Giving Thanks: The Core of Elder Wisdom

In my surveys of  over 1500 of the oldest Americans for the book 30 Lessons for Living, one thing stands out. Although many of these elders have serious burdens of chronic disease, family problems, or economic difficulties, getting older has bestowed a special gift – gratefulness.

They  told us they are especially thankful for small, pleasant things: a favorite song on the radio, the antics of a beloved dog, a brightly colored bird on the lawn in spring, the morning cup of coffee, being in a warm bed on a snowy night.

If you need help developing a spirit of gratefulness this Thanksgiving, let me share with you what the elders told us. First, here are three quick thoughts to keep in mind this season:

Be grateful for every day you have. I’m serious about that. Just be grateful of every day you have and enjoy. (Purnima, 81)

It’s an everyday thing, because I like to be thankful, I like to be thankful for what I have and my good health. And the blessings that the Lord gives us from day to day we should be thankful for. And another thing is to try to live your life daily, one day at a time. Look ahead but still make the most of each day. (Tanya, 79)

Take time to replenish yourself – sleep, quiet time, music, reading, enjoying nature. It’s difficult to keep going when you are running on empty. Be grateful in your everyday life for the small stuff. (Rudy, 84)

And in the wonderful spirit of Thanksgiving, we want to share with you the thoughts of one of the wisest elders in the Legacy Project. Pass it on to your loved ones on this special day!

Jane, 90, did not always have an easy path along life’s journey. But as she looks back on her sometimes challenging experiences, she
learned one critically important lesson for living: How to be grateful for all that life offers.

My parent’s’ divorce when I was thirteen was ugly and acrimonious, and my mother, sister, and I suffered severe financial hardship.

 My school life was important to me and I was disappointed that I was unable to go on to college. World War II affected and changed everyone’s life. We truly thought it was to be the war to end all wars. What a bitter lesson that was. I was emotionally and financially unequipped for the grief and difficulties that followed my husband’s death in 1952. When I look back now, I wonder how we survived.

But my later years have been much easier because I learned to be grateful for what I have, and no longer bemoan what I don’t have or can’t do. Saying “thank you” reminds me of my blessings, which are many. When I look back over my life, the most important things I have learned are these.

My small and modest home gives me a feeling of comfort and security.

Being self-reliant and able to care for myself has been part of my mother’s heritage to me. She didn’t give up when life was difficult and I try not to either. Grief, sorrow, and disappointment are difficult to endure, but in time I realized that there usually was a lesson to be learned and memory has allowed me to remember a person loved who is now gone.

Mother taught me not to cry over “spilt milk”:; Iif you make a mess, clean it up.; Iif you break it, fix it.; Aand if you make a mistake, correct it. She also taught me to keep my word, to be dependable, not to rob others of their time by being late, and to promptly return what I borrow. The world would be a better place if we all learned to value each other, to respect each other’s privacy and differences, and, most importantly, not be judgmental.

We are each responsible for our own well-being, and we need to care for ourselves, not only physical health but also mental and emotional well- being. Worrying never solved a problem and only robs you of your peace of mind.

Life isn’t fair. I believe it is important to have arms outstretched, one hand up—, holding one hand up to the person who is giving a you a lift up— and one hand down, giving some else a helping hand up.

This too will pass, whether it is joy or sorrow. So live each moment of every day. Some days will be passed by putting one foot in front of the other to get through, but others will be filled with joy, every moment worth celebrating.

I have had to live simply but eventually I realized that it is the best way for me to live. That to know what is enough, not to use more than my share of the earth’s resources, to recognize the difference between wants and needs, to enjoy the pleasure of making something broken of use again, and learning to appreciate simple pleasures has made my life more satisfying and less worrisome.

Happiness does not depend on how much we have but is based on personal success of skills and artistry, a sense of humor, the acquisition of knowledge, the refinement of character, the expression of gratitude, the satisfaction of helping others, the pleasure of friends, the comfort of family, and the joy of love.

We hope you enjoyed her list of things for which she is grateful, and we encourage you to make a list of your own!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Maureen’s List for Living – The View from 93

Maureen, 93, wrote:

Some of the lessons I’ve learned in my 93 years are:

1) Never judge a book by its cover. In other words, don’t judge people by their looks.

2) Keep confidences told you by other people. Don’t tell stories which are to be kept “only for your ears”.

3) Do not borrow money or valuables from friends. Banks are the place to go if borrowing is necessary.

4) You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Compliment others when they deserve if. They’ll thrive.

5) Avoid solving personal problems for others. If you do, they may backfire.

6) Be a listener. Some people need you simply to listen to them.

7) Keep your physical ills between you and your doctor.

8 ) Keep your political ideas between you and the ballot box.

9) Money can be the roof of all evil but it doesn’t have to be that. Become investor and consumer oriented.

10) Although one has lived a long time, that person must take steps not to become a bore. Criticism of the younger folks gets one nowhere!

Learning to Swim – in the Flow of Living

Charles, 83, told me about growing older and how to do it gracefully..His advice is that we must learn to adapt. To make that point, he offered a profound metaphor for how we should approach aging: learning to swim.

I think when one is 20, one probably doesn’t realize how important the ability to adapt is to your happiness. So that people who cannot grow and change are sort of stuck with their own personalities. We need insight, which is something that has to be either consciously or unconsciously sought after. One sees people who don’t seem to have the insights they need to be happy.

You asked me what I’ve learned growing older. I’d put it this way. I’ve learned how to swim. Not in water; I’ve learned how to swim in life. I’m not a particularly good swimmer in water, but I’m a reasonable swimmer in the flow of living.

Love God, Self, Others – then Sin Outrageously! Sage Advice

Sage, age 80, lives up to her name; she’s a true “sage” – A very wise elder (we posted a recording of her views on marriage here).

When asked about her most important advice for younger people, she shared what seemed to me to be a straightforward recommendation: set clear priorities. But then she provided a highly unusual take on that piece of advice – you may need to think about it for a bit!

A main lesson of mine is: Have your priorities straight. Now, this takes some explaining. I am a poet, and I came up with a haiku, a three lined poem that sort of expresses what I think that  life is about.

The first line is: “Love God, self, others – then sin most outrageously often as you can.”

Now think that one through. If you have your priorities straight – you love God, self, others – well, what kind of sinning can you do? Because you can’t. If you have your priorities straight, you are not going to do anything that is going to hurt someone else or yourself.

And the reason for saying love God, self, others is this: If you do not love yourself and what God has made you, you are not going to be able to love others; you will always be judging them. So there’s a reason for the priorities being put in that order. It makes sense when you think it through. Once your priorities are straight then dare almost anything!

Maurice’s List for Living – A View from Age 84

Maurice developed a list of fourteen things he’s learned over the course of 84 years:

1. Kindness. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think she was right, and kindness is one of the best ways of making people feel the way you’d like them to. But quite apart from how you are remembered, acts of kindness (even rather small ones) are an investment that pays immediate and continuing dividends: they will help take your mind off your own problems and remind you that you have a chance to make some positive difference in the world.

2. Forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask “Forgive us our sins [debts, trespasses] as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Many people who recite those words may not pause to recognize the quid pro quo: in order to receive forgiveness, we must be forgiving of others. And there are times we must all be forgiven by God, by family and friends or even by ourselves.

3. Religion. Is there a God? If so, what is His (Her) nature? These are questions for which the answers are unknowable, or at least I have found them so. But if they are unknowable, they nevertheless deserve continuing reflection. And the answers that others believe they have found deserve our respect, no matter how unpersuasive we may find them.

4. Family. The importance of a loving and stable relationship, with a spouse or partner, can hardly be overestimated. Maintaining such a relationship requires all the advice on these pages and then some. Children can be a source of searing pain or astonishing joy and comfort. They should be brought into this world with a clear sense of responsibility, but if you raise them with understanding, patience and humor, there is a good chance that one day they will treat you the same way.

5. Health. Diet and exercise are important matters to which I regret having paid only spasmodic attention. At the moment, I enjoy undeservedly good health, but I find that, as a newly-minted septuagenarian, I am unafraid of death but terrified that I might suffer a serious and prolonged illness.

6. Honesty. The adage that “Honesty is the best policy” is good practical advice. Most people who have gotten into serious trouble did so by committing acts that, morality aside, were never worth the risk. When I left the government, a friend asked me what I learned. One thing I said was, “If someone ever tells you not to worry about something because “it will never come out,” do not believe them.”

7. Seriousness and Humor. Try to think serious thoughts about serious matters at least some of the time (for example, the preceding paragraphs), but without taking yourself too seriously. Never forget that all advice is easier to give than to follow (even by the one who gives it.) Cultivate your sense of humor. As Ogden Nash once said, it can be “a shield, a weapon, a survival kit.”

8. Procrastination. All of us tend to put things off, but as Shakespeare wrote,”Procrastination is the thief of time.” Ah, the man had a way with words and there was no wiser observer of the human condition. Procrastination is a thief not only of time but energy and morale. Some problems may be illusory and will disappear on their own, but if a problem is genuine, or a task must be undertaken, it will probably be less formidable if confronted sooner rather than later.

9. Caution with Facts. Much of what we “know” simply isn’t so, or is a mixture of fact, opinion, impression, surmise and imperfect recollection. It may not make too much difference in everyday conversation, but in a serious discussion, or if you’re making an important decision, it pays to try to sort out what is really (provable, documented) fact and what is not.

10. Education. When you receive formal instruction (from schools, colleges and graduate and professional schools), try to learn not just what will be necessary for “the test,” but what you want to carry with you and remember (in much abbreviated form) in five years, or ten or twenty-five or more. Informal education is all around you, in books, newspapers, radio and television, the Internet, friends and neighbors, colleagues and mentors at work. The process is constant and the trick is to identify what’s worth learning and remembering. (There is no job, however boring, from which you cannot learn something.)

11. Writing. We all write, and are instructed in writing, in school, but there is always great room for improvement that can come only from continued practice. In many lines of work the ability to write clearly is essential. But for everyone, it is an important form of communication outside the workplace. Moreover, making yourself write well, or as well as you can, will inevitably clarify your thinking.

12. Music and Art/Mathematics and Science. Whether you have any gift for creating music and art, you should try to learn enough to have some depth of appreciation as early as you can. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. I know. Anyone who is going to succeed in the 21st Century will almost certainly need a far better grasp of mathematics and science than I have ever achieved.

13. Keeping in touch. As you move from school to school, job to job, and area to area, you will continually make new friends, but fall out of touch with others. Work at keeping up your relationships. In business, it’s called networking, but apart from any commercial value, it can be source of personal satisfaction and strength.

14. Superstition. Don’t be superstitious, but why take chances by writing a 13 paragraph memorandum?

Get on the Same Page about Parenting

From their many years of experience raising children, elders in the Legacy Project recommend that parents be as united as possible about their philosophy for child-rearing. It’s the consistency between the two parents that’s important.

Boyd, 76:

Well, I can’t say we didn’t make any mistakes. But I think it’s just important to be consistent. It’s actually difficult to coordinate consistency with your marriage partner sometimes. So I would try to be as consistent as possible between you. And you can be a restraining influence on one another. When she would get really mad at them I would try to be somewhat of a restraining influence, and she would do the same for me.

Reiko, 82

My parents fought about how they raised us. So we made this pact when we got married, that we wouldn’t do this. That if we didn’t agree, then we would just stop and come back to it another time. And if I was reprimanding the children, he would not interfere; and if he was doing it, I would not interfere. And we stuck to that. And so the kids couldn’t take sides, and that was pretty successful.

Shirleen, 71

If there’s just one generalized advice, I would give, it is for the husband and wife to get on the same page about parenting, so that one is not a permissive parent and the other autocratic. That they’re a united front. They should present a united front and are consistent with the children.

Seek Contentment

Sometimes, the advice of the Legacy Project Elders is short – and  sweet. Here’s an example.

Acording to the elders, much of what is most enjoyable about their lives are the little things, the day-to-day features of creating a contented life.  Ivan, 84, summed it up an a short but memorable way.

It sounds corny and trite, but I would tell people this lesson: Take time to turn off your cell phone, your tablet, your electronics. Get outside. Enjoy a walk in the forest. Savor the fragrances of nature after a summer storm. Watch a sunrise or sunset with someone you love. Listen to the birds sing. Lie down in a field of flowers and watch the clouds.

A happy life is a lot of contentment but with surges of joy and a minimum of sorrow. You can find contentment a lot easier than you can find continuous joy.

You Need to Do What You Love

Many students are involved in summer internships right now, so it’s worth taking a moment to learn this lesson from our elders: focus on work for its intrinsic value more than for external rewards.

Marty, 71, had a very satisfying work life as an engineer and entrepreneur. But he exhorts younger people to think about success not in terms of money, and gives you some important questions to ask yourself about your career.

Earning money seemed to be how they measured a success when we were young. Some people went to college but most people went to work, they got a job and went to work so everything revolved around: What are you earning?  What are you making? And so the more money you made the more successful you were.

And that became more important than: What should I do with my life? What do you want to develop? What do you want to learn?’  But by learning and experiencing that part of your life, you’re going to be doing something you like doing,  that you want to do, and money follows. Money follows. That’s the way it works.

And if money doesn’t follow, you’re doing something you like anyway. So it was like when I was a kid, down the street we had a shoemaker, a father with his kids and they did the shoes, leather soles and stuff. They were a pretty cool family. They loved working there and they loved making shoes and fixing shoes. So there’s ways to be happy without having to be this big-shot corporate guy.

The Values I’ve Learned, Old-Fashioned But True

Some of the elders shared their core values, summing up wisdom gained over a lifetime. One of these responses came from Maureen, who is nearing her hundredth birthday.

I am 97 and 5/6 so I have had a long learning time! (I was at my university in June for my 75th reunion.) These are some of the values I’ve learned over my life; old fashioned but true.

1. Integrity. Without honesty, dependability, truthfulness, and self-respect life isn’t worth living.

2. Commitment. To marriage and sexual fidelity. To good family life, for without it, even though one inherits a good “nature” it is difficult through “nurture” to learn patience, respect for others, cooperation, and love anywhere else.

3. Healthy living. Best learned in family.

4. Respect for racial, cultural, and religious differences. Not only tolerated but understood if possible.

5. Hard work. Setting attainable goals and persistence in attaining them. One doesn’t have to be a wealthy big shot to be a successful person or have a “good life”.

6. Immersion in a “cause” bigger than oneself.

7. Expansion of one’s interests through reading, study of arts and sciences. Keep up to date.

8. Deep but unfanatical faith in a higher being. It is basic to a caring, generous, whole human being who can maintain equilibrium in a turbulent world.

By trying to learn these “lessons” I find that one is bound to be respected, loved, happy, even considered a role model.

Graham’s List for Living (including dessert)

Graham, 82, offered a list of principles for living a good life, with an insight about – dessert.

Although what I’ve learned is probably no different from what life has taught other people, here are a few of the principles I’ve acquired so far.

  •  Marriage.  Romance and love are not the same, a lesson probably learned only by experience.  Romantic love, from what I’ve seen, is an insufficient condition for a successful marriage.  What is thought to be love at the outset of a marriage is generally a mirage, for love develops slowly in marriage and continues to do so throughout its life.  For a successful marriage, perhaps the two most important components are similar values and a sense of humor.
  • Work.   There will always be many who are richer or more distinguished than I am, so if my purpose in working is to attain these extrinsic rewards, I will be disappointed, for I will always compare myself to those whose attainments are greater.  But if I work principally for the pleasure or the fulfillment it gives me, my success is assured.  This assumes, of course, that such work can be found.  There are few blessings greater than finding and keeping it.
  • Listening.  Most people like to talk about themselves and need only a little encouragement to do so. (Witness this essay.)
  • Advice.  There are few who do not like to give advice, and even fewer who are prepared to take it.
  • Humiliation.  Next to murder, the greatest crime is the deliberate humiliation of another.  If murder kills the body, humiliation mutilates the soul.  It is generally never forgotten or forgiven.
  • Kindness.  I cannot know what troubles plague those with whom I come into casual contact.  Even those with the most cheerful countenance may harbor great sorrow.  So if I can avoid needlessly adding to their burdens, I try to do so.  If I cannot make their life better, at least I try not to make it worse.
  • Planning.  Planning is more useful for giving the illusion of control than for managing the actual course of events.  Chance plays an important role in life, for better and for worse.
  • Worry.  We generally worry about the wrong things.  The calamities we lose sleep about usually don’t materialize, whereas the calamities that befall us are usually unanticipated.
  • Dessert.  The second bite is never as good as the first.