Learning to Live with Adversity, I Became a Healthier Person
"Salutogenesis" means the origin of health. It's a way of looking at health and aging NOT from the negatives of disease and affliction, but from all the positive elements that contribute to healthy aging.
The approach appeals to me so much that I've decided to begin 2014 by using it as a model for reevaluating my welfare as an 84-year-old.
I've created a list of what I consider the six most important contributors to my well-being. While it seems odd to place anything above family on that list, I feel I have to start here: a life filled with major ups and downs has enabled me to navigate today's issues -- Parkinson's, prostate cancer, and all the other stuff that comes with being 84 -- with relative equanimity.
My biggest adversary: me
Until age 48, I created most of my own big problems. A volatile combination was at work: my alcoholism and repressed homosexuality. Through my tumultuous early adulthood, I spent a night in jail at least six times.
In March, 1955, as managing editor of the Law Review, I was just a few months from graduating from Cornell Law School. Ranked fifth in my class, I had a job lined up as an instructor at the University of Washington Law School. Everything was coming up roses, or so it seemed.
Then, after an arrest with jail time, I was expelled from law school for conduct in an alcoholic blackout. I don't remember anything about the incident, but authorities told me it involved the men's dorm.
When I tell this story, people often say that Cornell shouldn't have kicked me out for this incident. Then I'm forced to own up to the fact that an almost identical incident happened a year earlier -- alcoholic blackout, men's dorm, arrest and jail. This time the school put me on probation and assigned to therapy with the university's shrink. I spent a year lying to him about my sexual orientation.
I accepted responsibility for that expulsion. I never blamed Cornell (but the school isn't part of my estate plan).
The photo here was taken several years ago during a visit to Ithaca and Cornell's gorgeous campus. (Bumper stickers in Ithaca say "Ithaca is Gorges." I almost did an early exit one drunken evening by nearly falling into one of them.)
The worst things becomes the best
At the time of my expulsion, it felt like the worst thing in the world had just happened. How wrong I was.
I wouldn't have been happy or successful as a practicing attorney. I went to law school mainly because I didn't know what else to do. I wanted to put off dealing with the real world. It seemed my only talent was getting good grades in school. Ithaca was my home town, and I was living at home. I had two part-time jobs and scholarships to cover tuition costs. So I went to law school.
Within a month of being expelled, I was working in Washington, DC, as a legal editor at the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA). I wrote headnotes summarizing court rulings and NLRB cases.
As law students, we had viewed such jobs barely a notch above cleaning toilets.
I resolved to stay at BNA for a couple of years, then move on to a more meaningful job. Soon enough, I fell in love with Washington, with BNA, and with a colleague there who would eventually become my wife.
I stayed at BNA for 40 years. It was one of the country's few 100% employee-owned companies ...until it was acquired by Bloomberg two years ago. Against the advice of all financial advisers, I invested only in BNA stock and retired with a nice nest egg that doubled with the Bloomberg acquisition.
More importantly, I enjoyed a satisfying, rewarding career. Coworkers seemed like family. Today, 19 years after my retirement, several BNA colleagues remain close friends.
Like most old folks, I've faced many other setbacks over the years -- the death of my wife after a battle with cancer, the suicide of my sister, the loss of close friends during those dreadful early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Ooops. Nearly forgot -- my diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1994 and Parkinson's in 2009.
Serendipity, or what?
In the past, I've commented on the role serendipity has played in my life -- the Cornell expulsion, the BNA job.
Lately, I've become uncomfortable with that interpretation of my journey.
Crediting serendipity for a good life isn't much different from saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." I've never liked such comments; they imply that a God or Higher Power has singled you out as special. Crediting Lady Luck isn't that different.
In the past, I felt I was being modest and humble by crediting serendipity. Now I'm not so sure.
It just seems I've found the best way FOR ME to deal with inevitable adversities: accept them, control my inclination to overreact, and persevere. Maybe after the storm, I'll find a safe harbor like BNA. Maybe I won't.
Whatever happens, it won't be because God, a Higher Power, or Lady Luck is out there picking winners or losers. If you live a long life, you'll survive lots of setbacks.
As often happens, I'm reminded of an AA saying. This time the bumper sticker reads: It's OK to look back. Just don't stare.