Empty Nest Magazine
Letters to Sam: A Grandfather's Lessons on
Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life
Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life
by Dr. Daniel Gottlieb
In 2006, Dr. Daniel Gottlieb, Philadelphia psychotherapist, columnist, radio personality, and author, published Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons of Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life. Dr. Gottlieb and Sterling Publishing have graciously granted Empty Nest permission to reprint a chapter from the book. “Road Maps” offers another of Dr. Dan’s “pearls of wisdom”—how our personal “road map,” or philosophy of life, affects how we perceive ourselves and the world, and how this evolves over time, with our life experiences. Gottlieb (a quadriplegic due to a freak accident years ago) wrote the book for his autistic grandson—a beautiful empty-nesting gesture, passing wisdom from one generation to the next—but the lessons he imparts can benefit readers of all ages.
Reprinted with permission of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., from LETTERS TO SAM by Daniel Gottlieb. Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Gottlieb.
Once, a man came home late one night to find he was locked out of his house. His neighbor saw him searching for his keys under the streetlight and joined him in his search. Soon several other neighbors joined in, everyone trying to help their neighbor find his keys.
After a while, one of them asked where he'd last seen the keys.
"Near the front door."
The neighbor was puzzled. "Then why are you looking all the way down here by the streetlight?"
"Because the light is better!"
Sam, this parable comes to mind as I'm thinking about the road maps that we use to guide us in our lives. Often when we look for answers, we automatically go where the light is better. But sometimes we need to go where it's dark.
A personal road map is a philosophy of life, which includes a philosophy about people. Generally this philosophy gets handed down directly from our parents, then modified over the years with beliefs absorbed from our family, community, or religion and opinions derived from our own experience. One road map might say, "The world is dangerous; eat or be eaten." Another might show a different picture: "People are basically good and trustworthy and the more people you have in your life the better off you will be." Other people's road maps might suggest that certain kinds of people cannot be trusted, so your circle of friends should only include people who are like you.
Just think how these maps guide people in different ways through the world. Compare one person's map that says, "Life is a difficult series of problems to be resolved with little joy," with another that says, "Life is a treasure to be grateful for." With such contrasting views, even if those two people lead similar lives, they will experience the events of their lives quite differently.
The road map also includes a philosophy of ourselves. Am I basically a good person, or am I somehow not quite good enough? Is goodness inside of me or is it something I have to work hard to achieve? Am I fragile and easily wounded? If I run into a serious problem, will I break, or am I resilient? Am I needy, or lovable, or manipulative?
Our answers to these questions shape the kind of map we carry in our psychological "pockets." They form our own guide to how the world works, how people are, who we are, and what we will and won't get in life.
Sam, what will be your road map?
Let me tell you about mine.
When I was young, my mother saw the world as a dangerous place. If I was going to survive in this world, I needed to be aware of the dangers and be highly vigilant. My father shared this view, though to a lesser extent.
Both my parents were the children of Russian immigrants who had endured great adversity under the czar. So it's not surprising they saw the world as a place where they had to stay on guard. When my grandparents moved to America around the turn of the century only to find pervasive anti-Semitism, their fear and mistrust of the world were confirmed and handed down to my parents. So, when my parents grew up, not only did they face anti-Semitism, but also they endured a crushing economic depression! So their lives, too, were difficult—which reinforced the philosophy that life is difficult and you should only trust your own kind. This is the road map they handed me.
But this view just didn't ring true to me. What I saw didn't seem to be the same as what they were seeing. I liked people of all kinds. And since my parents were effective providers and caretakers, my world felt safe.
As a result, I felt different from my family. Yet I was never confident in my own perceptions, because my family always told me that my views were wrong! Often when my mother and I talked about people and I commented on how nice they were, my mother would "clarify" my perception by saying, "Wait till you get to know them!"
Some early encounters with my grandmother contributed to the feeling that I was not just wrong in my views, but downright bad. As a little boy of five or six, I was very playful, even rambunctious. My Russian grandmother who had been viciously persecuted by the czar's soldiers would hit me in the legs with her crutch and call me "a little Cossack!" I never really knew what she meant, but I figured it was something bad. If she was a grown-up and she thought I was a really bad boy, maybe I was.
So I went through the first years of my life not knowing for sure whether I was open and caring or simply naive, even stupid. And making the dilemma even worse, there seemed to be a strong possibility that I was actually a bad kid. That was my road map—not clear about who I was, feeling that the ground underneath me was not stable, thinking I might be totally in the wrong. Unlike the man in the parable, I didn't even have a light to search by.
Now, you might think my road map would have become clear when I reached adulthood. But it really didn't change very much until I had my accident. Afterward, for some reason I couldn't understand, people kept coming to me—friends, family, patients, even strangers—wanting to sit with me and tell me about their lives and hear about mine.
Some of them said that even though I was thirty-three years old, it felt as if they were sitting with an old man. And I felt that way too. Not only was my neck shattered, so was my unclear road map. I was searching in the dark for my truth about who I was and what it meant to be human.
Through college and beyond, I had begun to see that my mother's views were not right for me. But later, after my accident, I was able to see that Mom's views were based on anxiety and insecurity and maybe even a low-grade depression. Over the next couple of decades, my road map evolved on its own.
Today, I can describe my map pretty clearly, and it looks something like this: Whether my perceptions of the world are right or wrong doesn't really matter. Like all humans, what I'm looking for is a kind of internal security—a sense of a life well lived. I'm looking for intimacy, community, and love. And at this moment in my life, that's what I have.
Sam, the only way to find a new road map is to be willing to search in the darkness. In my case, the search wasn't voluntary. It came about because of what happened to me. But however it happens, I believe that you need to find a map that's your own. Not necessarily the road map you grew up with, or the one that was handed to you, but another map entirely.
So, Sam, how will your road map come into your hands?
Right now, I see you clutching tightly the one you already have. Most kids do—and this is even more true of children who have autism. You need things to be the way you need them. For you, the first step into the darkness might be the day you come home from school and don't put on your pajamas. Or the first time you allow your crayons to be out of order. But however you take that first step, it's my hope that, over the years, you will become more secure within yourself and not clutch your road map quite so tightly. Clutching anything, after a time, becomes exhausting.
When you let go, what will you find to take its place? When I imagine your road map coming into your hands, I think of a story I heard about a teacher and a young boy. This boy went to study the Bible and found it very difficult. Seeing the trouble the boy was having, the teacher held up a single bright red apple and said, "This apple is all that's in the Bible. You can have it if you want!" Immediately, the boy jumped up to grasp the apple. He couldn't reach it, so he jumped again—missed again—and jumped even higher.
After a lot of frenzied jumping, he finally sat down, exhausted. As he did so, his hands fell open, palms facing the sky. And the teacher dropped the apple into his open hand.
It's my wish, Sam, that one day you will be able to face your life with palms open to the sky. And I'm confident that the road map you need will come into your hands.
Dr. Dan Gottlieb’s work last appeared in the winter 2008–2009 issue of Empty Nest.
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