The View from 102: Lessons from a Century of Life Experience

Is there anything more amazing than at long talk with a 102-year old? There is a time-machine feeling as you listen to a century of memories. So it was talking with Wanda, age 102. Living comfortably in a senior community in upstate New York, Wanda is physically active and mentally sharp – indeed, we spent some time discussing books she was reading. Her lessons are grounded both in a childhood remarkably different from today, as well as her over a century of life experience.

She reflected on her childhood:

Well, the changes since I was a child! We had a horse and buggy. We had a telephone on the wall. Things were a lot different than they are today. I mean, we didn’t have any frozen vegetables. We didn’t have anything like that. We lived on a farm, we had chickens, if you were going to the grocery store you’d take your eggs and you’d get so much money for the eggs and then you’d buy sugar and stuff with the money. My grandmother and my mom did that.

There weren’t washing machines. We had washboards, as they called them. Hang the clothes out on the line. In the wintertime you take them down when you split the wood, you’d have to take them inside to let them thaw, a lot of the times they would just freeze. And if the sun wasn’t out then they wouldn’t defrost very well. And I used to wear long underwear. And if they didn’t defrost then it was frozen underwear!

I was eager to see what a 102-year old would offer as her lessons for living. Here are some pieces of advice Wanda wanted to pass on to younger people.

You just have to take one day at a time. And just be thankful for what you have, and try to do the best you can. Get up in the morning and thank the Lord you’re up. Hopefully you’ll have a good day. I don’t do anything special; just depend on the Lord because if the Lord’s going to take me, He’s going to take me.

If you have a big problem, try to figure it out. Talk to somebody that you think could help you.

Don’t do drugs. I just heard somebody on television this morning who shot somebody; he did it because he was on drugs. I think if you get hooked on it, it’s a bad situation. And don’t get drunk. I don’t think you should get drunk.

Try to be as truthful as you can. Honesty, and trying to help as much as you can. Look at what’s happening in Washington, every time you turn around somebody’s greedy, getting into somebody’s pocket.

I think you should do things that are naturally good for you, eat healthy food, and try to do things that will keep you healthy. And have a good time – don’t forget that!

What You Do When You’re Young Will Hunt You Up When You Get Old

Manuel, 79, has stayed healthy for nearly 80 years. His lesson? Start thinking about the consequences of your health behaviors while you are young:

What you do when you’re young, it will hunt you up when you get old.  If you’re young,  take care of your body and live right and go to the doctor and keep your self in good shape. And don’t abuse your body in any way, shape, or form and everything.

Like the good book says, too much of anything will hurt you.  Too much smoking will hurt you, too much drinking, too much drugs will hurt you, too much medicine will hurt you.  So you can’t overdo any of those things, that’s what it takes to keep your body in shape so that when you get old your body is not hurt.  Now if you don’t do that, a lot of things might come out later on in life.

Edwina’s Advice about Growing Old: “Find the Magic!”

Edwina Elbert, 94, on the adventure of aging:

I tell people: “Each person born has been chosen by fate from a trillion possibilities. How then can you complain of bad luck when you have won the greatest lottery of them all?”Now isn’t that true?

People have to learn to be thankful.  To see the wonders of this world – you know, we are here for such a short time.  I didn’t realize I was old until I was ninety years old.  There’s still so much to see and so much to read, and so much to learn.  We should be thankful that we’ve had this opportunity to live.  It’s strange about this…the way that it’s all set up so that we only have a certain length of time. But we’re lucky.  Aren’t we lucky to have seen the Empire State building and all of this stuff?

My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.  The world is a magical place in lots of ways.  To enjoy getting up in the morning and watching the sun come up.  And that’s something that you can do when you are growing older.  You can be grateful, happy for the things that have happened.  You should enjoy your life.  Grow a little.

Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need to stop growing. I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by.  Well that’s not for me and that’s not for a lot of people.  I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.

There’s no reason for anybody in this world to ever be bored.  That’s one thing I’ve always said.  Well if I died and went to heaven, I’d be bored to death with how they say heaven is.  There’s no need for you to be bored in this world.  There’s so much out there.  And your attitude, be optimistic.  I’ve been optimistic all my life.  Even as a little girl I can remember that no matter what happened it would turn out all right.  In this country almost everybody is taking antidepressants.  Why in the world are people taking antidepressants?  It should be a wonderful world.  Mine has been a great ride, believe me.

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.