarily a disaster.

It has been great fun to write all this down.


Marian had a beautiful end, but that doesn’t mean we were ready to let her go. Ah, grief, sadness, the feeling of a hole in one’s life. But also humor, love, and sweet memory. When I lost another friend recently, I found comfort in George Bonanno’s research on bereavement, summarized in Grief is Part of Life. He found that resilient people get comfort from remembering. Perhaps that’s why we all get together after someone dies, to enrich each other’s collections of memories with our own particular stories. I’m richer for knowing that Marian sent her children out to play in the rain because she thought it was sensuous, even as all the other mothers were calling their children in. I’m richer for her granddaughter’s story of taking a raft trip together down the Grand Canyon when Marian was 82, with the guide calling out, “Better wake up your grandmother, we’re coming to another rapids.”



Filed under Contentment, Extraordinary people, Friendship, Gratitude, Meaning, Relationships, Savoring

Mrs. Tim – Spending Time with a Friend in Fiction

I am mindful that I can affect the shape of my life by choosing carefully the people that I spend time around. If a book or movie turns out to be about people who are mean or small-minded or boring, I ponder whether I really want to finish it.

I have a collection of books that I re-read, like eating comfort food, when I need to spend time around people who are cheerful, brave, persevering, humorous, tolerant, wise — that is, in addition to the time I spend with my husband, children, and real friends.

I’ve been re-reading D. E. Stevenson’s series about Mrs. Tim for the last week or two. Mrs. Tim is an army wife in England from the late 1930’s through the late 1940’s. The first book actually grew out of the author’s diaries that she lent to a friend who wanted to know what life as the spouse of an army officer was like. The friend and her husband found the diaries so interesting and entertaining that they urged her to publish them. She pepped up her first set of diaries to make a book about a fictional character, Hester Christie — married to Captain then Major Tim Christie. The second book was based on her war-time diaries and required almost no pepping up because as she puts it, “there was enough pep already in my diary for half a dozen books.”

The last two books occur after the war when Major Tim was stationed in Egypt and Hester was left to manage alone — her children are both in boarding school except for holidays. In the third book, she works as a general dogsbody in a hotel, where she observes and participates in several stories of life being put back together after the war. In this book, Hester has an interesting discussion with her good friend, Brigadier Tony Morley about immortality. Tony had just finished a long conversation with a minister who had given a good sermon.

“Mr. Weir knew at once that I was really interested and came halfway to meet me. When people go halfway to meet each other something happens — something important.”

“Yes — but what is it?” I ask with interest.

“You give a bit of yourself and receive a bit of the other fellow, and you are both richer. … That’s one reason why it’s worthwhile to be alive,” continues Tony. “It’s a sort of immortality we can all achieve.”


“Yes. We all want to achieve immortality. We all want to leave our mark upon the world. What use is it to have lived if we leave nothing behind us when we die. One way to achieve immortality is to have children, another is to write or paint — but not everybody can achieve offspring or works of art.”

“I’m beginning to see.”

“It’s easy,” declares Tony. “if we go about the world giving bits of ourselves to people we meet . . . it’s worthwhile having lived . . . we leave something behind us which goes on–and on.”

I love these books because they are about the ordinary heroism of everyday people, finding ways to get along in their own particular times. Their times included all-out war, but they still squabbled about how to spend the money allocated to the officer wives to run the Christmas party — how much should go for decorations, how much for children’s gifts. Hester is observant and laughs kindly at herself and others.

These books may still be on the shelves of your public library or through Inter-Library Loan, and in a pinch they are available from Amazon.

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, also titled Mrs. Tim Christie,

Mrs. Tim carries on: Leaves from the Diary of an Officer’s Wife in 1940

Mrs.Tim Gets A Job

Mrs. Tim flies home


Filed under Meaning, Relationships, Uncategorized

Reflections on the Meaningful Life

Recently I’ve been trolling through the articles in Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND) looking for ones on various topics — such as positive emotion, flow, goals, positive interventions, strengths — in order to create image maps for others to use as reader’s guides.

Some topics have been written about often — especially gratitude and using strengths. But some have been barely touched, for example, meaning and The Meaningful Life. When I looked a littler further, I found that meaning has also not been addressed very much in the positive psychology literature. Because the Meaningful Life is one of Seligman’s three pathways to happiness, I initially found that surprising, but on reflection, maybe it’s a harder than average topic to address in an empirical way.

Some people define The Meaningful Life as working toward goals that serve a cause larger than oneself in a positive way. That’s fine for people in the active times of life, but when I look at people my mother’s age, I think it isn’t inclusive enough.

I posted an article in PPND about meaning at work as part of meaning in life. Some interesting discussion ensued in the comments, including one comment that people are socialized to think they ought to find meaning in work, become unhappy when they don’t, and could be looking for meaning in other parts of their lives instead. Well said. It’s common for a person to think that what works for him or her works for everybody. So people who find their primary meaning in work may find it hard to understand people who work for money to support families or hobbies that are their primary sources of meaning.

Professor Roy Baumeister

Professor Roy Baumeister

Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs (2005, p. 615) also comment, “Because work does not easily lend itself to existential significance, however, relying on career for meaning in life is associated with career burnout.”

Baumeister and Vohs (2005, p. 610) associate the quest for meaning in life with four main needs:

  1. Purpose: Present events draw meaning from their connection to future outcomes — objective goals and subjective fulfillment.
  2. Values, which can justify certain courses of action
  3. Efficacy, the belief that one can make a difference
  4. Self-worth, reasons for believing that one is a good and worthy person

Although people tend to think of meaning as singular, they quote Emmons (1997), “Empirically, however, people’s lives usually draw meaning from multiple sources, including family and love, work, religion, and various personal projects.”

Professor Kathleen Vohs

Professor Kathleen Vohs

There’s lots more food for thought in the Baumeister and Vohs article. For example they describe actions one can take in pursuit of the 4 needs and ways of interpreting suffering in terms of the 4 needs. I expect I’ll come back to this topic again. For right now, let me end with their proposal that “meaning is necessary but not sufficient for happiness” (p. 612). This may help answer the question that a friend recently asked me: Why does it appear that becoming a parent seems to make people less happy (from a recent Newsweek article). Baumeister (1991) saw extensive evidence that having children reduces parental life satisfaction, but increases the meaningfulness that they experience in life. In my experience, the life satisfaction goes up and down, but the meaningfulness of being a parent stays constant.

Baumeister (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford.Baumeister, R. & Vohs, K. (2005). Meaningfulness in life. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez, Handbook of positive psychology, pp. 608-618). Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.
Emmons, R. (1997). Motives and goals. In R. Hogan & J. A. Johnson (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology, (p 485-512). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.


Filed under Meaning

Reflections on Voting

We just got back from voting in the North Carolina primary. Voting is an activity that brings back lots of memories…

  • About my paternal grandfather who claimed that he never missed an election, not even a local school board race, in his long adult life. As we face the difficult questions about how to end the war in Iraq, I think about his experience as an officer on the Western Front and the letter that he wrote my grandmother about jubilation as World War I ended..
  • Frank Church pictureAbout my maternal grandparents, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, who went to the polls every election to cancel each other’s votes out. Then the year my grandfather, the Republican, posted a sign in his yard for the Democrat, Frank Church, running for the senate in Idaho. Read about Frank Church who said in 1970, “Our long ordeal in this mistaken war must end. The gathering crisis in our own land, the deepening divisions among our people, the festering, unattended problems here at home, bear far more importantly on the future of our Republic than anything we ever had at stake in Indochina.”
  • About my mother cutting up a Nixon bumper sticker in 1960 to form the sentence “Nix on Nixon.” My earliest political memory is her disdain for Nixon’s Checkers speech.
  • About the passion I felt working for McGovern — I see the same passion in young people working for Obama today.
  • About the horrible ambiguity of the outcome of the presidential election in 2000, and yet the pride I felt that we could still have a peaceable transfer of power.
  • About the excitement of this election, that we have both a serious female candidate and a serious African American candidate for president. Much has changed in the United States since the 15th and 19th amendments extended the right to vote to African Americans and women. After 2008, when children are told they can be anything, even president, it will mean much more to little girls and children of color.

A few weeks ago, I met with my Positive Psychology Discussion Group to talk about negative campaigning – why it occurs, whether it serves a purpose. Evolutionarily, the negative is more salient than the positive to people. So for a given budget of ink and robocalls, negative messages may have 3+ times the power of positive messages. Of course there is always the possibility that they may boomerang, like the game we played as children: “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

I personally think it is better to get the possible negatives out of the way so they don’t dog the elected officials, distracting them from the work of forming the necessary compromises that go into governing. That’s one thing about Clinton – we’ve had Clinton dirty linen in front of us for so long that it is hard to believe there is any more. Reverend Wright is a test for Obama. How well does he define his own position rather than letting himself be forced into a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” position.

Benjamin Franklin portraitI’d like to close with Ben Franklin’s words at the end of the Constitutional Convention. He starts, “I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.” He ends with this plea, “On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

I never expect unanimity in our country, but I do hope that however the election turns out, we may all doubt our infallibility, open our ears to other points of view, and find ways to act in common cause.

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Meaning, Optimism

A Man with an Unusual Purpose

In January, Frank Taylor Wright died, age 90.

For years, I’d heard stories from my children and husband about seeing him walking downtown dressed to the 9’s. He wore suits in a rainbow array of colors, complete with matching pocket squares, shoes, ties, socks, hats, and umbrellas. I’d love to include pictures here, but I haven’t gotten copyright permission. So I’ll just add a few links so that you can see Mr. Wright. Each of these links tells a little more of his story, how he’d get dressed and ride a bus from Durham to Chapel Hill and then stroll along Franklin Street. How he came to visit his grandson’s family for a week and stayed 13 years. How he was buried in a red and black suit to express his exuberance. How his grandson’s family is selling his suits to help pay for the funeral expenses. So here are the links to Mr. Frank Taylor Wright …

He told Artie Dixon, a photographer who did a photo essay about him, “”I have to believe people were born for something, and I was born to dress.”

Seeing him was special — it gave us the same joy as seeing a perfect flower blooming. We miss him!

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Filed under Extraordinary people, Meaning

Realistic optimism

Sandra Schneider, PhDI am very fond of a paper by Dr. Sandra Schneider about realistic optimism, not the least because she works the words “warm fuzziness” into the title of an academic paper. How’s that for courage!

Schneider, S. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist. 56, 3, 250-263.

She bases her model on a clear distinction between fuzzy knowledge (“you don’t know the facts”) and fuzzy meaning (“you have latitude in interpretations”).

Optimism is not a good way to deal with fuzzy knowledge. If you don’t know your cholesterol numbers, it doesn’t make sense to just assume you are safe from cardiac disease. Dealing with fuzzy knowledge by assuming the best possible set of facts is dangerous — and why we sometimes equate optimists with ostriches who hide their heads in the sand.

However there are many things that happen in life where people have a range of possible interpretations, all of which may be reasonable ways of making meaning out of the circumstances. Someone walks past me in the hallway without greeting me. I could choose me-centric interpretations: He doesn’t like me. He doesn’t think I’m worth acknowledging. I’m so easy to overlook. Or I could choose other-centric interpretations. Perhaps he was thinking about something else. Maybe he didn’t remember my name and didn’t want to risk being embarrassed. Maybe he doesn’t like to greet people in general. In this instance, selecting a me-centric interpretation would make me miserable, while selecting an other-centric interpretation has no emotional load for me. Realistic optimists make a practice of selecting interpretations that contribute to their own well-being.

Here’s another example of fuzzy meaning based on a situation that is discussed in the context of cynicism in Dr. Joel Wade’s blog:


Written by Dr. Joel Wade

Friday, 03 February 2006

The other day, my wife and I were having lunch, and an acquaintance from our kid’s school came by. The first words out of her mouth were: “How unusual, a husband and wife actually sitting together and talking with each other.”

The acquaintance has chosen to interpret the situation as something odd — an exception to the rule — and thus highlights the opposite — separation and distance between spouses — to herself. Alternatively, she could have interpreted it as yet more evidence of marital warmth — and thus highlighted what was before her, rather than the opposite.

Dr. Schneider makes a strong argument that realism and optimism do not have to be in conflict. When you have interpretative latitude, you can realistically choose more positive interpretations. She suggests three ways that can work:

  1. leniency toward the past (the benefit of the doubt principle)
  2. being alert to what’s positive in the present (the appreciate the moment principle)
  3. choosing to see the future as a challenge and opportunity instead of chore or problem (the window of opportunity principle)

I guess I’m fond of Dr. Schneider’s argument because I find that the distinction between fuzzy knowledge and fuzzy meaning really resonates with my friends, family, and clients. They can see the distinction between not knowing the facts and not knowing the meaning. It makes sense to them that they can’t assume facts line up just they way they want, but their choices of meaning make a difference to their outlook on the world.


Filed under Meaning, Optimism

Lose-lose to win-win at the cellular level

Quite by accident, I watched Nova last week. The show was about epigenetics, the biological mechanisms that control gene expression. The rest of this post is based on my TV show’s worth of education, so please just take it as just my impression. Look in Wikipedia or other sources for more accurate descriptions.

These mechanisms cause cell differentiation within a complex organism. The way they work can also be affected by the environment. In a sense, they carry a memory from the environment and even in some cases from the environments of previous generations. They help explain why identical twins become less and less physically alike as they get older. The show used the analogy of the genome being the computer hardware, while the epigenome is the software. I think a better analogy might be that the genome is a piano and the epigenome is the pianist. A lot of the quality of the sound is built into the piano, but the specific music comes from which keys are struck when.

Aside: I’ve read a number of books on the human genetics, my favorite being James Watson’s book, DNA: The secret of life. It was so clear and well explained that I stopped resenting his arrogance in The Double Helix. I loved learning about searches for the genes associated with specific diseases, about isolating specific genes, about so-called junk DNA, about overlapping genes. The secret of life … well, maybe just the first touch of the secret of life. Other studies such as proteonomics and epigenetics make genetics seem simple by comparison. This all reminds me of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Every time he thought he’d learned enough to be a river pilot, the master pilot would give him another mammoth task. When he learned to remember shapes seen all along the shore and how they related to river depth, then he had to learn them at night. Then he had to learn to remember river soundings called out by leadsmen from earlier trips — so he could remember enough to avoid the 500 shoals between St. Louis and New Orleans. Then …

During the Nova program, I was entranced to learn about a cancer treatment drug that manipulates epigenes associated with cell division. Instead of killing cancer cells outright, this drug works by turning off the oncogenes that make the cancer cells keep replicating past their normal rate. The scientist explained it fancifully as reminding the cell that it is part of a human and needs to play by the rules. Cancer normally plays a win-lose game that turns into a lose-lose game with the body. After all, cancer cells die with the body they kill. So in a way, they win when the body wins. The drug was in clinical trial so I have no idea how effective it will really turn out to be. TV shows tend to select people who are improving dramatically. But it’s a very interesting concept to watch.

I remember reading about cancer patients using visualization as part of the therapy. Right now,  visualization often involves picturing oneself killing the cancer cells. What an advance, if people can start visualizing their cancer cells humbly dropping back into their appointed roles.

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Meaning