Lessons From The School of Life — a View From Age 75
Note: This is the second writing – the “four-page” version of what I wrote but chose not to share in the August 25th meeting of my writing group. The first writing that I did share with the writing group on August 25th was posted earlier and should be read first to have the context for this longer piece that follows below.
Grade School and High School — the Ugly Ducking Years
Borrowing a familiar metaphor from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, I was born a duck. It was a rough beginning. Perhaps it is for most of us human “ducklings.” But for me in particular my early life as a duckling felt scary – I just could not find “my place” in the pond among the other ducklings. I simply did not know how to engage with other ducks my age on the pond of life. Was I a misfit? Probably. Maybe we all feel that way early in life. All I know is that I just did not know how to be an ordinary duck engaging with other ordinary ducks in those early experiences on the pond of life.
So I protected and satisfied myself by playing in my own private corner of the pond of life, exploring my own admittedly peculiar interests – collecting, disassembling, and organizing parts of old radios from the dump, obsessively organizing the chemicals from my mail-order chemistry set, building with used wood boards and nails obtained from my neighbor, reading books on electronics, chemistry, and astronomy, and the like. Yes, my interests seemed unusual – they were nothing I felt comfortable sharing with other ducks on the pond of life.
While my young life with adult ducks during my grade-school days worked well enough, my world among peers in grade school was a challenge. I felt awkward and lost. I would depend upon the teacher being in control and would be sure to obey her or him. Obedience would keep me safe most of the time, at least in class. I would not socialize with the other kids in my St. James Lutheran elementary school that I attended through eighth grade. I was not athletic, not mentally quick or competitive, not social, and just did not feel comfortable playing with other kids at school or most of the kids in my neighborhood.
Dad enrolled me in an after-school grade school band where I played tuba – the same instrument he played in high school. He took me to piano lessons beginning in the fifth or sixth grade where I lasted until ninth grade. I was not as gifted as he in playing the piano, so it was frustrating for both Dad and me as I struggled through my practicing sessions with him and my teacher’s “student piano recitals.”
During the summer months my parents regularly sent me off to scout camp for one or more weeks, but I did not really engage much with the other boys. Yet in preparation for camp I would enjoy building a special trunk in which to store my camping gear, and at camp I enjoyed collecting leaves for the naturalist, becoming a whiz at tying knots and other private activities. But what about swimming, or hiking, or engaging with the other boys socially at meals or at rest time? These normal camp group activities were outside my comfort zone. At camp, just give me a stick to whittle on or a set of plastic laces to weave into a lanyard and I’d be happy.
Dad got increasingly concerned about my lack of socialization when I entered high school. I would not date, nor would I socialize with boys or girls in my peer group – not even at church youth functions. I could “hold offices” in the church youth group, but I would not socialize with the other kids.
Then in ninth grade I was enrolled in some kind of special program for “gifted kids.” While I do not remember what that program was about, one memory does stand out. I remember standing in our living room at home where Dad was talking to my counselor of this special program. Dad seemed visibly relieved when the counselor assured him that, based upon his assessments of me, my extreme social awkwardness notwithstanding, in the end I would “come into my own” in my adult life. Dad was not to worry about me – but I think he continued to worry nonetheless, even as I left for college in the fall of 1960.
So in my childhood through high school, my story it seems was that of the “ugly duckling” character in the first half of The Ugly Duckling story – the little swan feeling so different and “ugly” swimming among his supposedly peer ducklings. It was quite painful to think of oneself as an “ugly duckling” in the world of ducks!
College and Career — Becoming a Swan
But it turned out that in fact my swan days did seem to begin to emerge in college. In college I still did not fit in socially with the other ducks, not even in the fraternity I joined, and especially not in dating girls – I simply did not know how to be with girls.
But I loved to “hide out” as a recluse in my room at the frat house and study. And this excessive studying, this “excusable” escape from social life and out-of-balance “love of learning” led to high performance in the classroom – and to recognition. The pain of being a socially inept duck was greatly relieved by my becoming a “top student” swan, and I glommed onto the social safety and soothing of my social pain that came with my new identity in being a “good student,” a swan on the pond of life!
I would go on to grad school, and then, in my twenties, thirties and early forties, go on to thrive in my career. I held leadership positions wherever I was involved – job, church, and several service organizations. I was married and had three wonderful children. Yes, by age 45 I had proven the ninth-grade counselor correct: I had indeed, it seemed, “come into my own.”
I had become quite a swan, both in my own eyes and, superficially, in the eyes of many others it seemed. I had found my identity in being a swan swimming on the pond with ducks, and was fully committed to being a “successful” swan. It seemed that the pains of an awkward childhood had been successfully overcome, or at least they were held at bay or sufficiently denied altogether. And I enjoyed the activities involved in being a swan. Socialization did not seem to be required in the life I had carved out for myself.
However, deep down, though quite unconsciously, I still was not connected or comfortable in social situations – in my family, with others in my job, in my church or in other organizations. I would not golf or go out to “drink with the boys” or casually mix with my co-workers or friends from church. No, I was happier both with my own more serious and singular projects in the roles that I was in (like developing a strategic plan or budget, or preparing a key customer sales presentation) as well as with a few singular hobbies I had pursued with gusto (like wildflower photography).
Was “lack of social interaction” a problem? It certainly did not seem to be. Social distancing notwithstanding, I had seemingly successfully grown out of my pains of childhood and was seemingly a “happy camper” and a “healthy” adult.
Challenge 1: Learning to be a Duck
However… in my late forties I was becoming increasingly aware that something was amiss, perhaps seriously amiss, in my life as a swan. I was not finding meaning in my many roles. My uneasiness became increasingly severe, and eventually it was so severe that, at age 50, I began a long process of letting go of my swan life altogether – after 29 years with SDRC, I retired from my job at 54. Then I left my life-long membership in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod at 57, and, most painfully, left my marriage of 34 years at 57½ early in 2000. So by late 2000, at the age of 58, I was no longer a swan. Rather, I was alone and identity-less. What would life be like when I was no longer a swan swimming “happily” on the pond of life with all the other ducks? I did not know what was in store for me.
Well I am getting ahead of myself. During those initial eight years between ages 50 and 58, and even ten years past that, I still sought my identity in being some kind of swan. Being a swan was the only kind of life I had known, so giving up the pursuit of “swanhood” would turn out to be a long, long process! Though now separate from job, church, family and all the other structures that had framed, defined, and given meaning to the first 50 years of my life, after turning 50 I still pursued a swan’s persona. I took on new “swan” identities in new roles and organizations. I just could not get away from trying to find meaning for my life by being a successful swan somewhere, any where.
I would try my hand at being a chaplain intern, then a massage therapist, then a life coach, and on and on – but no “role” really satisfied me or gave me a sense of fulfillment or meaning. A duck trying to be a swan in order to avert the old residual pains of being an “ugly duckling” simply would not work in an adult duck’s life. As a duck, I had to learn how to be a duck and find meaning in being a duck! This “learning to be the duck that I am” would be my first serious lesson in the School of life.
Challenge 2: Intimate Relationships
I also was faced with taking a required core course offered by the School of Life, a course that I would have to take if I wanted to graduate from the School of Life and face the adult world, a world that included having a life partner and other intimate relationships.
After my divorce and several failed relationships with women in my fifties, I entered into a relationship with Pat Peterson, whom I met in 1998 in massage school.
Pat has been my life partner for 14 years and my “Pat, I-want-you-to-be-my-partner” for the five years before that. But this relationship with Pat painfully revealed just how little I knew about being an ordinary human being connecting with another ordinary human being in a genuine intimate relationship. I knew about being a swan in a pond of ducks, or even being a swan in partner-type relationships (perhaps, sadly, including my marriage), but I knew nothing about being a duck connecting with the other ducks in the pond of real life!
Pathwork Phase 1: Still Trying to be a Swan
But to explain the development of my relationship with Pat, I must introduce still another “course” in the curriculum of the School of Life: Pathwork. In late 2000, at 58, I got involved in this spiritual path called Pathwork, and Pathwork turned out to be my main course, my main “tool kit,” for spiritual and personal development. Perhaps Pathwork will continue to be my main spiritual course of study and practice until the end of my life — at least I still see so many ways that the Pathwork tool kit of teachings and practices can continue to benefit me in the process of spiritual and personal development. I do not yet see the time when I shall outgrow it.
However, the first 13 years of Pathwork were rough. It seems that I am a slow learner when it comes to the the courses offered in the School of Life. What made Pathwork so tough is that in Pathwork I tried once again to be a swan – this “being a swan” was the only world I really knew. So I would relate to others in Pathwork by participating in familiar “swan” roles such as being a “very responsible student,” or taking on roles of leadership or teaching or organizing or of attempting to be a Pathwork helper for others on the path.
Pathwork Phase 2 — Learning to Be a Duck
Eventually I came to understand that those Swan roles were not truly me. I am not a great student, a leader, an organizer, or Pathwork helper. This Pathwork course in the curriculum was trying to help me see and accept that I am a duck, not a swan – and further, Pathwork would help me learn how to be a duck and how to have healthy loving intimate relationships not only with myself and but also with other ducks!
While I have been committed to Pathwork all these years since 2000, it took me until the past two or three years to slowly withdraw from my familiar swan “leadership” roles and instead enter the world of simply being a Pathwork student – not a “great” student, but an “average” and “good-enough” student – one who greatly enjoys study for its own sake and who could find life energy in just being an amateur metaphysician, philosopher, monk – one who loves the Pathwork teachings and other philosophic and spiritual perspectives. I am not intellectually fast enough or skilled enough to be a “pro” – say a professor of philosophy, or a teacher or a counselor in Pathwork – but my passion for study keeps me a happy amateur metaphysician, philosopher, and monk. This is me as a happy duck!
In the past two years in particular, where I have focused exclusively on being a “happy student” of Pathwork, I have discovered deeper joy, peace, and meaning. Yes, experiencing my authentic joy and love of learning, I could finally let go of having to have an identity in life as a Pathwork swan and could instead simply be a “common human duck” who just happens to love studying matters spiritual, metaphysical, psychological, and philosophical! And as a “forever student” I am feeling in deeper resonance with my essence.
Back to Intimate Relationships
So let’s now get back to the required course of intimate relationships with other ducks in general and my relationship with Pat in particular. This intimate relating is still a great challenge – the challenge of finding fulfillment, meaning, and joy in being a duck in relationship with other ducks and with one duck in particular. In this course in “relating,” it seems I am entering a critical and central course in the School of Life – and one that will likely be my greatest challenge and offer me my greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning and joy.
But, though relating has been a lifelong challenge, there is hope! Recently something significant began changing in Pat’s and my relationship! In the past few months in particular I have been feeling an inner transformation coming upon me, seemingly something arising from within me that is a very new experience.
So what is happening in this new world of “relationship feelings”? On some levels I’m slowly coming to realize what a challenge it has been being a duck, being who I really am. In this world of ducks I have to learn how not to find my identity in being a swan, a real challenge for one who has invested so much of his life in being a swan. But this “letting go” of my swan identity is made easier by new feelings of being connected to Pat and other ducks in new ways. Perhaps this new experience is actually feeling “love” – love that perhaps has always lived deep within my heart as a duck but was kept at bay by my ego’s “ideal-swan” image.
So for me, at this time, as I approach age 75, I am getting the greatest course The School of Life has to offer me: learning to trust, find meaning in, and identify with the experience of connecting – the experience of loving, the experience of living fully as a common duck in deep relationships with other ducks on the human pond, and with one duck in particular.
As I reflect on these recent months, I realize that in some ways this special course in the School of Life has had several aspects that have been preparing me for this new life. I can feel myself being guided in some way — guided to new practices and actions.
1) Centering Prayer: In March Pat and I began a practice of twice daily Centering Prayer. I had always resisted Centering Prayer, but then spontaneously in March I rediscovered Centering Prayer, introduced the idea to Pat, and since March this twice-daily Centering Prayer practice has felt right for us both to practice.
2) Morning Practice Blessing: In June we altered our morning blessing to each other. Let me back up. This morning time ritual that Pat and I have practiced for nearly ten years – a ritual of silence, meditation, and an hour or so of deep sharing, and which concludes with a mutual blessing – has evolved over the years. Some things have been dropping off and other things are being added – all coming from a deep place of guidance from within one or the other of us and perhaps tweaked by the other until it feels “just right” to both of us.
For several years we have been using as our concluding blessing in this morning ritual some form of the Ho’oponopono blessing – the blessing where we alternately say to each other, “I’m sorry, please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” In this latest change in June we changed the concluding blessing in a way that is very meaningful for us. We each say to the other, “I’m sorry, please forgive me. Thank you. I love you as you are, I love you for who you are becoming, I love you for who you are.” This exact wording feels correct and important for where we are now. After these exchanges, together we conclude with a prayer, “May we open to Beauty, and Mystery, and Love. Amen!” Again, these words feel very significant for the space we are just now stepping into – perhaps all these words of our closing blessing are a form of prayer as we enter this new and deeper space.
3) Divine Sexuality Workshop: In July we attended a very meaningful one-week-long Pathwork-based Divine Sexuality workshop that was led by Sage Walker, the wife half of our Sage and Anthony couple’s counselor team. We have worked with Sage and Anthony for five years now (since our first intensive with them in June of 2012) and in late May this year we did our sixth couple’s intensive with them, all of which helped us take in this special July Divine Sexuality workshop at a deeper level.
4) Memorial Plaque. For the past six months we have been thinking about our funerals and the related pieces. Then in July we were moved to purchase one of the terracotta plaques in the Cincinnati Nature Center’s Memorial Garden. It was engraved last week and reads: “Gary Vollbracht, Pat Peterson … together, hand in hand, ever engaging the Transcendent Mystery of Life, Death, and Love.” Again, this wording evolved over a period of a few months, and we have a deep feeling of the correctness of these particular words and this act – it is an act that honors this new space we are entering. This plaque placed now in the CNC Memorial Garden feels correct in lieu of or in addition to any tombstone one of us may use later at our actual deaths.
5) Pathwork: In these recent transitions, I am also still very much in the Pathwork course in the School of Life. In fact I feel that I am even more guided by Pathwork and that I’m working at even deeper levels in applying Pathwork to my life. For example, I am currently (and for no particular reason) working with Lecture 241 Dynamics of Movement and Resistance to its Nature. On the surface this seems to be a strange and esoteric title, as is often the case with the 258 standard Pathwork lectures. But as I ingest this lecture in new ways, its guidance, as usually happens, fits perfectly the space I am entering.
The lecture simply points out that to move forward into deeper levels of consciousness as a duck, I must let go of things that I think “keep me safe from pain” at the level of consciousness I am coming from – the ego-consciousness of the swan swimming proudly among the ducks on the Pond of Life. So the guidance has to do with unlearning the practice of finding my identity and meaning in being a swan, being separate from my fellow ducks, the strategy I have used most of my life to block the pain I feel as a “foreign” duck, a duck who simply doesn’t feel he belongs on the pond of ducks.
As I dare to let go of my swan identity more completely, there is movement, as Lecture 241 promises, and in this movement forward the truth of my true nature, my essence as a duck, arises automatically. With this forward movement I enter into new and very natural and organic ways of connecting “duck-to-duck,” connecting at new levels of consciousness, levels from which I can begin to open more fully to the experience of love.
And the key in all of this seems to be staying open to a state of being ever moving forward. Each morning, each day, each moment is a new experience inviting me to let go of the experiences of the day or moment before. Such continuous “letting go” and “moving forward” is the key to all the lessons from the School of Life. Each lesson is learned by living fully into each moment, and then into the next moment, and then into the next…always letting go of what went before.
In all of the courses of this School of Life, every experience seems to be a teacher. For example, last week Pat saw the movie Maudie, and after seeing it she thought I would enjoy it and that we should see it together. So we did – not once but twice. I was deeply moved by this movie, especially the character Everett Lewis, a fisherman. The acting is superb, and I was deeply touched, even moved to tears, by the quite-visible emotional growth of Everett as he evolves emotionally out of his orphanage childhood which had left him with deep attachment issues and steps into life as a humble fisherman and lover of this unique woman Maud.
Everett was confused by the experiences of love he was feeling in the beginning with Maud, even resisting the experiences of love scene to scene – resisting both on the giving end and the receiving end of love. Yes, I could relate! Everett’s issues and challenges fit my issues and challenges perfectly.
So keep moving, Gary, keep moving. And I’m surprised that in this moment I am taken back to my grade school religion classes and told remember from my rich Lutheran roots the closing of 1 Corinthians 13 – “In choosing from among “faith,” “hope,” and “love,” remember St. Paul’s closing words to this familiar love chapter, “the greatest of these three is love.” So perhaps I’m coming full circle back to my early spiritual roots. Yet even now this “love” feels both present and distant – opening in new ways, moment by moment, day by day, … and I suspect, lifetime by lifetime.
So this is the longer version of what I had developed and was planning to share with my writing group on Friday, August 25,th but did not. I was concerned that the piece was far too long and perhaps “under cooked” and “too chaotic” to be meaningful to anyone other than myself.
But in this blog posting I am choosing to share the piece in its entirity, because, while perhaps it is too chaotic and still very much in process and cooking, it represents the life I am living these days. Perhaps outer chaos will be with me for the rest of my life. Perhaps getting used to outer chaos is part and parcel of a life that is getting used to constantly moving forward, constantly leaving behind what no longer serves.
I also see this transition as a fairly standard, though for me late, midlife-crisis transition – a typical time of transformation with all the associated chaos. Taken as a lifelong process, perhaps this writing could be describing a duck-swan-duck lifetime transition process. My first have of life — the duck-to-swan-half — involved the process of enculturation (learning to conform to family, cultural, and religious norms) and ego development as the “ugly duckling” became an individuated adult “swan” that, in his own mind, stood out with pride on his pedestal as special and separate being on the pond of life.
But then in my second half of life — the swan-back-to-duck half — the adult swan realized he is not a swan at all but rather a duck, and as a duck he had to go through the second half of life — a long process of both letting go of his swan identity and also learning how to be true to his essence as an adult duck. Central to this, he had to learn how to connect with himself, with other ducks, and with the Cosmos in which he lives.
In this second half of life he entered a time of unification with the other ducks, with the Whole of Life. Perhaps he will gradually (or suddenly?) evolve to experience aspects and levels of Unitive consciousness.
And perhaps from the outside this new way of living, this going with each moment anew, may appear and feel chaotic. As I look ahead, perhaps I will learn to welcome the chaos and even come to find pleasure in this chaos, living in the FREEDOM of being always in the NOW. May it be so!
Shared in love, Gary