The Methuselah Complex

Sep 13, 2011

Although his plays are suffused with dynastic and generational issues, Shakespeare hardly wrote anything about grandparents per se.

A grandam’s name is little less in love than is the doting title of a mother.
–King Richard, in Richard III, by William Shakespeare

Although his plays are suffused with dynastic and generational issues, Shakespeare hardly wrote anything about grandparents per se. Maybe people just didn’t live long enough then for that to be of much interest to him. However, these seemingly loving lines by King Richard (and “grandma” refers to grandmother) are underlined with treachery, as he tries to convince a horrified Queen Elizabeth to allow him to marry her young daughter. It works for Richard, at least for a while.

Another more recent and famous analyzer of human nature, Sigmund Freud, also didn’t write about the relationship of grandparents and grandchildren-at least as far as I know. Perhaps similar to Shakespeare’s time, life spans still weren’t long enough a century ago. Or, at least, grandparents didn’t come to Dr Freud to talk about problems with their grandchildren (or vice versa).

Is there a possibility that even Freud, that keen observer of underlying conflict, felt like many do today, that grandchildren are the rewards for being parents? In other words, supposedly one gets to enjoy the grandchildren without struggling with the Oedipal conflicts and other developmental challenges of child rearing. Maybe that also allows the grandparent to see more clearly the biological inheritance of the grandchildren, although of course you narcissistically look for some of yourself in their appearance and personality.

One of Freud’s grandchildren, Lucian Freud, died recently. Surely, the psychiatrist Freud would have seen some of himself in the artist Freud. If you don’t know of him, after a turbulent adolescence in the England where the Freuds finally fled from Nazi Germany, Lucian ended up being one of the most famous artists of his generation, a painter of a new kind of portrait. Lucian called them “naked portraits.” Here are some comments from his New York Times obituary that Sigmund might have personalized, and if I may take the liberty of interpreting for him, concluding that the paintings were a visualization of some of his ideas about the unconscious:

“. . . portraiture that stripped bare the sitter’s social faade”
“His subjects . . . dropped their defenses and opened up”
“He always pressed to extremes, carrying on further than one would think necessary and rarely letting anything go before it became disconcerting”
“. . . his contorted subjects, stripped bare and therefore unidentifiable by class, submitted to the artist’s unblinking, merciless inspection.”

Time “Milestones” concluded: “As a portraitist, Freud was an acute psychologist, shrewd and unsparing, a fitting descendent of his grandfather Sigmund Freud.”

I know I’ve begun the same process with my own grandchildren. Noah, my eldest, is now 8, and in my objective opinion, shows unusual empathy. Will he become a therapist? Mira, now 6, seems to be a spitting image of my wife and seems headed for a theatrical career. Hannah, 4, has a persistent and questioning mind, which would seem to fit a potential career in scientific research, maybe even life-saving findings. Tamir, now 2, already shows musical interests like my wife. (I’m quite sure the other sets of grandparents might see other possibilities).

Of course, such rosy expectations and identifications may not turn out to be so easy or possible. Sometimes a grandparent will have to raise the grandchildren, with all the usual Freudian conflicts. Other times, unresolved Oedipal conflicts with the child and the spouse will complicate the relationship with the grandchildren. Or the parents will have a contentious divorce. Religious conflicts are not unusual. Grandchildren may have special needs. One may not get to see grandchildren often, or may not have them at all.

At times, the relationship may also pose particular challenges for the grandchild. For instance, as Lucian’s daughter wrote in the Telegraph: “I often think how hard it must have been for my father to flourish under the shadow of the ‘Universal Sigmund,’ as I called him.”

The psychological theoretician who did pay more attention to grandparenting and the elderly was Erik Erikson. In his proposed stages of psychological development, he emphasizes our last challenge-integrity versus despair. The goal is to become at peace with one’s life and efforts, and accept that death is coming. If not through grandchildren, this can also be achieved through other contributions to society, including mentoring, work accomplishments, helping others, writings, buildings, and other relationships, as well as belief in a life after death. One can be reassured, if not a little intimidated, by the so-called “butterfly effect.” Based on chaos theory, it posits that even the flapping of one butterfly’s wings can be amplified over time and distance to influence the weather.

Philosophers have long recognized the quest for some kind of immortality, literal or figurative. Following the 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning book by the anthropologist Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, some studies by social psychologists have found that reminding people that they will die has a profound impact on their political and religious ideas. When reminded of their inevitable death, research subjects tended to be much more critical and hostile toward those who violate their worldview. Taken to an international level, this can be applied to the genesis and aftermath of 9/11/01. This has come to be known as the Terror Management Theory, for ways that we try to manage our (often unconscious) fear of death. (Incidentally, September 11, 2011 was the decade anniversary of both the terror attacks and Grandparents Day).

Is this one way to explain the Biblical description of people who were reported to live much longer than we do? The oldest was Methuselah, who was reported to live be the age of 969. Coincidentally or not, he was the grandfather of Noah, who built the ark in the story of survival after the Great Flood.

Methuselah might be a fitting representation for our old age desires, rewards, and struggles. A Methuselah Complex, if you will. As more and more of our global population lives longer, with consequences for limited resources, from energy to healthcare, how we all resolve this complex may be the key to the future of human society.

My generation of “baby boomers” could lead the way. Finding socially responsible ways to feel immortal may provide us with another opportunity to improve society. Surely, our own peace with dying is at stake.

In psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association has a group of the elderly that is named, fittingly enough, “The Lifers.” There is also a group of “Early Career Psychiatrists.” If we join to address this challenge, a task force could be called “Early Lifers.” Anyone interested?

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