Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/18/2011

Who am I? Not a futile question even at 66


Mary is not alone

Mary is not alone

The pursuit of happiness? At what cost? Anyone with any sense will see instantly that this is a self-absorbed little purge by a rueful loner, a misanthrope. Or perhaps I’m saying stuff everyone feels but most people are afraid (because being “up” is the name of our game, happiness is our pursuit no matter at what spiritual cost) to think, much less say.

At sixty-six, asking what one wants to be when one grows up is ridiculous. Surely one knows by now, and surely one is grown up by now.

I want to be a concert organist. Composer. Great novelist. Triathlete. It’s clear. I want to be extraordinary, if not rich at least famous. But not a Kardashian.

Grandiosity aside, one of my fondest dreams is to be is socially adept. I’m invited to a party this weekend with people I barely know. We take classes together.  I’ve had one fifteen minute conversation with one of them.

My friends assure me when I mention it that I am socially adept. Most of my friends became friends because we were involved in some activity together that required at least pleasant acquaintanceship.

I can barely imagine going to a party for the purpose of making friends. Or meeting interesting people.

To explain. I’ll jump right into the middle of my thinking, without preparation.

I’m at the stage in life when almost everything that happens seems to be a major life change. Nothing I experience these days seems to revert to, oh say, the ‘70s. Just why I think that might be a good idea, I’m not sure. I’d rather forget Richard Nixon altogether. But in the ‘70s it never occurred to me there was anything I wanted that I could not have or accomplish. Of course, I was young and thin and a full-blown practicing alcoholic. So my grasp on reality was anyone’s guess.

And then a friend—older, wiser and more intelligent than I—gave me a copy of The Denial of Death by Earnest Becker. I read it, and it added a dimension to my thinking, a dimension that eventually changed everything about my view of the world. OK, so I thrive on hyperbole. I AM a drama queen.

When Pat gave me the Becker book, I was recently divorced because I had finally come to grips with the fact that I was living a lie—come to grips not because I was in any way noble, but because I am not smart enough to keep two lives straight (pun intended). The gay one kept interfering with the straight one, and it was just too complicated.

The problem with the sea-change I experienced was that I changed but gave up none of my ideas about myself. I was too damned stubborn to do that. Or too young. I had no concept that

to successfully negotiate a major life change—to come out on the other side of a traumatic life event—one must recommit to goals in order to restore positive functioning. Important life changes require a change in one’s goals, but disengaging from previously valued goals is a difficult process that involves recognizing that one’s abilities, opportunities, and life circumstances will never lead to one’s hoped-for future (1).

I was determined to carry into the vast and infinite future of my unfettered  life the hopes and desires I’d always had—in no particular order: an important job as an organist with attendant fame and fortune; a rich, famous, and handsome husband; the O’Henry prize for a short story—you get the picture. The kind of dreams every narcissistic, alcoholic, egomaniac has with no concept of the discipline it might take to achieve.

And then Pat gave me that book. (It was, by the way, a very popular book.)

The title of the article quoted above is the topic of this writing. “Lost And Found Possible Selves: Goals, Development, and Well-Being.” I like the idea of “lost and found possible selves.” It would have been a great idea to hold onto in the ‘70s. Possible selves, according to King and Hicks

are personalized representations of the important life goals. Possible selves encompass not only the goals we are seeking but all of the imaginable futures we might occupy. Possible selves serve as cognitive resources that motivate the self throughout adult development (2).

I don’t know why I want to be socially adept. Something to do with depression. I’m seeing a new therapist (a PhD psychologist this time). Last session he told me I had described to him in five minutes five of the characteristics of depression: lack of sleep, lack of pleasure in normal activities, hyper irritability, inability to focus or make decisions, recurrent thoughts of death.

So feeling like this I’m supposed to go to a party with a bunch of virtual strangers? Nope. Not me.

But I’ll bet most people who go to such parties feel exactly as I do. Becker was right, of course. We will deny death right up to the moment of dying. We’ll go to parties and concerts and make a million dollars a year and buy a new house and Occupy Wall Street. We hope to avoid

. . . the central dilemmas of emerging identity: sorting out our own values from those we have inherited . . .  negotiating a life path within the frameworks of the families, communities, society, and culture in which we live. [We deny that] Identity development requires that an individual negotiate the difficult balance that must be struck between the imperative of being true to oneself and the desire to belong (3).

It’s negotiating that life path that’s the kicker. My fear is that my desire to belong is an exact negation of being true to myself. I don’t belong. I’m not only clinically depressed. I stopped denying death a long time ago—and not because I read it in a book.

I’ve written before about one of my favorite plays, The Insanity of Mary Girard, by Lanie Robertson. Mary is a sane woman (based on a true story) committed to an insane asylum by her husband in order to steal her sizeable fortune.

We’re all Mary Girard. Committed to asylums not for our money, but for our lives. We go to parties to meet the other inmates. And the parties deny death. They are the milieus in which we look for our “possible selves,” those possible selves that “serve as cognitive resources that motivate the self throughout adult development.” Those possible selves that “will never lead to our hoped-for future.” That hoped-for future without death. We have to deny death because

The difficulty with imagining our own mortality. . . is due . . . to a certain proclivity toward two common tendencies: on the one hand is the predilection to habituate and routinize death by associating it exclusively with others and, on the other, is a misplaced confidence in ourselves, particularly in our youth or good health (4).

So it’s no longer off to the party. It’s staying home finally to “[disengage] from previously valued goals.”

To find out what I want to be when I grow up.
(1) King, Laura A., and Joshua A. Hicks. “Lost And Found Possible Selves: Goals, Development, and Well-Being.” New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education 114 (2007): 27-37.
(2) King and Hicks, op. cit.
(3) King, Laura A., and Nathan Grant Smith. “Gay and Straight Possible Selves: Goals, Identity, Subjective Well-Being, And Personality Development.” Journal of Personality 72.5 (2004): 967-994.
(4) Perreira, Todd LeRoy. ““Die Before You Die”: Death Meditation As Spiritual Technology Of The Self In Islam And Buddhism.” Muslim World 100.2/3 (2010): 247-267.




  1. perhaps while you were being the perfect child and the concert organist, I was out learning to be social. When you see someone you want to talk to, go up to them and say, “Hi I am Harold.” Also, I learned in therapy to start a conversation by complimenting something you see in the other person. Sometimes I practice in Target by telling someone that I like her hair style or the jeans she is wearing. Saying to a mom who has a kid all over the cart, “wow you must be a good mom.” What you send out will come back to you, I promise. Go to the party.



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