Morris Friedell's Home Page

(rev. 9/21/21)

Iím 81; I live alone in Berkeley.  I have two children and seven grandchildren. Iím a retired sociology professor.

Around fifty years ago I was captivated by the human potential movement. New methods for personal growth, using creative ways to overcome fear through counterconditioning, could to an unprecedented extent empower us to do what we want to do, feel what we want to feel, and realize the ideals of religion at its best.

I wrote on the blackboard:

Who are you?

Who are you to think?

Who are you to think that?

Who are you to think that you can change?

Who are you to think that you can change the world?

Changing the world was not just an academic topic.  I believed that the threat of a nuclear holocaust was a serious one.  Now I again believe it is a serious one, along with climate change and the other evils of the global kleptocracy.  I am concerned. 

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Returning to the human potential movement -- change proved more difficult than we had thought Ė yet I continued to believe that the human potential movement had a kernel of truth. I argued for the reality of human dignity as opposed to pessimistic views of human nature that would make us pawns of biology or society. I assigned books such as Alberti and Emmonsí _Your Perfect Right_ which showed how persons could work with their feelings and build their skills to realize democratic ideals in relationships. Aggressiveness and passivity were not the only options. (On this theme, William Ury, _The Power of a Positive No_, is an excellent 21st-century book.)

Another book I assigned was _Manís Search for Meaning_, written by Viktor Frankl who survived Auschwitz to argue for the human capacity to manifest human dignity and realize values such as generosity, responsibility and self-expression even in great adversity. Part of me envied Frankl who had a dramatic story to tell. Life hadnít been easy for me Ė as a child I was clumsy and socially inept, and my parents werenít the greatest. I grew up to marry a fascinating but borderline and histrionic woman who turned out to be abusive to our children (sheís dead now). Some drama there, but all too painful.

In 1998 disturbing weaknesses in following conversations, remembering and problem-solving led me to get a "working diagnosis" at UCLA of early Alzheimerís disease. I finally had "material" for my own dramatic story. My second career could be "dementia activist." I could, in my way, emulate Frankl, enabling David Shenk, in his bestselling The Forgetting, to write: "Before being taken prisoner by the Nazis, Frankl wrote extensively about the human ability to retain dignity under extreme conditions. Then, in the concentration camp, he faced the ultimate personal test of his own ideas. Now, after years of studying him, Morris was echoing Franklís life. In the freezing, foodless, lice-ridden barracks of Auschwitz, Frankl survived and maintained his dignity. Morris wondered if he could do the same as he was thrown into the dark cave of forgetting."

Now, twenty years later, my mind works relatively slowly and is easily overloaded and fatigued by complex interaction with the environment in real-time (games, conversation, etc.). This is consistent with the bitemporal hypometabolism in my brain PET and with the white-matter hyperintensities in my MRI, but it is not clear whether major pathology is present (after all, I'm 81). Regardless, my work ( adapting traumatic brain injury rehabilitation methodology to dementing disease has affirmed the broad applicability of lessons learned from spiritual resistance to the Holocaust by persons like Frankl. The Nazisí idolization of biology has again been found wrong.

I was a cofounder of DASNI, an online Dementia Support and Advocacy Network (International).  In 2002 I met Andrea there, who became my third wife.   In 2007 she and I saw Away from Her, the award-winning film about Alzheimerís and relationships starring Julie Christie.  I was blown away when she quoted from The Forgetting my line, "Sometimes there is something delicious in oblivion." It was a thrill to hear these and other words from my life coming from a famous actress.  I had had no idea.  Part of the thrill was sharing this with Andrea and thus celebrating some of the best of our experience together.

But is it really true that "sometimes there is something delicious in oblivion"? Absolutely! But there are other truths as well. I want to learn them, but not forget oblivion.  "We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it," says the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. I like that attitude.  

Sadly, Andrea and I separated in 2009.  

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It gradually became clear several years ago that the severe cognitive decline which had previously seemed inevitable was not happening.  Instead of preparing for a good death under adverse circumstances, I was free to put a lot of time and energy into reflecting on heavy subjects  like death, aging, pain and money, into struggling with the demon of codependency and into working toward family healing.  I looked forward to again writing something significant.  I looked forward to resuming the quest for love.  

Re love:  Gottman, _The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work_, though maybe a bit prosaic, has some good thoughts. For romance I'd balance it with Yeats' "The Shadowy Waters."  For depth, I'd balance Gottman's valuing of togetherness in healthy pride with the togetherness in humility that comes with reading together failure stories (say, failure stories of parenting) and knowing that "there but for the grace of God go I." 

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For a long time Iíve had a love-hate relationship with religion. I long ago decided that a God who could have prevented the Holocaust but for some reason chose not to does not exist.  _When Bad Things Happen to Good People_ is right on that.  But I find myself asking: Can religions be reformed to retain their emotional appeal while eschewing superstition, violence and tribalism?  Or is reforming a traditional religion like trying to organize a swamp? Maybe the best attitude is simply, "Take what you need and leave the rest."

But spirituality is important to me.  My spirituality is one that values Goodness, along with gentle disciplines to honor that Goodness.  It values thoughtful love of life and values science at its best.  And it values connection with dogs/small children/nature. 

Finally, my spirituality values coming to terms with the reality of death.  I believe death is to life like the hole is to the doughnut.  My favorite book on living well in the light of one's mortality is Nina Riggs' _The Bright Hour_.  I feel called to emulate her courage and creativity.  Her candor about the excessive anger in her marriage reminds me of my own history, and has helped me learn how to do better.

Speaking of anger-health, I like Gottman's awareness that a certain amount of anger does add spice to the dish of intimacy. And I like the depth of Najavits' "Dark Feelings" chapter in _Finding Your Best Self: Recovery from Addiction, Trauma, or Both_.  Her work gives compassion to torture survivors along with the dignity that comes from accountability.  (This philosophy is implicit in _Man's Search for Meaning_.)

Maybe the best attitude toward religion is "Take what you need and leave the rest.,"  but nevertheless I keep ruminating about it all.  Here is my current take -- itís a Reform-ish version of Judaism.  I believe in acting as if the God of the 23rd psalm (who I imagine lives in the human heart) exists.  I believe with the prophet Micah in doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with my God (which includes seeking and honoring my true self).  And I believe in rejoicing in my blessings.  But Iím conscious that religion can all-too-easily pervert itself to incite and justify cruelty.  Religion has to be kept in its place.  Rabbi Donniel Hartman has an excellent book on this subject.  It is titled: _Putting God Second_.  The ethic of loving the Lord with all oneís heart, soul and might turned out to be a terrible mistake. 

I have always been a misfit, and I see mine as a religion for misfits.  On the one hand I believe in the power and beauty of God-language.  But on the other hand I believe in the power and beauty of parental feeling.  What kind of God is this, who commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?  But itís in the Torah.  Well, then the Torah is not kosher.  It doesnít belong in the Holy Ark in the synagogue.  It belongs in the library.  (Of course, waving the flag for parental feeling doesn't imply I'm a great parent.  If I told you I loved opera I wouldn't be telling you I knew how to sing.)

Well, then, what does belong in the Holy Ark?  I propose the 23rd psalm, a parchment with the Hebrew alphabet, and a lot of empty space. 

Iíve been a misfit ever since childhood where I was exceptionally smart at math and science and exceptionally dumb at small-talk, so it makes sense that Iíd come to believe in a weird and lonely combination of traditional religion and secular humanism.  Franklís _Manís Search for Meaning_, though too soft on tradition, has some great thoughts.  Frankl approvingly quotes Dostoevsky: ďThere is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.Ē  In the spirit of Dostoevsky and Frankl.  Iím challenged to be worthy of my loneliness.  That means my task is to reach out to other misfits, and to be mindful that in the most comfortably conventional person there may still be a misfit buried deep inside.   

One strength of Judaism that I particularly relate to is its injunction to find and honor one's personal uniqueness.  (This is also a theme in Christianity, as shown by the parable of the talents.) We are each created in the image of God, and since God has a wonderful uniqueness, so does each of us.  As Reb Zusia of Hanipol said to his disciples, "I'm not worried that I'll be asked why I wasn't Moses when I die and enter the heavenly realm, but why I wasn't Zusia." Rabbi Heschel declares, "Life comprises not only arable productive land, but also mountains of dreams, an underground of sorrow, towers of yearning...."

The best book I know of on this topic is not Jewish, however.  It is Randy Pausch, _The Last Lecture_.  With terminal cancer he had a few months to live, and asked himself what legacy to his three young children he could leave.  Thus his Last Lecture: "Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children."  He was not interested in going into his battle with cancer, instead he wanted to talk about "what makes me unique?" to inspire his children when they became adolescent to explore that question themselves.  "My uniqueness, I realized, came in the specifics of all the dreams--from incredibly meaningful to decidedly quirky--that defined my forty-six years of life."  He recounted his childhood dreams, his successes in realizing them, his gratitude for the loving support he had received. He concluded: "... my dreams for my kids are very exact: I want them to find their own path to fulfillment. And given that I won't be there, I want to make this clear: Kids, don't try to figure out what I wanted you to become.  I want you to become what you want to become." And he concluded with a "surprise twist" which I will paraphrase: although this Last Lecture has made much of childhood dreams, don't worry about them too much.  "If you lead your life the right way,... the dreams will come to you."  Frankl would agree. 

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For all my adult life I've pursued self-help, support groups and psychotherapy for healing and for growth.  These have been very helpful with my addictions to smoking and overeating, and with overcoming depression and mitigating shyness.  Though I haven't had big mental health issues since 2002 (depression), I've continued to search for insight and for fulfilling relationships.  Seven years ago I began therapy with Marilyn Lundberg.  She is close to me in age, and one of the themes of our work is creative aging -- we are inspired by this poem of D. H. Lawrence:

When the ripe fruit falls
its sweetness distills and trickles away into
the veins of the earth.

When fulfilled people die
the essential oil of their experience enters
the veins of living space, and adds a glisten
to the atom, to the body of immortal chaos.

For space is alive
and it stirs like a swan
whose feathers glisten
silky with oil of distilled experience.

Lawrence knows how to celebrate pleasure, but I would balance pleasure with pathos.  An excellent self-help book, _Overcoming Depression for Dummies_, has a section on "Seeing the Sense in Sadness".  It declares: "Sorrow is the basis of the great plays or emotionally powerful works of art, and of songs that strike a chord in the depths of the soul."  My favorite opera is "La Traviata". 

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Returning to the topic of changing the world, I'm particularly inspired by Indivisible, with its north star of inclusive democracy, its vision for 2021, its solid track-record of successes, and its very readable book, _We Are Indivisible_.  Living in deep blue Berkeley and having limited mental and physical energy, I feel I can be most helpful to the cause by making intelligent donations and encouraging others to do the same.                            



My Alzheimer's Struggle.