The Key to Success? Say Yes!

What is one major key to success at work? The elders in the Legacy Project have a strong recommendation: Say “yes” when opportunities come up. When I think of this lesson for living, one particular elder comes to mind: Father John Wilson.

The benefits “saying yes” at work are crucial for younger people in the early stages of their careers. They have time to start over again if something doesn’t pan out, and the possible gain by taking an uncertain step forward can be enormous. But the rewards of saying yes are not limited to the young, as Fr. John taught me.

On a hot August day, I pulled up to a dignified stone building with a row of gothic windows – very fitting for the residence of this Catholic university’s priests. I was met at the door by Father John. After he ushered me into the cool interior and we began our meeting in its quiet sitting room, I found myself in the presence of one of the happiest people I have ever met. Fr. John embodies a kind of peaceful enjoyment of life that seems a rarity today.

To the uninitiated it may seem odd to ask someone for career advice who tells you: “I entered the religious life when I was twenty, and I’ve been in for fifty-seven years.” What could happen during that time to a priest? It’s pretty much weddings, baptisms, and funerals, right?

Not in Fr. John’s case. He spent a career involved in secondary education, moving from being  the rector of a theological seminary to stints as president and rector of Jesuit schools, and as a translator at high-level conferences at the Vatican and for some of the century’s leading theologians. Despite some worries and self-doubt, when asked, he said yes to new opportunities.

For example, at one point in his career, Fr. John was asked to be the head of a large urban high school.

And I told them, “I think you’re making a mistake because the only thing that I know about a high school is that I once went to one and I know nothing else.” But I got the job anyway, okay. So you get the job and what you have to do is you have to take over. You have to make sure that it functions. You have decisions to be made each day and so forth and so on. And as long as you don’t take yourself seriously, you’re fine. It turned out to be wonderful.

But it was when he reached the age of our Legacy Project elders that Fr. John had to decide about a new opportunity – Would it be “yes” or “no?”

I was still working at age 69 when we got word that one of our men was murdered in Jamaica. He was a young Canadian priest, a man of great promise, in his late thirties. Of course our manpower situation isn’t rich, and they were looking for someone to go down to take his place, but people weren’t rushing to go. And so I said to my superior who was making the decision, “”Well, I’d be very tempted to go. And he said, “Absolutely not, I wouldn’t think of it. You’re much too old.”

So I said, “All right.” But other people kept asking for me and finally he said, “If you really want to go, then you can go.” But he said “What if they shoot you? What am I supposed to say to people?” And I said, “What you say to them, Father, is this. Better they shoot a man that is seventy than they shoot a man who is thirty-seven. Because we’re hoping that the man who is thirty-seven will do a lifetime of work. This man is pretty much finished here. So I spent six years there serving in the mission and I loved it. I was basically in Kingston but also on the north coast in the parishes. And I loved it, but then I had a heart attack so I had to come back and the doctors were convinced that the heat and the humidity were too much for me. I went back again, but they kept calling me back up to the States to do one thing or another. And so they finally said “That’s it,” but I’ll be going down there in a couple of weeks just to turn the dirt over for the new library at our school.

I loved the people, the people are marvelous. And you’d be out there in the country and you’d hear two masses on a Sunday and each mass would last three hours. Because before you preach the people have an hour to share their week with one another. And I’d have congregations of eighteen or twenty and I’d think to myself “If you were back in Boston you’d be preaching to five hundred or eight hundred people. What are you doing down here? You’re wasting your time.” And then I thought to myself “No, because see God isn’t a mathematician. And these people are changing me. I don’t know how much good I’m doing them, but they’re doing me a world of good.”

Like most other elders, Fr. John’s message is clear: Think carefully about saying “yes” when opportunity knocks – it can change your life.

With Children, It’s the Time that Counts

Many of the elders in the Legacy Project believe that when it comes to child-rearing, there’s one thing your kids want more than anything else: your time. Paul, 80, when asked about the key to successful child-rearing fully endorsed the idea that time spent together is the most important thing. Ultimately, the lesson came from his daughter:

Pay attention to your kids and read to them and be with them and help them grow up and I don’t think you do that from afar. I always read to my daughter when she was growing up and my parents always read to me. It’s a marvelous way to interact with them because they really appreciate it and they’ll tell you years later. That’s one of the things you do.

 Tragically, Paul’s daughter became ill with cancer in her fifties, and after a long battle, died. She let him know how important the time spent together was:

 The other thing I remember, when my daughter was so ill, she said, “You know, the one thing I always appreciated from you and mom was that you attended my events, my high school games, my band performances, all those kinds of things.” You don’t get that when they’re in their teens. When they get to be about 30, they say that was good, that was good for me to have you there. She was in the marching band and we always went to those things. Well I’ll say this, following a marching band and a football team around – I think that’s what you do with your kids, you have to be with them. They’re a project you have to do. Hopefully you teach them some of the principles you believe in.

“Cozy up to Life”: Aurelia’s List for Living

Aurelia, 76, provided a set of lessons that look at living from a somewhat different angle. She’s honest, suggesting, for example, that life won’t turn out the way we expect it. But by honing in on our attitude toward what happens to us, we stand a much greater chance for happiness.

Be kind to people. Most of them deserve it. Give every member of your family your undying loyalty.

Be flexible. Your life probably won’t turn out the way you thought it would.

You have no choice but to play the hand that’s dealt you. But you and only you make the choice to be happy or unhappy. Make a conscious decision to be happy. A Jewish survivor of a Nazi death camp said during his time there he discovered the most important lesson of his life: they could take away his wealth, destroy his family, they could beat him, starve him, work him to death. But there was one thing they couldn’t touch or control, and that was his attitude.

Learn all you can about everything you can. Life is beautiful. Cozy up to it and share its confidences.

You are made up of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. If one of those areas is in need, give it your time and attention until your life is back in balance.

Remember what your mother and father taught you. Use those lessons as your guiding stars.

A Remarkable Woman’s Philosophy of Life

Gladys, 89, was a truly remarkable woman, graduating from college in the 1930s and serving as one of the first female commissioned officers in the Navy in World War II, as part of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She offered her lessons in a letter to the Legacy Project, and we were saddened to learn that she passed away less than a year later.

Over her long life, she developed a clearly articulated philosophy of life, one that bears reading and re-reading.

Do not waste energy on wishing things were different. Just look at the problem and ask, “What am I going to do about it?”

When you face a decision really think it through, then don’t look back. Make good decisions, handle social impasses well, and you won’t carry around psychological garbage-regrets.

Realize that no one can give you offense no matter how bad the comment or act may be. You can choose whether you will take offense or not. This knowledge gives you poise when entering totally unknown situations. If you feel you are a decent person because of the way you regularly handle things, you can learn by negative comment but it won’t hurt.

God is real. Prayer, trust, then tackling any situation facing you, regardless of your feeling of competence, gives you a feeling of peace as you face the task. I have tackled a number of situations others would not attempt.

When you share your faith, friendships become deeper and more permanent. Sharing means exactly that, and you listen thoroughly to the other person’s viewpoint to gain understanding. I have prayed with Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Roman Catholic friends. There is one God; we just have different ways of understanding. Our prayers were answered.

“He” or “She” in referring to God is a non-issue. Plants and animals have to reproduce to continue life. God is from everlasting to everlasting. The problem is with the English language. “It” does not mean a living being. The problem is not the nature of God, but the language we have available to express ourselves.

Let you imagination reach out – be creative in the areas that feel good to you. The weight of all that’s wrong with this country and the world is not on your shoulders. Be concerned and take action in the areas that you can reach; responsibility for the rest belongs to God, and to people nearer the problem.

Worry is not effective. Creative action and an upbeat attitude are.

Material things are useful, but good relationships with God and the people around you make life worth living. I taught in the depth of the 1930’s depression. Poverty is not a lack of money. It is a lack of skills.

When my daughter read this, she said that there was something that should be added, “You seem so young, so mentally awake, that no one can guess your age.” That was a kind comment – I’ll be 90 in September!

A “Top Ten” List of Lessons for Keeping a Positive Attitude

I’m often asked: What are some “quick tips” from the 2000 Legacy Project elders? Here’s a list of ten short, on-target lessons for keeping your attitude positive despite the inevitable setbacks life brings – from our oldest interviewees. Take a minute to peruse the view from age 80 and beyond.:

1. “Paste a smile on your face in the morning.”

2. “Don’t plan too much about the future. Live life day by day, and let it lead you to unexpected places.”

3. “Always stay optimistic, no matter what happens. Try to think of the good side of things, and not worry about the little details. You’ll be much happier and lead a much better life that way.”

4. “Enjoy life. Make use of what’s around you, and just let yourself have fun”

5. “Don’t be stuck in the past, learn to change with the times.”

6. “Keep on going. This is important with whatever you decide to do. Push yourself to continue and finish what you’ve already started.”

7. “Don’t second guess what you’ve done — be happy with life and with what you do. Don’t regret things too much.”

8. “Learn to live in the moment. It’s calming in a world that is not very peaceful.”

9. “I’d say letting go is probably the most important lesson. In my life I’ve moved around a lot and I’ve had to learn to not live in the past, and to just live in the moment.”

10. “To try to enjoy life as fully as possible; be good to others, try not to worry about the future as far as how long you are going to live; do the best you can everyday.”

A Different New Year’s Resolution: Doing Well for Others

For the New Year, we often make specific resolutions: Lose weight, get exercise, work harder (or work less), and so on. If we ask the oldest Americans, we might hear them endorse something more general: Resolving to be more compassionate.

Many elders thought of happiness in terms of compassion and service to others. Carmen, 80, has lived a very full life, and has thought deeply about the sources of  happy living. Her advice is to focus on others and to carefully consider the effects of our actions.

This is my response about the most important lessons I have learned in my life. I am an 80 year-old woman and have been married for 56 years. I graduated from law school, practiced law for five years, and then left the practice to raise a family.

The single most important lesson that I have learned is that personal happiness depends on doing the best you can for the people to whom you owe a duty. The best attitude with which to approach life is to recognize that what others do to you does not matter. What counts is what you do to others. The greatest enemy of one’s own happiness is guilt about one’s own actions. All of our life choices should be guided by the goal of avoiding decisions that will make us feel guilty.

The greatest waste of time is to worry about how others may have mistreated oneself. The actions of others are their problem alone. The best use of our lives is to discharge our duties with joy and to recognize that we can only be truly happy when we do as well as possible whatever we undertake to do. With the caveat that one is not engaging in activities that are harmful to others or to oneself, what counts in life is not what one does, but how well one does it. The lowliest job done properly is more gratifying than the most elevated activity done poorly, and when both activities are done well, they are of equal value.

The best guiding principle for achieving a guilt-free life is to adopt philosopher Immanuel Kant’s imperative to treat everyone as an end in themselves and never as a means to an end and to never take any action which you would not want all people in a similar situation to take. As I near the end of my own life, my only regrets are about the things I might have done better and those things all relate to the happiness of others. There is no such thing as personal happiness divorced from the happiness of others. We cannot be truly happy when we cause unhappiness to others.

Me, Tao Porchon-Lynch, and Having the Best Day Every Single Day

My involvement  in the Legacy Project has brought me some wonderful experiences, but none beats my “wisdom taodialogue” last Saturday with the amazing Tao Porchon-Lynch. As the New York Times declared in a feature article this month, Tao is the “98-year old yoga celebrity” with an incredible life story: professional dancer, model, actress; associate of notables from Ghandi, to Hemingway, to Noel Coward, to Marilyn Monroe, to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. And she’s in the Guinness Book of world records as “oldest yoga teacher,” keeping a full schedule of classes (despite a hip replacement). And she started a prize-willing career as a competitive ballroom dancer at age 87. Talk about “successful aging…”

The wonderful Rubin Museum in New York City brought Tao and me together in their”Wisdom Matrix” series, to discuss “The Secret to a Good Life.” It was a true peak experience to sit with someone who marched with Ghandi, lived through the Blitz in London, and went on to become a contemporary spiritual master. We covered a wide range of topics in our discussion, but for me the most striking thing was Tao’s unabashedly positive approach to life. She consciously rejects fear and instead focuses on breathing, exhorting us to feel the “breath of life” that connects us with all other humans. She declares each morning that the day at hand will be “the best day,” and lives her life that way.

As someone who came as close as one can to failing a yoga class, she did an amazing shoulder stand that would have put me in the orthopedic unit.

The video of the discussion will come out soon. In the meantime, I recommend Tao’s book, Dancing Light: The Spiritual Side of Being through the Eyes of a Modern Yoga Master. It interweaves Tao’s extraordinary life with her spiritual insights.

 

 

Your Relationship Advice Needed: Can You Help Our Reader?

Dear Readers,

In the past you have come up with great advice for people who wrote to the Legacy Project blog asking for advice. Can you help this young woman, below? Please comment with your advice and suggestions!advice

She writes:

My partner and I are very different. I used to think that being different people made the relationship exciting, but three years later it is starting to take a toll on my happiness. I am constantly asking myself whether this is the person I want to spend my life with – and I don’t know the answer to that anymore. I love him with all my heart but I feel like I am outgrowing him. I am very career-driven. I just graduated university and on my way up the career ladder, whereas he is 7 years older than me with no formal qualifications and an entry level laboring job. When I get home from work I want to have intellectual conversations and am excited to share what happened during the day. He would listen but it would go right over his head and he will say “Oh yeah, well anyways today…” and start talking about something else. It just discourages me so much. Before I used to be fine with him finishing a work week and having a beer with the boys but now a week finishes and I want to have a quiet night at home with him – but he is still adamant on spending time with the boys and having a beer. I am over it; I just feel like I really need someone on my level. We are similar in every other way, culture, sense of humor, family and religious values, but it’s other things that get me down and make me question the relationship. I don’t think this comment has any structure at all (complete brain fart) but anyway. I would like to hear about anyone’s experience who has bitten the bullet and chosen to accept a difference and if it actually helps or whether you are better off finding someone more compatible?

Please weigh in!

Use Thanksgiving to Gather Your Elders’ Wisdom!

Once again this year, I propose a new holiday. Or rather, a new use for an old holiday. I believe that we should make Thanksgiving the day when we celebrate elder wisdom by asking older people to tell us their advice for living. Here’s why.

Occasionally, the question runs through younger people’s minds (whether they admit it or not): What are old people good for? Our society’s unremitting ageism portrays older persons as sick, frail, unproductive, and even the culprits for busting the federal budget.

Earlier retirement and increased residential separation of older people has broken age-old contacts between the generations. Indeed, our society has become extraordinarily segregated by age, such that young people’s contact with elders is almost exclusively within the family (and even that is limited). Combined with the persistently negative images in the media, this question – What good are old people? – lurks in the background.

But the answer is amazingly simple. For as long as humans have been humans, older people have played critically important roles as advice-givers. Indeed, anthropological research shows that survival in pre-literate societies was dependent on the knowledge of the oldest members. It’s easy to forget that it is only in the past 100 years or so that people have turned to anyone other than the oldest person they knew to solve life’s problems.

Now here’s the important point: Old people are still a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders. That’s why I’m proposing that we make learning elder wisdom a part of our families’ Thanksgiving holiday.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

Now for the holiday. Thanksgiving is something most Americans celebrate, regardless of religious persuasion. And it’s the one time in the year when families are most likely to gather — and include their older relatives. What if we all take a half hour (okay, it can be before or after the football game) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on Thanksgiving (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. We’ve used these questions in interviews with hundreds of elders in the Legacy Project, and they work very well). More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.

So let’s declare Thanksgiving (or a part of it) Elder Advice-Giving Day. Our elders won’t be here forever, so this year is a good time to start!

Questions for the elders:

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Now add your own!

And if you would like more ideas, I was interviewed by NPR with one of our wonderful Legacy Project Elders about holidays and elder wisdom. You can listen here.

 

John’s List of Life’s Lessons Learned – Pursue Questions, Not Answers

We welcome contributions of life lessons to the Legacy Project site. This wonderful list of lessons learned was list.2sent to us by John, age 77.

 There are no definitive answers to any of life’s questions, but quality joy-in-life can be had in the pursuit of those answers.

Loyalty to one’s own personal beliefs and respect for others’ is the path to a serene life.

Family, country (maybe God if you are religious) need to be honored if one is to survive in an intolerant, unjust world.

Little things do matter and must be tended to so they don’t pile up to become complex things and more difficult to cope with.

Health and marriage must be treated in the same way…daily maintenance with occasional spoons full of sugar to make bad times go down.

You should listen more than speak, which is hard for us to do, so that takes practice.

You should find work that you will be content with because 40 years is a long time doing the same thing.

Heed the advice of your elders. They may not have all the answers, but they have had much more experience than you.

Experience can be a cruel teacher; learn from it.

Being cautiously pessimistic about life will make the sporadic good things that actually do happen seem even better.

You should not fret very long; all things pass. One way or another they will no longer be experienced.

Whether or not you believe in heaven and hell (religion) should not prevent you from being a nice person.

Injustice exists. Get used to it.