August 30, 2022

How to Be With the Dying: Brian Kraemer’s Inspiring Story

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Brian Kraemer is an old and dear friend of mine. We have exchanged many warm e-mail messages over the years. And once I was lucky enough to meet him when he visited me. He was ostensibly here to relieve me of the burden of many of my books, but actually we used the occasion to get to know each other more deeply. After that, I read a couple of his autobiographical books, and through them, I came to know even more about his personal and spiritual life. To me, Brian is a great and wise man with a beautiful soul and a loving heart. So, yes, I have come to think very highly of Brian and treasure his friendship.

He is also a faithful reader of my blogs and almost always finds the time to comment on them very thoughtfully. Moreover, usually he is able to find some way to connect the themes of my blogs to his personal life.

Such was the case when he read my most recent blog, “Being Mortal While Being Immortal,” in which I spent some time discussing the horrors of most conventional nursing homes and other institutions where people at the end of their lives languish until they are finally released from the trials of their body.

Brian, it turns out, has spent many years in such settings, and I was so moved by his account of some of his experiences in them that I asked his permission to share his story with you.

Here is what he wrote me today:

When I was seventeen, I was driving a tractor through an almond orchard here in northern California. It was August, hot, dusty, miserable, and noisy. I hated it. I remember the moment I said to God, "What is worth doing in life because this 'aint it!" I heard as clearly as I'm writing now, "Go visit the seniors in the retirement homes." I had no idea what I was doing so I bought some stationery in case anyone wanted to dictate a letter to a loved one. I asked to borrow the car and drove to Chico. In those days, there were no rules or policies about entering such a convalescent hospital which is where I started. I just walked in and made my way to the first door with a resident. "Hi. My name is Brian Kraemer. I'm here to visit people. Would you like to visit?" The elderly woman immediately invited me to sit down and we became good friends.

Thus began a now forty-one-year love affair with seniors. I have enjoyed several thousand grandmas and grandpas, mostly grandmas because the grandpas die earlier, but I have adopted many of them and they me. I play piano for them. I listen to them. I ask them questions. I treat them with the love and respect they deserve. I remind them that they are the same women and men they've always been even when they can't speak anymore, can't hear well, see well, control their own bowel functions. They are the same amazing human beings with profound life stories and I want them to know that I know this is true. I have seen many tears as I do nothing more than reassure them that they are the same person they've always been. 

I remember one gentleman whose wife was talking baby talk to him because he had a stroke and she thought he had lost his mental faculties. When she wasn't around, I reminded him of all the amazing things he had done for others and I knew he was the same man and understood everything I was saying. Though he couldn't talk, tears flowed down his face as I did nothing other than reassure him of my own understanding of his wholeness in a broken body.

I have had so many seniors, disabled by strokes, pound on the arm of their wheelchairs after each song I play on the piano. They want me to know that they appreciate me and they appreciate the memories that these old tunes from the thirties, forties, fifties, and so on bring back. "Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me..." These seniors may look terribly ragged in these aging bodies, but they are the same imaginative five-year-olds, playful teenagers, voluptuous young adults, and so on that they've ever been. They haven't lost anything. This is the thing we need to remember more than anything else. Though they are becoming physically feebler and feebler, they are adding experience after experience and literally becoming more whole. A ninety-four-year-old woman is not just ninety-four. She is every age, every moment of every age, she has ever been all at once. When we behold a ninety-four-year-old woman we are beholding a gold mine of experience and knowledge and wisdom. The wise search for the gold in there and these seniors love being simply seen for the richness of who they are.

I have to share one more story before I go...I was in my early twenties and I had been visiting these senior centers and convalescent homes for a few years. A nurse asked me if I would visit a particular woman who she said "was not doing well."

I walked into the room and this elderly woman was whimpering like a frightened animal. She had an oxygen mask on her face and she just kept making this whimpering sound like she was so afraid. I walked up to her and said, "Hi. My name is Brian. I come to this home to visit people. May I visit with you?" She nodded her head yes and I stood at her bedside telling her a little about where I grew up nearby and why I was there. 

She couldn't talk, but obviously she understood everything that was going on. I asked her, "May I pray for you?" She nodded her head yes. I put my hand on her hand and said a simple little prayer, nothing particularly religious or flowery, just simple, "God, please bless this woman and help her to not be afraid. Please take good care of her and help her feel better." That was it, short, sweet, sincere, from a child basically. I then asked if it was okay for me to sing a few songs for her. Again, she nodded yes. I sang "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," "Jesus Loves the Little Children," "In the Garden," anything I could remember by heart and while I did so, I knew it was the right thing to do to run my fingers through the hair on her forehead. I sang and just kept running my fingers through her hair. She closed her eyes and got that look that cats get when they are petted. Within a few minutes, her breathing got quieter and quieter and she fell asleep.

I stopped at the front desk and told them that she was asleep now and I would come back in the morning to find out how she was doing. When I returned the next day, I was told that she had "passed in her sleep." I still get tears in my eyes when I think about that precious time she and I had together in the closing hours of her life. I cannot tell you how meaningful those moments were when two human beings met together in a sacred moment and were kind to each other. I hope to God, and I mean it, I hope to God that someone walks into my room, prays for me, sings to me, holds my hand, and runs his or her fingers through my hair when I am on that final journey into further realms of adventure.

I think it's so important to trust that so much is going on for all of us all the time that we don't even begin to understand or appreciate the wonder of it all. When someone is in that final transitional period we call "dying" it is entirely possible, I think even likely, that that person is being nurtured, held, supported, guided, comforted by beings other than ourselves. We have midwives in this realm. I believe with my whole heart that they have midwives in other realms as well and these midwives help us through the process of first inverting, flipping over in the uterus, and then beginning the process of transition. We will soon ask ourselves, "Why was I so afraid?" We have done this infinite times and will continue to do so. "You must be born again," Jesus said. I think he may have meant exactly what he said. "You must be born again."

August 25, 2022

Being Mortal While Being Immortal

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

If you read books or listen to podcasts on spirituality, you are bound to be told – many times ad infinitum – that “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I usually wince with dismay when I hear such twaddle repeated over and over. Not that it’s in the category of a Trumpian “big lie,” which is obviously a big lie in its own wrong; I actually believe that I am an eternal being who has dipped into the illusion of time in order to learn certain lessons, such as being able to tie one’s shoelaces without assistance, until I can be sprung from this temporal prison. It’s just that I have a pedant’s revulsion whenever I encounter such pap. It’s the same category as another spiritual bromide, such as “there are no accidents.” You’ve heard that one, too, right? To which I am wont to counter, “except for chance events, errors, mistakes and random mayhem.” Yes, I admit it: I am an unrepentant curmudgeon when it comes to spiritual clichés.

However much such spiritual drivel may arouse my spleen, I have always been a sucker for a good quip or a witty zinger. One of my favorite characters who is as quick with a quip as anyone I know is my fellow curmudgeon, Woody Allen. Yes, I know his reputation has been tarnished in recent years from all the to-do about whether he did or didn’t, but I have always been partial to Woody, not only for his mordant wit, but perhaps because we are virtual contemporaries, he having arrived on the planet just twelve days ahead of me, in 1935. You will see where I am going with this shortly, but for now “here are some of my favorite things” that Woody has uttered to amuse us:

Nature and I are two.

Man can’t live on bread alone; he also needs a beverage.

I don’t believe in the afterlife, although I am bringing a change in underwear.

But what will be of more interest to us in what follows is suggested by some of Woody’s quips about death. For instance:

I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.

Clearly, Woody is not keen on death. He says that he is firmly “against it.” Most people would doubtless agree and would rather not think about it. If you are under sixty, you probably would rather think about other things, such as orgiastic sex. In which case, you might not want to bother reading the rest of this blog. 

But we are actually not going to talk about death so much as what happens when you get old and have to face the prospect of death. This is when your telomeres begin to shorten, when you start developing tumors or cancer or heart disease, when your body has begun to betray you and you live in fear and chronic, often severe, pain. In other words, we are talking about your future, and mine. We are talking about the disease from which none of us will recover – aging.

I’m afraid this will make for rather grim reading – until the end. And there won’t be much more humor to leaven the load. But there will still be the occasional zinger, as in this famous remark of Bette Davis: “Old age is no place for sissies.” If you live long enough, though, you will be living in that place. Let’s check it out before we get there.

Our guide will be the gifted writer and physician, Atul Gawande, the author of the best-seller of a few years back, Being Mortal. In what follows, I will be drawing on his very readable and enlightening book about what’s it’s like to be facing death in America at this time. What he has to tell us won’t reassure Woody, but it will help us be better prepared for the inevitable.

For years I resisted reading this book, despite its excellent reviews and the urging of my cousin, Cliff, a retired cardiologist, who assured me it was a “terrific” book. But having spent forty years consorting with the once nearly dead who had reported their NDEs to me, I figured I had already devoted enough of my life thinking and writing about about death. But, truth to tell, I was just like everyone else when it came to thinking about dying itself. Frankly, I would rather not – die. Or even think about what my later years might entail if I ever should find myself heading toward that final abyss. After all, despite my infirmities and decrepitude, I am actually in pretty good health. I had never had a serious disease, I was still enjoying life and had continued to write and keep as active mentally as I could. I had been extremely lucky, especially compared to many of my friends who were far worse off than I was or who had already kicked the bucket. What me, worry?

But like many elderly people nowadays, I live alone, and as I am now heading toward 87, I had to admit that I could no longer pretend that I was invulnerable to what are often loosely and playfully called “the ravages of age.” Indeed, no male member of my immediate family had ever lived to 87. How long could I really expect my good luck streak to continue? Most oldsters like to think they will die peacefully in their sleep after a happy life. But, face it, that is as rare as winning the lottery, a delusional wish-fulfillment. You may not die like Tolstoy’s fictional character, Ivan Illich, by screaming in agony for three days before your death, but if you were to read Gawande’s book of horrors, you would quickly learn that you are not likely to enjoy your descent toward death once your body begins to fall apart, as it will.

So, in the end, I figuratively girded my loins, and delved into Gawande’s book. In fact, I was already familiar with Gawande. I’d been reading his work for years, mostly in The New Yorker, for which he’s long been a staff writer. But as a writer and medical scholar, he has had a very distinguished career. He has been awarded many literary prizes, is a MacArthur Fellow, and is on the faculty of Harvard. He is widely and deservedly recognized as one of the most outstanding writer/physicians in America. So I knew I would learn a lot from this man.

Still, he begins his book by covering a lot of the ground I have discussed in some of my previous blogs. For example, although Gawande grew up in America, he refers to his Indian background where typically older people are revered and remain in their families until their death. His parental grandfather, for example, lived until almost the age of 110, and only died because of a freak accident.

In cultures with traditional extended family structures, old people are not warehoused into nursing homes as they tend to be in our modern culture. But with the rise of isolated nuclear families in our own time, many old people are effectively deposited into nursing homes where strangers care for them and family members may visit only occasionally, if at all. Or, since increasingly old people, especially women, live by themselves, they may become ill, which creates still other problems. One way or another, the situation of old people can often be fraught with risk or even greater peril – complete abandonment.

But here’s what makes it worse, as Gawande points out. In former times, people didn’t live to a great age. During ancient Roman times, for example, the average life expectancy was about thirty years. Even in the Middle Ages, it was rare to live beyond one’s fifties. And when people did die, they tended to die quickly. Even in George Washington’s time, dying could come overnight, as it did for him. On December 13th, 1799, he suddenly became ill. By the next night, he was gone.

Being interested in classical music, I can’t help thinking of all those famous composers that never made it out of their thirties. Schubert, for instance, died at 31, and Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Carl Maria von Weber, and Henry Purcell never lived to see forty. 

But now, thanks to advances in sanitation, diet, and medical technology, people can live to very advanced ages, which means that, relatively suddenly, our country and most others in the developed world, are struggling to support vast numbers of older people who can no longer live independently. Enormous amounts of money have to be expended, especially in the last year of elderly people’s lives, to house and take care of them. They become, as sociologists put it, “surplus populations.” And since most families can no longer take care of their own, institutions arise to warehouse the old until they die. Thus, we have seen the rise, especially since the middle of the last century, of the obscenity of nursing homes.

Of course, there are many caring people who work in such places, but these are poorly paid jobs, and for many, it is “just a job.” How many of us dream that one day we will wind up in such a dismal and depressing setting, being taken care of by a succession of strangers, when we have lost all agency over our own fate? But this could indeed be your fate one day, my friends. This is how your life could end when you are sick, infirm and perhaps demented. It could happen to me, too, of course, but I would be tempted to say, “over my dead body!” Truly, I would rather die than to end up in such a place, wouldn’t you?

Gawande spends a lot of time talking about life in nursing homes, and offers a number of case histories of people who were forced to live out their lives there. They make for frightening reading. And, remember, Gawande was visiting such places and writing about them before COVID hit. We all remember in the beginning of the pandemic that nursing homes were often settings where COVID could easily spread, causing many people to die, perhaps a blessing in a way, though dying of COVID, alone and without family, had to be a ghastly way to expire.

Have you ever visited such “homes?” I have. During the last years of my mother’s life when I was still teaching at the University of Connecticut, I had to place my mother, then in her early 80s, in such a home in Berkeley. I would visit her as often as I could, and once I was able to move back to California, I was able to visit almost weekly until she died.  

I am an only child from a very small family, and in all the years she lived there – she died when she was nearly 89 – no one else ever visited her. (Sometimes, however, my girlfriend at the time, would accompany me.) What you would have seen if you had been with me is fairly typical of such homes. You enter and you see a long corridor of people strapped into their wheelchairs, drooling or cursing of just sitting there, mute and absent. Many are demented, of course. My mother shared a room with a succession of women she didn’t know, some of whom would rave during the night, she told me.

My mother was beginning to lose her hearing, but she was still, until the near the end, mentally competent. She could no longer walk, so on nice days I would push her wheelchair around the neighborhood (fortunately, the streets were flat), or take her out in back and read to her (she liked to listen to short stories by Chekhov) or play gin rummy with her. But she couldn’t read, didn’t want to listen to the radio or watch TV. She didn’t even like to be touched. She mostly remained quiet and just stayed in her bed. She had no life. The place had no life. My mother wasn’t mistreated. The staff, so far as I could tell, were kind and caring people. But, still, I felt absolutely dreadful every time I had to leave, seeing her there in her bed, lying passively, not even able to say or wave goodbye. I would kiss her on her forehead and say I would see her again next time until there was no next time.

Gawande, who in preparation for writing his book, spent a great deal of time in places like those in which my mother vegetated and died, came away with the direct knowledge of how much such institutions fail to serve the needs of the people in their care. At the outset of his book, he offers an almost savage indictment of the failures of modern medicine:

You don’t have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help. The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions – nursing homes and intensive care units – where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life. Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the most basic comforts they need most. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to the very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.

But in his travels, Gawande didn’t just wander through the often soulless and depressing interiors of nursing homes; he also spent a lot of time seeking out experts in the field of death and dying, such as elderly geriatricians (apparently themselves a dying breed), but especially innovators who are trying to change the culture of such institutions so that they would become much more than joyless prisons for people who were suffering and merely marking time, as my mother did, waiting for the end to come.

Many of these pioneers have come up with ingenious solutions to enliven the daily lives of the residents of these homes, and some of the stories Gawande recounts in his book are very inspiring and hopeful – and often hilarious. I only have space to relate one such story, but it shows what is possible if one has imagination, pluck and perseverance.

In upstate New York in 1991, a young Harvard-trained physician named Bill Thomas became the director of a nursing home. He didn’t like what he saw there, and had an idea. He wanted to attack what he termed the three plagues of nursing home life: boredom, loneliness and helplessness. So to bring some life into this nursing home, he proposed to bring dogs and cats – and a hundred parakeets -- into his facility!

The administrators thought he was nuts. Besides, this would never fly. There was no way they could get such a wacky plan approved, much less funded. But Bill Thomas was the kind of guy who would not be denied. He proved to be incredibly dynamic and persuasive. And in the end, he was able to accomplish everything he had in mind.

Once the animals came into the home, there was of course pandemonium and confusion, but ultimately most of the residents were delighted. The animals were a big hit and the residents’ spirits were uplifted. Many were brought out of their shells of isolation, as Gawande relates:

“People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking," Thomas said. "People who had been completely withdrawn and nonambulatory started coming to the nurses’ station saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’” All the parakeets were adopted and named by the residents. The lights turned back on in people’s eyes. 

Researchers studied the effect of this program for two years. The findings? The number or prescriptions was half that of conventional nursing homes. The need for psychotropic drugs, like Haldol, decreased. Total drug costs fell 38% compared to other similar homes. Deaths fell 15%. In short, Thomas’s plan was an improbable but undeniable success.

Gawande’s book, though it is full of heartrending stories of people’s ultimately futile battles with their illnesses – and the reader gets to know many of these people, as Gawande makes sure to stay in touch with them – is also studded with stories like that of Bill Thomas, of people who buck the system and find ways to bring hope and compassionate care into the lives of those who would otherwise be forgotten and left to suffer.

Suffering is inevitable, of course, especially for the old and infirm and those afflicted by incurable illnesses, but ways are being found to mitigate that suffering by paying compassionate attention to the special needs and goals of people who find themselves, as many of us will one day, dealing with intractable illnesses as they approach and often yearn for death.

Gawande himself, as gifted a surgeon as he is, is very forthright about his own shortcomings as a physician when it comes to learning how to be with the dying. Doctors, after all, are not trained to deal with the dying; they often don’t know how to talk to or be with such people, and sometimes lose interest in them once they feel they can no longer help them. Doctors are taught to fix things, but you can’t fix death. If you regard death as the enemy, then the enemy always wins in the long run. It’s understandable that many doctors would prefer to ignore or slight the dying in order to attend to the living.

But Gawande in the course of doing his research for his book and talking to so many people has come to learn a lot about how to be with the dying, and he has advice for his fellow doctors, which he sums up in three questions they should be sure to put to such people:  

What are your biggest fears and concerns?

What goals are most important to you?

What tradeoffs ae you willing to make, and what ones are unacceptable to you?

Gawande cites research that shows one of the most important things that doctors can do for the dying is to engage them in discussions about such issues, and not just the treatments that they could perform, which ultimately often prove useless and just extend their suffering. “Doctors everywhere,” Gawande writes, “become all too ready to offer false hopes, leading families to empty bank accounts … and take money from their children’s education for futile treatments.”

The dying don’t just want technical information, which often just confuses them, anyway. How do they know what’s best for them? No, they want doctors to listen to them, to their fears, to understand their goals, to engage with them, and not just to offer their “expert opinions.” In short, doctors need to learn to shut up at such times and listen. That can make all the difference, as Gawande notes: “People who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.”

And eloquently concludes:

Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversation in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.

Gawande is the son of two physicians, and his father was a distinguished urologist, a man of immense energy, as healthy as “a Brahma bull,” Gawande says, but in his seventies, he finally begins to learn that he, too, will have to face his mortality. Always healthy, he becomes sick and then gravely ill. The last pages of this incredibly moving book become even more poignant when Gawande has to deal with his own father’s illness and, ultimately, with his death. I found this part of the book very tender, sad, and yet so aptly fitting, as if everything that Gawande had learned in conducting the research for his book could at the end be distilled as his final gift to his beloved father. What a beautiful tribute to a loving father from a loving son. 

A Personal Postscript

Gawande does not seem to be a religious man. I gather that like most physicians he has a secular outlook on life. His concern throughout the book is of course on questions of mortality, and not with what may come afterward. But I, who have mostly been concerned in my work with what happens at the point of death and with what people realize at that liminal transcendent moment, have a different point of view. What struck me in reading this book is how desperately people cling to life, and how, even when they long to die, their families often urge their doctors “to do everything possible” to preserve their lives of their loved ones, even if that only serves to prolong their agony.  

In one of my previous blogs, I recounted the case of the world-famous psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, who resisted to the last his wife’s desperate pleas to be allowed to die because of unremitting pain from terminal cancer. She wanted death, but her husband desperately didn’t want her to leave – to leave him.  

I wish people could know that when facing death, despite the pain, there is no reason to fear. I suppose I am guilty of resorting to a cliché of my own when I say that through my work, I have learned that “death is not a dead end.” Maybe I should write a book called “Being Immortal” and send a copy to Woody Allen while there’s still time. For I really do believe that we are eternal beings, and that we are all destined to return to our true home once our life on this plane ends. Maybe this, too, is something that those who attend the dying might want to keep in mind. After all, anything that could ease our own fears of dying may also serve to reassure those about to make their final passage to whatever may lie beyond this mortal life of ours.


If you didn’t read about Ken Ring’s new book, Blogging Toward Infinity, be sure to check it out on Amazon where you can order a copy, if you like. Here’s a link that will take you to his book:

August 15, 2022

Advertisements for Myself

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Before most of you were born, the American writer, Norman Mailer, brought out a book with this title. Not being keen on Mailer (I seem to have an aversion to pugilistic writers inclined to stab their wives), I never read it. But here I would like at least to purloin his title in order to do something I trust will be less violent, though perhaps still a little unseemly. You see, I may need to ask your help with a new book of mine.

Here's the story. I’ve just published my latest – and my last – book of essays, which I’ve entitled Blogging Toward Infinity: Last Notes from the Ringdom. Some of you – I hope many of you – have already read some of the blogs in this book, but I doubt that any of you have read all of them. Now, here’s your chance in case you missed some of my imperishable writings. Anyway, here’s what the cover looks like:  

And here’s link to the book in case you’d like to check it out:

Since this is my farewell to writing books, the cover shows me waving goodbye as I go off into the infinite distance, not to death, but to the death of writing books. Since I’ve written more than twenty books over the last forty years or so, I think it’s time to retire my fingers and use them for better purposes, such as remembering to cut my fingernails before people mistake me for Howard Hughes.

But seriously, I’m not just asking you to consider buying my book, though perhaps some of you will, or, if you do, whether you would be kind enough to write a review and post it on Amazon, which would be nice and appreciated. No, I would like to ask you another favor, if you’d consent to become a part of my coalition of the willing.

You see, although I don’t expect to retire on the royalties from the sale of this book, I would like to avoid ending my life as a literary failure. So, to avoid that sorry fate, since I am not able to use a professional publicist to hoot the horn for my book, I’m hoping that some of you would be willing to post something about this book on your Facebook page or other social media that you use. Please don’t do this if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. In that case, just delete this blog and don’t bother to read the rest.

But if you’d care to help me promote this book, here’s what the publisher wrote up about it, which you could perhaps use:

This is Ken Ring’s last book, and though he claims to spend most of his days whimpering, his farewell to writing, as his final essays will demonstrate, certainly goes out with a bang. As he veers unsteadily toward 87, Ring has lost none of his verve or literary panache. As always, his essays sparkle with his usual wit, but mainly reflect Ring’s more serious concern to address some of the topics that have engaged him during this last phase of his life.

Still, the book begins in a more lighthearted way with his reminiscing about his early life with his absent father (“my father, once removed,” he calls him) and about some of the other things that shaped his character, such as the greatest movie ever made that few people have heard of. He also devotes several essays to largely unknown facets of Helen Keller’s extraordinary career, including “the sex life of a saint.” But most of the rest of book is devoted to Ring’s careful study of the lives of animals and considerations of animal welfare and the movement for animal rights. And it concludes, fittingly enough, with a number of essays that distill what Ring believes are the most important lessons that people should take from his many years of researching near-death experiences – all of which was foreshadowed by that film he saw as a youth that changed his life and foretold his destiny. 

Or perhaps you might want to quote from my preface:

You now hold in your hands – unless you are reading this on your screen – my last book. Of course, I don’t mean my most recent book; I mean the last book I will ever write. Yes, you’ve heard this vow before. Each time I write a book nowadays, I tell you (and my publisher) that it is absolutely, positively and definitely my last book, which turns out to be true until one day, it isn’t. However, now that I am heading toward 87 and the scrap heap, I am convinced that I have finally reached the end of my writing life. From now on, I intend to devote myself to perfecting my cribbage game while I can still count.

But before I go down for the count, I had better tell you what you will find if you can get past this preamble. 

In recent years, I’ve been too lazy to write the kind of books I published when I had some misguided notion that I had something worth writing about, such as near-death experiences. So, eventually, after I became an octogenarian, I took to writing blogs. I would then re-brand them as “essays,” round them up and put them into a book. I called my first such endeavor, Waiting to Die, but then when I didn’t, I brought out a second collection, which I entitled, Reflections in a Glass Eye. The first book did rather well; the second one, with its meaningless title, was a dud. If the third time is really “the charm,” I’m golden. 

In this book, you will find “some of my favorite things.”  It begins with some accounts of my personal history as a youth and continues with recollections of friends once dear to me. This is sort of my faux-Proustian version of “in search of lost time.” In the next section, I present some portraits of well-known figures about whom I figured I could tell you some things you never would have guessed.   

The final two sections are much longer. The first is about one of the great loves of my later years. Having had my share of romances with the ladies, I have come to love animals. Not that I live with any, but I love to read and write about them. And to strike a serious note for once, if briefly, I worry about their welfare, as you will see. And, finally, I return to an earlier love, my NDE work, and try to bring out not only some new developments in that field, but what I think everyone should know about these experiences, preferably before they die. And that includes me, just in case I can ever manage to cross that final finish line instead of interminably waiting to die.

Or, hell, just write what you please.

If you need to identify me professionally, you could use this brief bio:

Kenneth Ring, PhD is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, the author of five books on near-death experiences (NDEs), including his bestselling Lessons from the Light, and cofounder and first president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS).

OK, that’s my pitch and request. I hope you don’t find it too shamelessly self-serving, but at least I never stabbed any of my wives.

August 1, 2022

My Life as a Puer

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Mickey Rooney was one for sure. And I’ve read that Jack Kerouac was one, too. But there’s no doubt that another famous writer, Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, everyone’s favorite book, was one. So, according to what I have read, was T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” And if we go back into history there’s no doubt that the Prince Regent, who would later become George IV once old mad King George had finally died, was a flamboyant one, as I learned after recently reading J. B. Priestley’s history of the Regency, which he entitled The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency.

And although I am hardly a well-known figure like the men I have just referred to, I, too, am one. One what, you ask? The answer: To use the term popularized by C. G. Jung and other Jungians who have written extensively on the subject, I am a Puer Aeternus, an “eternal youth” for which the classic archetypal example, of course, is Peter Pan, who did not want to grow up.

Neither, as you will read, did I.

To start with the most superficial aspect of my life as a puer – and there are many things about a puer that, alas, are superficial – I’ve always looked young, and younger than my years. This was true for most of my life, and, according to my friends, who no doubt want to flatter me or pretend not to notice how old I look now, I still think that is the case. For example, lately I have been watching a series on Netflix with Michael Pollan about recent research on psychedelics. Pollan, whom I admire and respect, is 65. But, I swear, I think I look younger than he does even though I am now approaching 87.

But of course there is more to being a puer than looking youthful. Being a puer means having a certain kind of character and boyish charm, and behaving in ways that seem to belie one’s age. But what actually animates a puer like me? What drives me to act the way I do? I want to explore this next.

Reflecting on my life from the vantage point of my late eighties, it seems to me that it can be understood in terms of two overriding motives that have dominated me – the pursuit of pleasure and the search for passion. Each of these seems to be associated, however, with a different aspect of my character. Let me consider my pleasure-oriented ways first.

Of course, nearly everyone prefers and enjoy pleasures – by definition. But in my case, I think in my childhood and early teenage years I was unusually responsive to its allure and that it was this that kept me fixated in my growth, having remained, as I have said, a child in so many ways even to this day.  

Take my preferences for food as an example. I still love candy, sweets, ice cream, bagels, bread, etc. – the soft, delicious treats of childhood. When I could still walk, I would often sneak off to my local liquor store for a York Mint Patty. I eat like an 8-year-old boy.

The same thing is true about drinking. I have a cousin who is more like a brother to me whose taste in and knowledge about food is very sophisticated and who is also an oenophile. I can drink the occasional glass of wine, but I could never really understand why so many people are gaga about it. I was always a Diet Coke man – and used to enjoy sharing one with one of my girlfriends, a puella herself (puella is the female term for a puer), until I learned that it rots your brain. Also, although everyone in the world, it seems, drinks coffee, I have never cared to do so. I disagree with Woody Allen when he quipped, “Man can’t live on bread alone, he also needs a beverage.” 

Or consider my clothes – I resist wearing “grown-up” clothes – suits and ties. I had to save those for my appearances in the divorce court. I like to wear what is comfortable. For many years, I wore loafers because I remember how much as a kid I liked the way Gene Kelly wore them in the movies. To this day, I always wear white socks because he did. I still dress in many ways I did when I was a teenager, at least when I can. 

Or take my taste in music. Although I love classical music, I resist a lot of twentieth century and contemporary music of the avant garde where music has become a kind of conceptual art, experiments in sound, silences and extreme sonic sensations, which no longer seems like music at all. I still agree with Camille Saint-Saëns, about whom I once wrote a book, when he says that music is meant to give pleasure. I believe my taste in music was formed and has remained pretty much fixated on the music I came to love as a teenager. I do not have the kind of mind and sensibility that is open to novelty and experimentation; I am a musical fuddy-duddy who has never grown up musically, only older.

I still love the pleasures of childhood, and in many ways I have never outgrown them.  

But there is another aspect of my life where the passions of childhood have flowered in such a way as to promote my growth personally, spiritually and intellectually. And that, in a phrase, is the search for ecstatic experience, for a kind of transcendence. Indeed, I would say, looking back on my life now, this has been what has kept me at once growing and young.

My search for ecstasy has taken many forms some of which I have already alluded to. Opera, for example, is still thrilling to me – the sound of the human voice at full volume can move me inexpressibly, as it has many others of course (Walt Whitman wrote eloquently on this subject). Classical music has the same power over me – Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler (especially Mahler’s Second Symphony). It vaunts me into another dimension of life that, as Schopenhauer wrote, provides an intimation of the numinous. Until I was in my late 70s I had enjoyed a sexual life rich in its mystical transports and primal feelings, and have always sought such experiences.  

Likewise, with psychedelic drugs, which I used for a period of some 25 years and which brought me the most ineffably powerful experiences of rapture I have ever known and the complete, if momentary, transcendence of my ego-based self. My first, if inadvertent, LSD experience more than a half century ago was the single most important catalytic experience of my life – the one that caused me both to “wake up” to what life really was and led me from the world of ordinary psychology into the field of transpersonal psychology and shortly afterward to my work on near-death experiences.  

Those experiences, too, thrilled me to my core, as they have many others, and it was my continuing joy to write about them for many years as it was to meet so many of the people who had them and who related them to me. My interest in mystical and religious experiences was likewise another flowering from this same seed. 

In so many ways, these passionate pursuits, fueled by my desire for ecstatic experiences, have dictated the course of my life and caused me to follow wherever they led, almost heedless of the consequences, as if I were compelled by an unshakeable inner compulsion that was at the same time the source of my growth and the key to my destiny.

Actually, I haven’t read that much about motivations of puers, but scanning the Internet in preparation for writing this blog, I did find some confirmation for why my life developed as it did.

For example, one such article states the following:

The puer’s main pursuit in life is ecstasy, many times at the expense of everything else. Today most puers and puellas can be found in ashrams seeking a religious experience or using drugs or alcohol to escape reality. Reading this, I was reminded of what Bertrand Russell, an intellectual hero of mine when I was young, wrote at the beginning of his autobiography.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy … I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined.  

I don’t know if Russell could be regarded as a puer – although everyone seems to have called him “Bertie,” as if he were a character from a P. G. Wodehouse novel – but I have long been struck by the fact that, like me, he had numerous affairs, some of which were quite scandalous, and, again like me, he was married four times.  

Perhaps multiple amatory relationships and marriages are typical for many puers. For example, Mickey Rooney who lived until 93, almost as long as Russell who died three years short of his century, was married eight times! And guess who his first wife was.

Ava Gardner! Can you believe it? At least he started at the top, but it’s not surprising, given that he was a consummate puer, that it didn’t last.

Which brings me by way of these digressions to the dark side of being a puer. It’s time to talk about my relationships with women, a fraught subject.

To begin with, let me quote some sample passages from just one of the articles I read about puers and their difficulty with commitment:

Puers generally have a hard time with commitment. They like to keep their options open and can’t bear to be tied down. They act spontaneously, with little thought of consequences….

Puers and puellas live a provisional life. There is always the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape.

Puers chafe at boundaries and limits and tend to view any restriction as intolerable. They do not realise that some restrictions are indispensable for growth.

This certainly resonates with me, but I had always ascribed this feeling to my Sagittarian nature. (My astrological chart, if you care, or put any stock in such things, shows me strongly loaded with Sagittarius signs). And what does this say about me? That I love and need freedom, independence, and not to be tied down. That is my cardinal trait. But it’s complicated because for me, according to what I’ve been told by astrologers I trust, I also have a deep need for intimacy. I’ve always known this. But that brings up a conflict – how to balance the need for independence with my need for intimacy. I have never been able to achieve that balance, and that has caused pain to many women as well as to myself.

I remember once meeting an astrologer for the first time. She didn’t know anything about me, and before giving me “a reading,” she simply looked at my chart, and then said this. “You have been married three times.” (Which was true at the time.) “And you have a very hard time with commitment because you have a freedom/intimacy conflict, as shown by your grand square.” Bullseye.  

So whether it is because I am such a strong Sagittarian type or that I am a puer, or both, this has resulted in a great deal of agony in my life and for many of the women I have been with or married to. I eventually find marriages or committed relationships confining, and I bolt, seeking freedom from constraints once more. In that way, I am a typical grief-causing puer.

I am not ugly, and when I was young I wasn’t bad looking, but for whatever reason, I learned by the time I was in my mid-twenties that I was attractive to women. At that time, a beautiful woman who was the cynosure of the psychology department where we were both graduate students, fell in love with me. I was both thrilled and astonished. But because I was married and could not leave my wife, I could not pursue this relationship. This crushed the woman – she shortly thereafter withdrew from graduate school and moved to a foreign country – and I was depressed for a year.  

Over the years, and I don’t mean to brag or turn this blog into a sentimental confession, I have known the love of quite a few beautiful and accomplished women. And I have actually been stalked by other women and accosted by a few more. Why?  

I may not have been a particularly good-looking man, but what I had was a certain winning charm. People, and not just women, were always attracted to me. Many of my students were also. But not just because I could be charming and playful, but, I believe, because of my natural tendency to become deeply interested in most everyone I came to spend time with. 

I remember reading about the playwright, George S. Kaufman, who was not a handsome man, but he always had a way with the ladies. What was the secret of his success? He may have been joking, but he said he always noticed when they changed their hairdo and commented on it.  

In the case of women, I think many of them came to love me because of the quality of my genuine interest in and attention to them. I listened to them attentively and sought to know them, whether or not I was interested to pursue a romantic relationship with them.

But for those I did, it rarely worked out well in the end, and in the end there was pain. The same pattern repeating over and over again.  

I will not go into details here; you don’t need to know any of that. It’s enough that I do, and I have written a great deal about my anguish and regret in some of my books that I have kept private and not shown to many people. My children may want to read them after I am no longer here.

All this is just to make it clear that as much as I have enjoyed my life as a puer, it has not been without the cost of a great deal of suffering to others as well as myself. There is no light without its shadow.

Time to start summing up. So, on balance, what do I conclude about my wayward but often very gratifying life as a puer?

Yes, in many ways I suppose I’m still a child, still a puer and always a puer, despite its costs, but in another way, once childhood pleasures gave way to adult passions, my real life could begin. And it has been, on the whole, a life of adventure and exploration, both intellectually and spiritually. I have taken many voyages and visited many extraordinary realms, both interior, through my psychedelic excursions, and outwardly, through my travels throughout the world. I have known many lovers, who have likewise enriched my life more than words could ever convey and for whom I have had the deepest gratitude for everything they taught me about life and love.

I have had a great variety of intellectual interests that have found expression in my writing – social psychology, altered states of consciousness, the study of near-death experiences, UFO encounters, classical music, the struggle for Palestinian justice, animal cognition, and numerous other topics. In all of this, I have been following my vocation, wherever it led, as a devotee of the passionate life the seeds for which, I am convinced, were already present in the child I once was and to some extent, with the qualifications to come, remain.

But still, I am an old man now, a senex, to use the term favored by Jungians. What is like to be puer in an old man’s body?  

My passions have cooled a bit as my infirmities have taken over my life, and I find at this stage that my desire for freedom and independence is largely a memory. I don’t feel that way any longer, and my physical limitations would preclude that kind of life, anyway. I am now very dependent on others – my caregiver, my neighbors, and, most of all, my beautiful and loving girlfriend, Lauren, who has put up with me for the last seven years and counting. I thank my lucky stars that she has been in my life all these years. She is the perfect person for me at this point in my life, and don’t I know it. I will be a puer to the end, but I think I have mostly outgrown him now. Maybe, finally, I have managed to become an adult.