Connecting the Dots, Integrating Complexity
The Power & Promise of Mature Humans
I’ve been mulling over the theme of integration. How at this age and stage, we get better at connecting weak signals, big pictures and chaotic, hard-to-decipher patterns and trends. Including about ourselves, our lives and our ‘work,’ however you define it. That is, if you’re curious. Not everyone has the time or the inclination. Those who do, take focused time out to digest the past, extract its essential lessons, and distill a deeper, richer elderberry juice with which to nourish the future. I’ve been enjoying watching people do just this on the first module of my 3 Mondays in March Midlife Rethink (running again in June, if you’re interested).
I also had the pleasure of seeing Master Integrator (and all-round brilliant heart-and-mind connector) Esther Perel speak this week at a CultureAmp event. I’m assuming you know who she is, as one of the world’s more famous couples’ psychotherapists and the queen of ‘relational intelligence.’ Esther has always inspired me as a very European model of maturity and integration - across cultures, disciplines and languages. She is Belgian and Jewish and has lived all over. Speaks nine languages, runs two podcasts, and written a massively bestselling book (and viral TED talk) called Mating in Captivity. She’s like integration-in-action. She’s also almost constantly in action, period. (If you think, as some of my readers do, that I am high energy/ high productivity, it’s only ‘cause you haven’t met Esther Perel.)
Esther is particularly strong at helping people understand the seemingly incomprehensible. By naming it, and connecting the dots amidst the chaos. With charisma, heart and eloquence.
Decompartmentalising the Personal & Professional
She’s breathtakingly good. She’s built a reputation analysing and helping people with personal and intimate relationships (see her podcast Where Should We Begin?). She then extended this to professional relationships (see How’s Work?) and her interests to the corporate world. Others ask her why she made the leap. For her, there’s not much difference. Relationships are relationships, she says, and the dynamics at work and at home aren’t all that different.
Esther Perel laughs when she hears the term “bring your whole self to work.” People always bring their whole selves to work, she insists. It’s just that most of the time, they don’t even know it. It’s mostly unconscious. It’s true that people’s self-awareness of their impact on others is often partial at best - and much of the work in coaching is to gently bridge the gap between self-perception and the perception of others. Another form of integration.
Self-awareness is always the key, combined with self-compassion. She quotes Terry Real (another favourite of mine - just check out a few of his quotes), that “self-esteem is your capacity to recognize your worth and value, despite your human flaws and weaknesses.” Conflicts, notes Perel, are always about the same underlying three issues, no matter the context:
Power and control
Care and trust
Recognition and respect
And how you deal with them are highly influenced by the kind of messages and programming you were brought up with. Did you get parents preaching independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency (very much my leaning, having been brought up by a single mother and Holocaust survivor)? Or a family built on inter-dependence, community and mutual support (Esther’s leaning)?
I admire the way she so lightly but effectively points the finger at the root of patterns so many of us are still working to understand and integrate. She closed her integrative review of issues at home and at work with a final contextual frame. That we have lived three eras whose impacts crossed the artificial personal/ professional divide:
the productive era: where couples were for procreation and work was for production
the service era: the rise of the service industry was matched by a view of couples as mutually and self-enhancingly servicing and supporting each other’s needs.
the identity economy: where work has become a central pillar of our identity, as has our couples, genders, sexuality and relationships.
Art as Integration
I went to the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House before having lunch with my Substack friend and colleague John Bateson (who writes a brilliant, data-driven newsletter, called Consumer Ageism. I highly recommend his latest, Does Ageism Exist?).
As I was wandering the lovely, newly renovated galleries, I was struck by two paintings by two 60-year-olds, made a generation apart. Each integrates a multiplicity of messages in a single, simple, one-dimensional canvas painted later in life.
Ivon Hitchens painted the first, Balcony View, Iping Church, in 1943, in the midst of WW2. He’s painting from the balcony of his West Sussex home, where he was forced to flee after the bombing of his London apartment.
The picture integrates three planes and three messages, separated by clear white lines. The dark, fiery destruction of war, complete with black skies, red flames and dark muddy fields on the left. This is contrasted to the light and peace of the colourful village on the right, organised around the church - all that is potentially under attack, with the little black squiggle worming its dark way in from the fire on the left. And a third element is the bright, cosy and ebullient corner of the world where the artist sits on his balcony, witnessing the world. Flowers and hope abound, but Hitchens connects and contexts his personal happiness, anchoring it in memory, and framing it in vulnerability. The poppies that explode in movement and grace in the foreground are a potent symbol of WWI.
This felt so close to what we are living today. As our lives continue almost normally, as war tears up a part of Europe - once again. As the most important news is often some of the least reported. The meeting of AUKUS heads of state in San Diego this week, where the UK, US and Australia are getting together to build nuclear-powered submarines and get themselves armed up for a much-feared showdown with a muscling up China. Hitchens picture almost perfectly summarises the unreality of the parallel realities we are living in. (We’ve named our new puppy Poppy. I promise irresistible glimpses after we pick her up next Sunday).
The second picture is totally different and yet identical in its capacity to integrate an entire epoch into its deceptively simple lines. William Scott, born in Scotland, painted Recent Orange Note in 1973, after a long and successful career as a painter. This late work seems to distill much of his essence and that of his time. Whittling down simple kitchen forms of pan and cup and plates to their still-life essence, a lyrical contemplation of the significance and underlying organising principles of the every day, a consumerist society, a more peaceful time. “I am an abstract artist in the sense that I abstract,” he wrote. “I cannot be called non-figurative while I am still interested in the modern magic of space, primitive sex forms, the sensual and the erotic, disconcerting contours, the things of life.”
I love that as a summary of this age and stage. As I sit writing (on my metaphorical balcony) of the wonders and horrors of the history we are both participants and witnesses of, I love the people attuned to seeing - and celebrating - “the disconcerting contours, the things of life.”
And I know you do too.
Kicking the Classics Into Cool Relevance
One last 60ish-year old woman marking my week. The riveting Janet McTeer at the National Theatre brings the age-old story of Phaedra into feisty contemporary relevance. Hotshot Australian director Simon Stone’s super stylish, highly charged classic story of a powerful older woman’s passion for an impossible younger man, will speak to many. The tale retold and updated as a post-menopausal, successful politican’s desire for a what-if reliving of her life and loves. A powerful ensemble cast, a genius opening family scene that will resonate with any parent, and the devastating wounds tossed across generations when parents unleash their primal passions. Funny just how many cautionary tales start to pop up as women slowly gravitate into power. If you liked the film Tàr, run to the National Theatre before April 8th. When the boys start writing about our rise, it’s good to know where their fears lie.
This Week’s Generational Reports & Reading
Women Aged 50-Plus: An Irrefutable Engine Powering The Global Longevity Economy: a report from AARP in the US (thanks N.J. for sharing)
A Brief But Spectacular video message on the multi-generational moment from CoGenerate CEO (and personal inspiration) Marc Freedman.
Bradley Schurman, author of SuperAge and former AARP, on The Silver Tsunami is Here. Bit dramatic, but a plausible warning of the dystopia that awaits if we really f*** up on ageing. Seeing what the French are up to about nudging their retirement age to … 64 this year, we just might. Watch what happens to Macron (and France in the next elections) after shoving this change through. It will tell us a lot about whether we’ll be able to navigate this shift.
For anyone who wants to get a little context on all of the above, and is trying to keep their sanity in a fast-paced world, I recommend checking out this powerful data visualisation of the world’s biggest cities over the past 3000 years. Keeps things in humble perspective.
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