A Key Question

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A couple of weeks ago Matt -- a long-time client/friend of mine -- called suggesting we get together. On the phone, Matt told me that for a while now he'd had a 'mental itch' he hadn’t been able to scratch. And that this ‘failure’ was beginning to bother him. I told him his 'mental itch' sounded like something that deserved a face-to-face conversation. So, last Monday, at Starbucks, Matt and I had a cup of coffee.

It took us almost an hour to get there, but our conversation finally found its inflection point when, in an off-handed way, Matt said, "Can you believe it, Dave? April and I had our 25th wedding anniversary a couple of months ago?" "No kidding," I said, "that's terrific!" "Yeah," he replied, "And ten days later we paid off our mortgage?"

I paused, and then ask, "Matt, where are you in your life right now?

He paused a bit, then said, "Scared."

"Because...?" I replied.

Matt stopped again, silently moved from pensive to sad, and said "In five months, I'll be fifty. I've been the Vice President of Labor Relations for twelve years, and earlier this year they past me over for Senior VP."

The "American Dream" is a term James Truslow Adams coined in 1931. As framed, Adam's sense of the American Dream pictured America as a nation where everyone who was willing to sacrifice, take risks, and work hard deserved, and would attain, a life for themselves that was richer, fuller, and better in every way than the one that their parents had. If only they were willing to sacrifice and work hard. With Adams and his mythological American nation in mind, I ask Matt, "Have you ever heard of James Truslow Adams?"

It took us several minutes talking about Adams’ sense of “The American Dream,” and what it might mean to him before Matt understood that I was suggesting four things to him about his ‘mental itch’:

  1. That the milestone events he’d just experienced (i.e., his Silver Anniversary and his paying off of his mortgage) and the milestone-failures he'd added to our conversation (i.e., his fiftieth birthday, an overly long tenure as a Labor Relations VP, and his being past over for a 'career defining' promotion) were probably what was creating his unscratchable itch.

  2. That the “unscratchable itch” metaphor he’d come up with probably was the only way his unconscious mind could find to adequately express the self-judgments about his life and his accomplishment that it was asking him to face up to.

  3. That this sub-rosa evaluation process he was caught up in was, without him realizing it, forcing him to use the three success criteria — i.e., status, money, and power — that are embedded in our nation’s wholehearted embrace of James Truslow Adams’ portrait of the American Dream . And,

  4. That, from where I was sitting, it seemed like the “itch” he was so unsuccessfully trying to scratch was troubling because he wasn’t ready to judge the life that he and April had built, and were still building, on the basis of the ‘American Dream’s’ three good-life criteria; i.e., money, status, and power.

“Are you,” I ask him. “really ready and willing to conclude that your life isn’t a success just because you’re not as rich, respected, and powerful as your version of the American dream promised you you’d be?”

“Damn!” was all he could say. At least for a while. Then he ask, “So?”

If you don’t like J. T. Adam’s criteria for a worthwhile, successful life,” I suggested, “maybe you could use other criteria?

Like what?” he ask.

Well,” I offered, “you could reject Adam’s American Dream criteria and try your hand at developing your own criteria for a successful life. It’s not like there’s any indisputable final authority here. And creating your own benchmarks for your own life is probably as good a way to judge yourself as there is. A lot of work, for sure. And it requires a different kind of space than what you probably have in your life. More time for some focused reflection. And conversations with people you trust who can provide you with real encouragement, support, and even some roadmap kind of guidance. But creating your own success criteria is doable, if you want”.

Matt laughed and said “What kind of support and roadmap guidance?”

I replied, “There are some pretty smart people around who’ve laid out some viable roadmaps. Erik Erikson is one, and his multi-stage map is a good choice.. For someone your age, Erikson probably would suggest that, in a developmental sense, you might usefully think about the intimacy, generativity, and integrity issues you and April might need to explore. Carl Jung and his theories of the unfinished business that’s sitting in the deep recesses of your mind is another good choice. Jung would suggest you could usefully ask yourself whether you have any “shadow” issues to look at. And whether you’re itch might be pointing you towards a need to develop your softer, more feminine talents. I’m nowhere near as wise as these two, but I think the very first question I ask you — ‘Where are you in your life right now?’ — is a good starter question you could spend some time with. It’s my experience that seriously asking yourself where you are in your lifespan will lead you to other questions. Questions like, “Am I who I want me to be?” And, “Are there issues or people that I need to go back to? And/or, Have I done all that I need to do with my life?

A Coda

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Matt and I went on for another hour or so. When we were done, he summarized the ground we’d covered perfectly:

“I” he offered, “always sorta knew I was chasing the American Dream. What I never imagined, and still don’t quite believe, is how hard I was chasing it, or that I’d end up refusing to judge me and my life in terms of how rich I was, whether or not I was respected, and how super powerful I was. I’ve obviously been chasing the American Dream, but I never really knew that doing it meant I’d have to judge my life by how rich or powerful I was. If this is what this unscratchable ‘itch’ of mine is really all about, then it’s probably true that I don’t want those three criteria to be what I’m all about.”

Since our Starbucks’ conversation, Matt and I’ve been exchanging emails. On his side, he’s been keeping me up to date on what he’s doing to scratch his ‘itch.’ On my side, I’ve been sending him some background information on the “Unthought Known” so that he, for himself, can decide whether he agrees with me that his subconscious mind has given him his ‘mental itch’ so that he’ll eventually have to find a way to explore some unremembered or maybe unrealized aspects of his life. I’ve also been sharing some information with him about alternative ways he could assess where he is in his life now. In this regard, I’ve sent him an article about Erik Erickson’s stages of socio-emotional development, and one about Carl Jung’s ideas about the individuation archetypes that he might need to face. Just recently we’ve also been taking about the developmental dialogue groups that I occasionally organize as a place where he could find some good company to explore the meanings of his ‘mental itch with.

If you’re interested in learning more about any of these issues, alternatives and opportunities, clicking any of the links embedded above, or clicking either of the navigation buttons below will get you the information you want.