Morris Friedell's Home Page
I’m 74; 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-five 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?
It all 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.
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 lengthy 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 somewhat mitigating shyness. But it has better enabled me to avoid misery in relationships than to find lasting love. On the whole it’s been successful for me, but not dramatically successful.
And 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. (But what I learned helped 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" 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, 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 and with the white-matter hyperintensities in my MRI, but I am not certain whether 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 it 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.
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For a long time 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. But 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, 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. Here’s a legend from the Talmud:
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 builder’s 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 – go and learn it."
A noble attempt but too minimal. Suppose we substitute Micah 6:8:
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 Hillel’s ethic of justice feels better, but I'm still not satisfied.
How about adding the 23rd psalm?
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 Name’s 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 spontaneouslyy -- do not forget oblivion!
Can I keep this formulation from becoming a dogma? Drawing on the 12-step programs’ "act as if" and Gandhi’s idea of an "experiment in truth" I get:
Meditate on the 23rd psalm. Choose life! Act as if Micah 6:8 is close to the core of ethics. Remember the Commandment of liberation. Keep the spark of doubt alive.
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 comfort me.") 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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Appealing to religious tradition gives humanistic values (“do justice, love kindness”) resonance. But religious tradition can be a source of evil as well as good. Just look at the Middle East! I think it is important for one who finds value in religion to take a strong and clear stand against the racism, sexism and homophobia in religious traditions, starting with one’s own.
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Heartened and empowered by my spirituality, I can look forward to the rest of my life. I wish to forge a New Path to the Final Doorway.
My Alzheimer's Struggle.