Was It Really Curiosity that Killed the Cat? Or Was it Boredom?

You have heard the saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” I beg to differ.

Richard and I once had a delightful cat. Her name was McGonagall, called after Scotland’s worst poet, William Topaz McGonagall.  She lived to be 17 ½ years old, dying in old age and from natural causes. She managed to survive four busy toddlers and as many manses, all built across from high traffic roads and highways. She always went out every evening to explore the great outdoors, not returning until the sun came up. On two occasions only did she stay away longer than one night. Although she played her cards pretty close to her chest, it seemed to us that she enjoyed a pretty exciting night life, certainly far more riveting than anything we were getting up to with four small children in tow!

McGonagall definitely did not die from curiosity! But a lot of people do and that’s a tragedy.

Many years ago when my mother was a very young woman trying to make a living during the Great Depression, the company she worked for finally decided to shut down the plant and give its employees a week’s paid holidays. Everyone was over the moon. Everyone except one ornery Scotsman. (I know the Scots are not faring well in today’s blog!) He was furious about being forced to take a week’s vacation. When everyone returned to work a week later, filled with stories of what they had got up to on their holidays, he did not. It seemed he had died during his week off work. Sadly, my mother said that she suspected he had died of boredom.

We see this frequently when people retire. I remember an old school principal in my congregation warning another parishioner who had just retired from teaching, “Be careful. Many teachers have a heart attack and die after six months into their retirement.” What he should have said was not “Be careful,” but rather “Be curious!” Fortunately, his younger colleague is a very curious man and his curiosity has led him to meaningful pursuits with Big Brothers and Big Sisters and also to places as far away as China, where he taught English for several years.

After interviewing a variety of individuals for his illuminating study on finding your vocation, author Gregg Levoy, concluded that the people who are most responsive to their calling are those who have a high level of curiosity about their world, other people, and their own selves. They are also happier and healthier. “Curiosity is the cure.”

So if you are struggling to find a calling or purpose in the second half of your life, consider those things about which you are curious. Not really curious about anything? A good way to hone your curiosity skills is to “pay attention” to what is going on in and around you. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell, whom Levoy quotes, said that often our problem is one of “inadvertence, of not being alert, not awake.” Start by looking around your neighbourhood to see what the needs are.

Get curious. It just might save your life!

Victoria Day: A Boomer Memory

Today is Victoria Day in Canada. Celebrated only in English Canada and Scotland, and not in the rest of the UK, this holiday has always signified the start of summer.[1]

          Its history goes back to the nineteenth century, commemorating the birthday of Queen Victoria, who was born on May 24, 1819. Victoria reigned for just over 63 years. Her birthday was declared a Canadian holiday by the government in 1845. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Canada’s parliament officially named the holiday Victoria Day, and it was decided that it would always be celebrated on the second last Monday in May. In 2021, that’s May 24th.

          When I was a youngster I remember that my Dad would always fly the Union Jack from our house. If the weather were nice, which it often was, we would head to my grandmother’s cottage for the weekend, which we loved because we got to swim in the lake. On the evening of Victoria Day we celebrated with fireworks and sparklers. Unfortunately, I also remember getting my hands burned a few times when I was given a sparkler to wave around, at least until my mother said enough is enough and wisely put an end to that practice. While we continue to celebrate Victoria Day today in English-speaking Canada, and some towns and cities still have firework displays, I think many have forgotten the holiday’s connection to Queen Victoria and our British roots. But for those of us who grew up in the Boomer generation, as well as our parents and grandparents, the links to the British throne were still very strong. Every day, as part of the morning exercises in elementary school, we pledged our allegiance to the Queen (Elizabeth II) and then sang “God Save the Queen”, followed of course by the Lord’s Prayer.    

          While I have fond memories of those days, times have changed. I still admire the present Queen for her devotion to duty, her incredible stamina, and her willingness to embrace people from all cultures. She has been a strong, stable and non-anxious presence in times of crisis and upheaval. However, no longer do schoolchildren in Canada pledge allegiance to the Queen or sing “God Save the Queen”. Instead they sing: “O Canada”. Occasionally they say the Lord’s Prayer, but they also include rituals and spiritual traditions from other religions and from First Nations Spirituality. The vision, even if it is not yet realised, is for a far more inclusive society, one that seeks to tear down the vestiges of colonialism and racism, while promoting right relations with our indigenous siblings, along with justice for all people within our borders and beyond them. Now that’s something to celebrate!

[1] Quebec celebrates Journee nationale des patriots — National Patriots Day.

Diagnosing and Labelling Another is a Very Slippery Affair, says Edwin Friedman

Lately I have been re-reading Edwin Friedman’s classic Generation to Generation. On page 55, when discussing individuals who have recently been given a particular medical diagnosis, Friedman notes how “the labelling effects of diagnosis destroy the person.” When others in the family or organisation learn the diagnosis, they start to see the diagnosed individual as now being limited in terms of their capabilities. As he adds, “eventually a family member’s label will become confused with his or her identity.”

          This is especially true, Friedman says, when we are talking about older adults. As family members anxiously worry about their aging relatives, they often expect that their older loved one cannot function any better because of “the condition”(p. 56). So they rush in to be supportive, often over functioning and over helping, and thus inhibiting their loved one’s potential. The older person is now seen as one who is no longer capable or as one who is not able to change and grow. The diagnosis thus limits the person’s potential.

          This is another example of how ageism adversely impacts older adults and robs them of the dignity and respect they deserve. When people of any age become identified by labels or diagnoses we fail to see their humanity and potential as God’s precious children. Friedman suggests that when we are tempted to label or diagnose someone else, it is important to look inside ourselves first and see what we are trying to hide. (p. 56) What is going on within us that is causing us to think this way about someone else?

          It is important not only that we do not label others, but also that we do not label ourselves negatively either. Pejorative labels are often self-prophetic. If we think we are stupid or unattractive or clumsy or useless, our thoughts and actions will reflect these feelings. If we think we are too old, washed-up, or that no one values our opinion because of our age, others may well disregard us. Indeed, negative self-talk can greatly restrict our potential by keeping us confined to inhibiting labels.

          Instead it is important that we remember all the good things we have accomplished in life, the love and friendship we have shared, and the good that we continue to do for those around us. Best of all, let us remember these words from Ephesians 2:10: “We are God’s masterpiece!”

Do You Reminisce or Do You Ruminate?

The value of life review has been shown to be a particularly helpful tool in dealing with the aging process. Erikson talked about this in relation to his eighth and final stage of psycho-social development. In order to achieve what he called “ego integrity”, he believed that older adults need to spend some time reviewing their life story. In this way they would be able to make sense of their life, including their accomplishments and relationships. Examining the meaning of past experiences can lead to greater self-understanding and in general creates for greater happiness in life and fewer depressive moods. In this sense “remembering” and “reminiscing” are good things.

Ruminating, on the other hand, probably something many of us do, can lead us to dwell too much on the negative experiences in our lives as well as feelings of guilt and remorse. Typically defined as repetitively thinking about the causes, consequences and the “what if I had done this or not done this”, in other words, our regrets. Sometimes physical decline can lead us into a place of rumination, as we reflect on those things we can no longer do with ease or enjoy.

While ruminating is not always a negative practice, nor something that occurs all the time with older adults (children and older adults in fact ruminate the least), there are things that one can do so that it does not take over one’s life. Things like setting a time limit for how long you will allow yourself to ruminate, journaling about what is troubling you, calling a friend or finding a new distraction (a book, a movie, a crossword puzzle, gardening, going for a walk, playing a musical instrument or listening to some beautiful music). Physical exercise, meditation and prayer are also helpful. Remember to pay attention to the things you ruminate about. Identify your triggers. If acceptance or letting go is not possible or easy for you, consider seeking out the services of a therapist. We all need help from time to time in dealing with the ghosts of our past or the underlying causes of our ruminations. We can all benefit from the wise counsel of a friend or counsellor in dealing with the frustrations of the present too. So whatever you decide, know that you are not alone. And know that you don’t have to go it alone. Speak to your family doctor or contact the Canadian Mental Health Association for further help. There is help nearby!

Invest Wisely

The late Gene D. Cohen, a gerontologist at George Washington University, came up with a simple but brilliant concept to help all of us stay engaged with life as we age. The concept is the “social portfolio,”[1] and it looks something like this:

Gene D. Cohen’s Social Portfolio

 Group EffortsIndividual Efforts
High Mobility/ High EnergyYour activities listYour activities list
Low Mobility/ Low EnergyYour activities listYour activities list

What does this mean? Simply put, you can think of your activities much the way you think of your financial investments. A savvy investor plans a financial portfolio with four things in mind: liquidity, diversification, emergency funds, and long-term growth. Just as you are wise to diversify your investments, so too are you wise to diversify your activities and interests. The reason for diversification is similar to an investment portfolio as well: some of your activities can go badly over time, much as some of your investments can. Think of the social portfolio as a kind of “insurance” in the form of vital activities that can be engaged in even in the face of disability or loss.

The same four concepts that make a good financial portfolio apply to our lifetime investments in relationships and activities. As you read the following, note also that a sound social portfolio balances individual with group activities, high-energy with low-energy endeavours, and high-mobility with low-mobility activities[2]:

  1. You need to have liquidity—hobbies, interests, and relationships to which you can easily gain access. These might include gardening, woodworking, painting, photography, cooking, reading, playing the piano, researching your family history, meditation—things that you may enjoy doing on your own. They may also include book clubs, choirs, theatre groups, walking groups, golf, curling, playing bridge, helping at a soup kitchen, working at the food bank, serving in a local service club or on a church committee—things you enjoy doing with others. Some of these activities require more physical energy while others require less. I have some boomer friends who play ice hockey every Sunday morning before church. I have another friend whose struggles with arthritis do not allow her to exercise or garden the way she used to do. Now she plants box gardens and does water walking at the local YM-YWCA.

Putting together an effective social portfolio takes time and thought. For this reason, Cohen recommended that it should be done with others who know you well. It needs to be noted, too, that one size does not fit all. Extroverts may find it more challenging to engage in solo activities, but having hobbies you can pursue on your own can ease the disappointment that comes when an important social event is cancelled due to inclement weather – or worse: COVID-19! More importantly, they can also be richly rewarding.

On the other hand, introverts (and only twenty five percent of us are true introverts[3]) may find it more challenging to engage in regular social gatherings. Their social portfolios may include fewer large group activities and involve only a few close friends. But as Susan Pinker points out, “being human, introverts still need people.”[4] Indeed, their very health depends on it. As she notes, “the evidence tells us that introverts have a greater risk of dying from cancer, and even an increased susceptibility to catching colds, if they hunker down alone.”[5]

Just as many of us need to force ourselves to build in time for physical exercise, so also must those of us who are more introverted make a real effort to spend time with others. Moreover, one social outlet is not enough. As Pinker writes:

You may be married to the person of your dreams. But if he or she is the only person you feel close to and confide in, you’re one person away from having no one at all. Immunologically speaking, you’re almost naked.[6] I saw this happen with my father when my mother died. She was really his only social contact, and because of this, his already intense grief was greatly compounded. He eventually just faded away. The only time I saw his face light up again was during a brief stay in hospital. Although he had private coverage, the only bed that was available was in the ward. Dad loved it because he finally had other people with whom to converse. When a private room eventually became available, it was no surprise to my brother and me that he declined it. He now had people with whom to chat and visit.

[1] Gene D. Cohen, The Creative Age. Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (New York: Quill, Harper Collins, 2001), 265.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Susan Pinker, The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. (Toronto, Vintage Press, 2014), p. 292.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ibid.

[6] Pinker, p. 291.