Morris Friedell's Home Page
I’m 76; I live alone in Berkeley, but next door to my daughter Leesa and her family. I have two children and seven grandchildren. I’m a retired sociology professor.
Forty-eight 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.
Thenceforward I sometimes wrote like this 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. As an individual endowed with human dignity I felt called to address it. (I did my dissertation on accidental nuclear war.) I considered nuclear war to be a threat to my life and my children's lives analogous to that of the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust. I wanted, through my research and teaching, to contribute to a humanistic revolutionary social movement which would create a safer and better world. The threat of nuclear war weighed heavily on my mind until the end of the Cold War in 1991. Then my greatest concerns were social justice and climate change, but they were less intense. On November 8 the world was darkened. Again I am reading about the rise of fascism and about the few who heroically resisted.
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Returning to the human potential movement -- change proved more difficult than we had thought – 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 Emmons’ _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 _Man’s 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 hadn’t been easy for me – as a child I was clumsy and socially inept, and my parents weren’t the greatest. I grew up to marry a fascinating but borderline and histrionic woman who turned out to be abusive to our children (she’s dead now). Some drama there, but all too painful.
My academic career was a mixed bag. I was a good teacher of small classes but my main project was a hopefully ground-breaking manuscript on “The Reality of Human Dignity" -- which sadly was never published -- due to a lack of focus. In it I argued for the reality of human dignity despite the reality of Auschwitz, and I argued for the human potential to prevent a nuclear holocaust. And while I failed to publish, what I learned did help me face adversity down the road. In 1994 I took an early retirement because I wanted to do something different from university teaching and research, though I was unclear what that was.
In 1998 disturbing weaknesses in following conversations, remembering and problem-solving led me to get a "working diagnosis" at UCLA of early Alzheimer’s 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 Frankl’s 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, eighteen years later, my mind works rather 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 I am not certain whether major pathology is present. 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 Nazis’ 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 Alzheimer’s 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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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.
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For all my adult life I’ve 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. Nevertheless I find myself asking: Can religions be reformed to retain their emotional appeal while eschewing superstition, violence and tribalism? I’ve particularly asked this question of Judaism (my heritage), but I think that with other religions the issues are much the same.
I like the spirituality in the 23rd psalm, the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6), Ezekiel 18 and 34, Isaiah 53, Ruth 1. I love the sentiment in the image of a compassionate God gathering the tears of the sufferer in a celestial flask and counting every one (Psalm 56). I like the spirituality in _Man's Search for Meaning_ despite its flaws. I'm with Basho when he wrote: "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old. I seek what they sought."
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For all my adult life I've pursued
self-help, support groups and psychotherapy for healing and for self-knowledge.
very helpful with my addictions to smoking and to overeating, and with
overcoming depression and mitigating shyness. Two years ago I found in
Marilyn Lundberg the best therapist ever. I haven't had major mental
health problems since I last recovered from depression in 2002 but continue to
seek insight and growth. Marilyn is close to me in age, and one of
the themes of our work is creative aging – there we are inspired by this poem by
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.
Marilyn and I might be pioneering a new way of listening, one that listens for memories of pleasure with the deep sensitivity that the best conventional therapy listens for memories of pain, one that can lead a client to sense his/her own deepest truths, to honor them, and ultimately to live the mystery and plenitude celebrated in Lawrence’s poem.
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Early last year I read _The Last Lecture_ by Randy Pausch. Wonderful! I'd like to leave a legacy like that! Dying from cancer he spoke of the constellation of dreams that expressed his unique personhood and how he had striven to honor them, to "follow his bliss." His point was not "Look what I did!" but "Here are some ideas for how you can celebrate your own uniqueness." He wrote, "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."
Later last year my daughter Julia and I read
Pausch's wife's "sequel" to _The Last Lecture_ and found it troubling.
Pondering this, I thought: yes, I do want to be remembered as a dreamer of
dreams like Pausch, but I would like to be remembered as well as a pursuer of peace
-- a pursuer of peace (with justice) whoo particularly cared about family healing.
Here Morrie Schwartz (of _Tuesdays with Morrie_), who lived his last days "with
dignity, with courage, with humor, with relatedness" inspires me.
Just recently I came across Paul Kalanithi’s terminal cancer memoir _When Breath Becomes Air_. His legacy of love makes it one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read!
I began this essay with the query: "Who are you to think that you can change the world?" Here's where I am inspired by the prophet Moses. Like me he wasn't the greatest at social skills or anger-management. But perhaps it was his awareness of his weaknesses that gave him the humility to take a serious look at the burning bush. Moses heard the Voice and despite his flaws did the best he could (usually) to fight for freedom and justice and thus fulfill his destiny. I like to believe that we each (in our own way) have an Inner Moses, and that the answer to "Who are you to change the world?" is "I am a human being, possessed of human dignity."
Being the critical thinker that I have been and
that I am, I will end this mini-autobiography or ethical will with a “but”:
Paul Kalanithi: a well-lived life, a good death, a legacy of love! But why, when Emma Hayward, Paul’s final doctor, authoritarianly taboos a legitimate topic, does Paul never really honor his appropriate anger? (Of course, he should not recklessly ventilate anger, but he should dare to fully feel that he deserves the kind of doctoring that he himself has cared to give to patients.) But rare are those who (like Rosa Parks) refuse to move to the back of the bus in a situation as harrowing as Paul’s. Yet I have faith that it is possible.
In cases like this two central principles for the conduct of life are in play. One principle is the mandate: “Speak truth to power,” and thus affirm one’s human dignity and invite one’s interlocutor to do the same. The other principle is the priority of preserving one’s life: speaking truth to power can be dangerous, and this danger should be appropriately evaluated. _Ecclesiastes_ puts it bluntly: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”
Perhaps Emma’s being so good: expertise and compassion, both (and even seasoned with a bit of “chemistry”) paradoxically makes it hard for Paul to be authentic. “Too good to be true” is a common schema. And to think of asking Emma to deeply value partnership and mutuality in addition to all her other virtues might trigger that schema in Paul. After all, Paul is well-educated in the ironic consciousness which is taken to be a hallmark of great literature.
In the Talmud it is written: "Where there are no individuals, be thou an individual." In this spirit I aspire to have a character which includes the virtue of speaking truth to power where that is called for. And recently Julia turned me on to _The Red Bandanna_ by Tom Rinaldi.* It is a book about Welles Crowther, a 9/11 hero, that heightened my awareness of a complementary virtue to which I must also aspire: to act decisively when many would only talk.
To conclude: I'd like to be remembered as someone who could dare to dream, dare to speak and dare to act -- as someone who was not a slave to his comfort-zone.
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*There is an excellent illustrated children's book, _The Man in the Red Bandanna_, written by Welles' sister, Honor Crowther, that tells the heart of the story.
My Alzheimer's Struggle.