Morris Friedell's Home Page
Iím 73, I live in Berkeley. I have two children and seven grandchildren. Iím a retired sociology professor.
Over forty years ago I was captivated by the human potential movement. New methods for personal growth 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?
It all 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.
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.
My forty-five-year experience with humanistic psychotherapy (which I define broadly to mean methodologies for personal growth and change) has been very helpful with my addictions to smoking and to overeating, and with overcoming depression and mitigating shyness. But it has better enabled me to avoid misery in relationships than to find lasting love. On the whole itís been successful for me, but not dramatically successful.
In 1998 disturbing weaknesses in following conversations, remembering and problem-solving led me to get a "working diagnosis" 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, fifteen years later, my mind works 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, but it is not certain whether pathology is present, or whether the possible pathology is Alzheimerís or microvascular. Regardless, my work and that of others has affirmed that the lessons learned from spiritual resistance to the Holocaust by persons like Frankl apply as well to the trauma of dementing disease. The Nazisí idolization of biology has again been found wrong.
I was a cofounder of DASNI, the 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 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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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. But I find myself asking: Can religions be reformed to retain their emotional appeal while eschewing superstition, violence and tribalism? Iíve particularly asked this question of Judaism, but I think that with other religions the issues are much the same.
Quests to find a core of goodness in Jewish tradition are themselves a part of the tradition. Hereís a legend from the Talmud:
A heathen once came before the sage Shammai. He said to him:
"I will convert to Judaism if you will teach me all the Torah while I stand on one foot."
Shammai pushed the man away with the builderís measure he held in his hand.
The man came before Hillel and repeated his request. Hillel said to him:
"What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is
commentary Ė go and learn it."
A noble attempt but too minimal. Suppose we substitute Micah 6:8:
"He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you.
Only to do justice,
And to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God.
Micah's addition of kindness and receptiveness to Hillelís ethic of justice feels better, but I'm still not satisfied.
How about adding the 23rd psalm?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul.
He guides me in straight paths for His Nameís sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For Thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil,
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
Suppose I add to this image of God as good shepherd the image of God as deliverer celebrated at Passover. Now I feel satisfied! Thank you, God, for not making me a slave!
The theology of the first commandment ("I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides Me.") and the 23rd psalm makes Micah 6:8 an almost complete ethics of life and happiness -- but.... "Choose life!" says the Torah -- there is value in living spontaneously -- do not forget oblivion!
Can I keep this formulation from becoming a dogma? Drawing on the 12-step programsí "act as if" and Gandhiís idea of an "experiment in truth" I get:
Act as if the following is close to the core of ethics: "Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Meditate on the first commandment and the 23rd psalm. Keep questioning and learning."
I see here a spirituality with emotional depth and vitality, without dogma and superstition, and with a firm but gentle discipline ("Thy rod and Thy staff") rather than threats and violence.
I see here a kind and gentle God who lives in the heart and the imagination and who (unbeknownst to me then) when I was an unhappy child wept with me and cared.
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Several years ago it gradually became clear 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 struggling with the demon of codependency and into working toward family healing.
Except for the Alzheimerís issue I am in good health, as far as I know. I believe, however, in remaining aware of and responsive to the country of dark contingencies, the place where I resided when I was struggling with the spectre of dementia. Augmenting my Judaism with Buddhism I ask myself: How can I respond to the challenges of sickness, old age and death as a mensch and with a fair degree of serenity? Augmenting my Buddhism with Judaism, I observe that it is written: "There is a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing." (Ecclesiastes 3). I ask myself: how can I live that truth?
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Recently I've come across trauma stewardship, a new spiritually-informed vision of a way of life intensely engaged with deep and painful matters, yet with wholeness, balance and gratitude. It offers a way to continue, now that I am old, honoring the "way of response" (Martin Buber) which has long guided me. I would like to develop trauma stewardship as an option in humanistic gerontology. We seniors, with our freedom from the demands of specialized careers, and our intimacy with pain, loss, limitations and mortality, have a special contribution to make to it.
Reflections on death and aging.
Reflections on Experiencing.
My Alzheimer's Struggle.