Plenty of Nothin’ is Plenty

I wonder if the hardest part of getting older is not the challenges of coping with a failing body and mind, nor the inevitable sorrow of losing friends and peers, but the gradual – or sometimes very sudden – loss of illusions, loss of aspirations, loss of hope. At some point we all face the recognition that a cherished desire or goal is not going to be fulfilled. What then?

Psychologists have given labels to the behavior engendered by some of these confrontations – empty nest syndrome and male menopause being the most prominent. Those two experiences are primarily about accepting transitions in one’s life path rather than about loss of a way forward. It may be hard for a mother to accept that her children are grown and must be allowed to live their own lives while she redefines herself – she will still be a mother, but engaged differently in the lives of her family. And just as business managers must adapt their style when a company transitions from growth to maintenance mode, so some men must accept – at some point in their careers – that they have reached a plateau where they may expect to be for the rest of their working lives.

(Yes I’m aware of the sexist, stereotypical nature of the two above examples. Men may indeed have troubled letting go of a familiar pattern of fathering, and career women also have to recognize the point at which their professional lives plateau.)

Except, of course, that creative men and women reinvent themselves, begin new careers, take up new interests and continue to make contributions to their community, their families and themselves, often to the end of their days. Of what is that creativity made? Is it something more than a stark refusal to concede to lost illusions, lost aspirations, lost hope?

Consider a particular expectation – that of finding someone with whom one can walk life’s path, a partner to share the joys and sorrows, someone to ‘be there’ when support is needed. Some of us are lucky enough to find such a mate. Almost all of us are given the expectation that we will be in that lucky group. We read novels about these ‘good’ marriages and we see – or think we see – examples around us. We may or may not also learn that romantic love doesn’t hold up well to the stresses of married life, but that if again we are lucky, we discover a more stable, enduring form of love that does survive the inevitable losses life brings. Above all, if we are lucky, we find someone with whom we can share (and thereby halve) the pain, and share (and thereby double) the pleasures life brings our way.

But what of those who do not find such a partner? Or who find a partner incapable of sharing in a way meaningful to us? There are many such people, their stories recorded over and over again in country western songs. How do we move past the realization that we have come to a point in life where it is clear there will not ever “be someone to hold me while I cry?”

Those of us who are fortunate enough, wise enough to let go of the demand for a single person to fulfill the human need for companionship often find ourselves with support in unexpected but very meaningful ways. When I cracked my spine in a horseback riding accident, a neighbor showed up daily to do my chores and another took off from her work whenever needed, to drive me to my own work and appointments. And years ago, after the love in my life was yanked away, an acquaintance from the Quakers volunteered herself into my new home to help me unpack and settle, and to hold me while I cried.

My spiritual teacher instructs that attention is food. What we give attention to multiplies. Inversely, the way to remove something unwanted from one’s life is to simply take one’s attention off it. Focusing on what is missing from life (a forever mate for example) will only push the possibility of finding one farther away. Psychologists have used transactional analysis to spell out the emotional dynamics of this truth, and shown how unhealthy, unequal relationships are formed from neediness. Most are unfulfilling and unsustainable. In the end, they rupture and dump the needy person right back where he/she began, in the classic cycle of repetitively marrying an abuser, an alcoholic, a philanderer, et cetera. I love the accuracy of the title of the landmark book in this field, Games People Play.

We have the option not to play games. Creatively fulfilling our needs for companionship, for attention, for support by drawing on a variety of resources – including ourselves – shifts attention away from lack and loss and toward plenty. With attention on plenty, it multiplies in a happy way. Porgy, in the operetta Porgy and Bess, expresses giving attention to sufficiency so well:
I got plenty of nothing,
And nothing’s plenty for me.
I got no car – got no mule,
I got no misery.
Folks with plenty of plenty,
They’ve got a lock on the door,
Afraid somebody’s gonna rob ’em
While they’re out (a) making more – what for?
I got no lock on the door – that’s no way to be.
They can steal the rug from the floor – that’s OK with me.
‘Cause the things that I prize – like the stars in the skies – are all free.

I have so much more than nothing. Most of us do. Whether or not all our dreams are fulfilled, are we not plenty-full?



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2 Responses to “Plenty of Nothin’ is Plenty”

  1. Jane Foraker-Thompson Says:

    Some random notes:
    First of all, many of our “dreams/expectations” when we are young are unrealistic & possibly inappropriate for us, and it may be healthy to drop them anyway.
    We don’t “luck” into good, mutual loving & fun marriages. We create them by consciously building them together, but this takes two reasonably healthy & mature people to do successfully.
    I believe that there is nothing worse than living in a bad marriage, and nothing more sublime on earth than living in a good one.
    For me, if the Creator is not at the center of any endeavor or relationship, then it isn’t going to be worthwhile. If the Creator is at the center, then all is well and it is so much better than mere mortals can create.
    We all have “failures” and disappointments, unmet goals of some sort. We all make mistakes in our lives. We have a choice. We can wallow in our disappointment, or get up and learn from them, and try again. Eventually we can create something that is worthwhile in our lives and the lives of others.
    I think one of the purposes of human life is to learn to meet challenges, to learn that we are not the center of the world, and to try to create a better world for others as well as ourselves; and to have a relationship with the Creator.
    If we are creative, persistent, and open, we can learn to be reasonably happy and fulfilled, with almost any kind of circumstance. There is beauty and truth all around us if we look for it.
    Our society is so materialistic, individualistic, greedy, lustful for power, fame, money and arrogant, its goals are way off so it’s no wonder that so many people do not feel satisfied. They ignore the good and the beautiful, and they have no relationship with the Creator.
    People that do feel satisfied, calm, and know deep down joy, are focused on other things: God, service, truth, justice, lovingkindness, righteousness, beauty, caring & sharing with one another.
    It doesn’t take success or high office to be satisfied and content and enjoying life tremendously, or “the perfect mate,” which doesn’t exist anyway. That’s another fantasy. True happiness probably only occurs when we take our minds off ourselves and focus on others and issues that affect society.
    Jane F-T

    • chelawriter Says:

      I am well aware of the work it takes to build a marriage – or a friendship – indeed any successful relationship, and also aware of the pain and disappointment which can arise when, despite one’s best intentions, circumstances change and bring about an end to the relationship. When the ‘other person’ in the relationship proves not to be able to be open and adaptable in the altered circumstances, one can feel betrayed. Growing through those feelings is hard work. I know good, caring people who choose instead to describe themselves as ‘unlucky’ when it comes to relationships. They continue to engage with, and make meaningful contributions to, others but they hold back from personal intimacy, manifesting the adage ‘once burned, twice shy.’
      I think it’s important to recognize these individuals. And to not unduly fault those who, though they don’t achieve high standards, do try their best.

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