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My Time by Abigail Trafford

Bill and Dan's Midlife Adventure

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; Page HE01

Two guys shooting the breeze -- two old guys with gray hair and lined faces sitting there laughing and crying, talking about love and loss, merging past and future, trying to make sense of their times, their lives.

In gerontology, this might be a formal process of "life review" in which a person reckons with the past, resolves inner and outer conflicts, explores what matters most and creates a personal narrative to leave to future generations.

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On television, it was the Bill and Dan show, the "60 Minutes" interview of Bill Clinton by Dan Rather broadcast around two weeks ago.

The former president delved into his childhood, examined his public record, discussed his marriage, exhumed his frailties, declared his mistakes, defended his legacy. He honored the people he loved. He acknowledged the role of therapy and the power of prayer.

To critics, the interview may have been more evidence of slick celebrity narcissism. To publishers, it was a great opportunity to promote Clinton's memoir, "My Life."

Yet, on another level, the interview was much more -- a moving account of a middle-aged man in transition, a flawed human being like the rest of us who is coming to terms with his past and preparing for the next stage in his life.

Pioneer psychoanalyst Erik Erikson saw this period of reckoning and resolution as preparation for death. But with longevity, this phase has become preparation for new life. Clinton doesn't know what his next chapter will be, but at 57, he likely has decades in front of him.

Clinton grasped the aging conundrum. Maybe he has another 35 years. Maybe only another day. Longevity is not in his family history. After all, his father was killed in a car accident before he was born. Still, he's planning for the future, he said, to craft his legacy, work on his presidential library -- "as long as I do live, I'll keep finding something to do."

But the psychological route to the future is often through the past. In moving forward, Clinton revisited his childhood with a violent, abusive stepfather and a strong, abused mother. ("She probably thought she could tame him," he said.) No silver spoons were lying around to ease his way to privilege. He earned it the hard way, with resilience and ambition. And then, at the pinnacle of his career, he abused that privilege with Monica Lewinsky.

"I think I did something for the worst possible reason, just because I could. I think that's the most -- just about the most morally indefensible reason," he said. He also talked about the "more complicated psychological explanations," adding: "Only a fool does not look to explain his mistakes. People should try to understand why they did the things they did. . . . There is no rational explanation for what I did." And no excuses, he said.

Clinton's survival habit was to strive in public. Now he has turned to more private reflection, finding a zone of acceptance -- of himself and others. He even accepts the alcoholic womanizer who beat up his mother. "This sounds crazy, but I never hated my stepfather," he said. "I had some understanding that he was a good man and couldn't whip his drinking problem. And that he was full of demons that he couldn't control and he took it out in destructive hateful ways. I hated what he did, but I never hated him."

This is 12-step therapy speak: Addiction is a disease. Hate the disease, not the person. In fact, much in the interview is an endorsement of counseling and self-analysis.

In the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, the Clintons underwent counseling to repair their marriage. "We'd take a day a week . . . a whole day every week for a year, maybe a little more," he said. "We did [counseling] together, we did it individually, did family work. It was hard and interesting."

Clinton expressed gratitude to his wife and daughter, his mother, the friends he knew from childhood. To be grateful is a sign of maturity, points out Harvard researcher George E. Vaillant. "Healing relationships are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude," writes Vaillant in "Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life." As Clinton said of his wife: "I don't think there is a way in the wide world I would have ever become president without her. It's not even a close question."

Another task in the second half of life is to gather up the people you have loved since birth. "When we are old, our lives become the sum of all whom we have loved," writes Vaillant, who headed the Harvard Study of Adult Development. "No one whom we have ever loved is totally lost."

Clinton's mother died two years after he was elected president. When Rather showed a short film of an interview with her shortly before her death, Clinton came close to tears. There was his mother saying, " He's just been a wonderful son, just a wonderful son."

"Well, I, I tried to be a good son for her," said Clinton. "She was sure a good mother."

Political tear-jerker? Or psychological development?

Maybe you have to be a certain age to understand this transition process. Eleven million of Clinton's 15.4 million viewers were 50 and older. They are the main "60 Minutes" viewers, at home with the drug ads for impotence and news stories of midlife reckoning and renewal.

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address below; mark the envelope "My Time."


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