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And then the Psychology Student asked me: "What is your life construct?"

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By John E. Carey
January 5, 2007

My first reaction to the psychology student who asked me: "What is your life construct?" was; "Do I look like I am in the building trades?"

I don't know about you, but when I was in school there wasn't time for such esoteric questions. There were certain courses I had to take and they more than surpassed my limited mental data bank. Besides, we had outside interests like women and booze.

So when I first heard the question "What is your life construct?" I was in the land of the speechless: a place few writers ever intend to visit!

So I took the question for the record, just as Senator Joe Biden might have when he was much younger than he is now. Now he would answer that and any other question with breathless elation.

So I postulated many "life constructs" for the people around me and I asked each of them to comment.

I'll just write here about my own, which is the one I understand the most. And a few words first about an alternative "life construct."

James lives in a fairly simple life. He has been in the same business since he was about twenty years old. Now he is 75. He waits on people in a retail store. He doesn't remember their names any more and he frequently complains that he has no friends and he lives his life in total isolation.

That's hard to believe because he works in a store with a large staff and he works with people all day. Many of his customers have known him for years.

When I took James to lunch recently, three gentlemen came to our table to say hello. Each had been a customer of James' for more than ten years. One told a story that included several names: James said he knew every one of them.

When our visitors left, I said, "James, you know a lot of people and many love you."

He said: "They are only customers," as if his customers were some sub-human life form.

James has somehow isolated his life from other people: even people whom he has known for a long time.

When James and I discussed his life construct he decided his life was a "Merry-Go-Round."

"I am not going anywhere," James said, "The music is always the same and each day I know exactly how things will go. I am comfortable here."

James never took a risk in his life. He has rented an apartment his entire life because "You can get a leaky roof if you have your own house." He never married and all his family are dead.

James is miserable. And he has no ambition, no hope of ever getting off the Merry-Go-Round.

James is proud that he doesn't owe anything to anybody.

But he has never helped anyone either.

I think his life is empty.

The psychology student loved my story about James but chastised me nonetheless. He said, "What I asked you for was YOUR life construct."

I have a hard time facing my own realities sometimes.

So I took this question for the record too. I went home to think it over...and this morphed into some real soul searching.

In fact, I have switched "life constructs," whatever they are, more than once. And as I get older I think I am getting closer to a life construct that is meaningful, productive and wholesome.

I decided my life construct was that of a man climbing a mountain. I am neither "on point" as Army soldiers say of the man out front while patrolling; and I am not the "drag," that is, the cowboy who rides behind everyone and everything on the trail drive so that he can collect the lost calves.

I am climbing yet tethered to people in front of me and above, and I am tethered to several behind me and below. I use my ice ax to hammer in a piton now and again but much of this is done by other leaders before me. I owe them big time. Yet I get to assist those below me now and again and that is a part of learning about life.

Maybe one day I can lead a climb or two.

This essay is also on the web in Vietnamese at:

Visit our Flagship at:
And "the wider variety of commentary and humor" at:

Resources readers may find of interest include:
"The quality of life construct in psychiatry-the state of the art" by Priebe S. Source: International Review of Psychiatry, Volume 14, Number 3.

A good psycologist might tell you: "My main task is not to 'fix' you, but to 'find' you: or rather, to assist you in finding yourself. We need to seek out the 'you' that existed before the pain of life intruded, especially by unfulfilled relationships with family and significant others which may have caused you to put up barriers, to limit people's access, or to choose people who could make little or no contact. I am here to help you rediscover your unique, original self, to understand the compromises made to protect this self for the sake of emotional survival, and to encourage relationships where these compromises are no longer necessary."
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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.
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