On Relationships

I must admit that I was excited.  I was excited to see my cousins and my nephews and nieces.  I was heading out for our annual reunion campout. Due to the health concerns of a family member, I have not camped very much this year, so I was delighted to accompany Violet the camper van on a road trip.  We would be driving to a campground in Michigan—two states over, but a world apart from my ordered life in the Chicago suburbs.

I would travel alone as my kids had other obligations, and my wife wasn’t feeling well.  I have gone on many solo camping adventures, so this was no big deal.  I’m a planner, and I love to plan my camping trips.  That planning is primarily a way for me to extend the adventure. 

Since Violet, the camper van is fully equipped; my forethought mostly centers around the food I should bring.  However, my planning desires often differ from what I will eat camping.  I’ll cook meals if I have a camping accomplice, but if it is just me, I usually eat the most basic meals possible. 

For breakfast, I brought a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs.  However, my actual camping breakfasts were peanut butter on an apple one day and yogurt with granola on the other.  The memory of the aroma of bacon and eggs drove me to buy those items, but the reality of frying stuff up and cleaning a greasy mess pushed me toward the no-cooking options. I did a little cooking for lunch and dinner to try out the new kitchen my friend Tom and I built this summer. But I even made those meals as simple as possible.

At the start of these events, my relatives hang out with their familiars. However, in short order, the ice is broken, then groups constantly form and reform. I only see my nephews and nieces on special events like holidays, and I see my cousins less than that. Spending time with them is a rare pleasure.

When I have such episodic contacts, I assess changes in both myself and the group, and I have noticed a clear positive trend as we have all aged.

I have never been a competitive person; I am more interested in improving myself. If I compete with anyone, it is me. However, I do remember times in my past when I was envious of others’ possessions or periods when I aspired to gain some material thing for the sole reason of image. 

Early in my career, I was invited by a more senior doctor to spend the weekend at his summer home, which was located directly on Lake Michigan.  He had a postmodern “cabin” that possessed its own private beach.  Beautiful views, cool mid-century furniture, exposed brick walls, and a giant walk-in shower so large that it didn’t require a door or a curtain.  Wow, I was impressed. This guy had class.  A type of wealthy class unknown to me growing up blue-collar. Additionally, I recall having dinner at his River Forest home.  I have been in mammoth houses, but this one was spectacular and looked like it was out of a 1940s movie. I had never had dinner at someone’s home, where a servant served me. 

I have always driven typical cars.  I’m not a gearhead.  However, when I turned 50, I decided that I was going to buy a “doctor’s car.”  My wife was somewhat shocked with this decision, but I felt I had to go with my desire.  Soon, I owned a hunter-green Mercedes.  Man, I thought everyone was looking at me the day I drove it out of the dealership’s lot.  I was super cool…for that day.  It didn’t take me long to realize that my Mercedes was just a box on wheels and that the only person impressed with my purchase was me. If you want to continually spend a lot of money on repairs, buy a Mercedes.  Soon, I got tired of my status car and returned to my old roots.  I traded in the Mercedes for a much more sensible Honda.

These material things have become less important to me as I have aged. I am no longer envious of the possessions of others; the only material things I seem to want are those that directly improve my life. That may be an upgrade to Violet the campervan or a new gadget I can study and learn about. I have as much enjoyment learning about a gadget as I do using it.

Initially, I felt that this change resulted from my years as a psychotherapist.  I treated so many wealthy and successful people who were dissatisfied and unhappy.  Most were on the road of acquisition. They bought bigger houses and fancier cars.  They upped their quota of exotic trips, often going multiple times yearly.  They increased their diners at exclusive restaurants. They indulged in all sorts of “self” experiences. These folks knew the art of subtly dropping their brags calmly and casually.  Somehow, this one-upmanship was supposed to make them feel better, but it didn’t.  The more they raced to buy and experience, the worse they felt.  It was an excellent lesson for me; these folks appeared to have everything on the surface but little to nothing where it counted.  Many had poor marriages and kids who couldn’t find time for them.  They had stressful jobs and constantly had to keep up with the Joneses, even when they didn’t need to or want to.

However, I now question if my work experience caused this change in me, and the family reunion campout highlighted that awareness.  Everyone at the campout seemed genuine and honest.  Our focus was on connecting and sharing, not bragging.  Although I witnessed this with everyone, it was especially evident with my cousins.  From my observation, they seem to be doing well financially and enjoyed the benefits of having some extra cash in their pockets.  However, they did things to enhance their retirement years, not to impress others. They had reached the same life conclusions that I had, but not by observing patients.  Instead, it appeared that this was a natural process of healthy aging.

We had several honest conversations that focused on the good and the less-than-good in our lives.  We discussed our adult kids, looking at their successes and challenges.  We explored relationships in our lives, both good and those that could use some improvement.  We were real people dealing with real life. Notably, there was no posturing, bragging, or subtle put-downs.  Instead, we were present to celebrate each other and acknowledge the importance of staying connected.

I judge my interactions with others based on my “aftertaste.”  How did I feel when I left the interaction?  Did I feel happy or energized?  Will I be excited to see that person again?  Or did I feel exhausted and defeated?  Did that person ask anything about me; was it all about them?  Was the conversation a one-way brag fest or an equally horrible “feel sorry for me” experience? I want to spend time with people where we elevate each other.  I like win/win scenarios. 

As I age, I think it is great not to care if someone doesn’t like me. It is empowering to be grateful for all of the incredible blessings that I have received in my life. It is a gift not to want more and more. It is amazing to have people in my life who, by their very presence, make my life better.

I have been fortunate to have been connected to many quality people over the years: cousins, siblings, my family, truly wonderful friends.  I will take those relationships anytime over a new Mercedes or a fancy lake house.  It is relationships that make life worth living.

Violet the camper van was excited to go on a road trip.