The Old Cliches about Living the Good Life Apply

It’s summer and the livin’ is easy, which leads us at the Legacy Project to ponder what “living the good life” really means. Miguel, 79, tells us that tried and true wisdom pretty much gets it right.

Past generations had it about right.  Most of the old cliches about living the good life apply.  One should eat healthfully, get a full night’s sleep, exercise regularly, set priorities, not sweat the small stuff, spend a lot of time with family, follow your heart, plan ahead, never look back with regret, give it your all, not take life too seriously, try everything — you only go around once.

Live beneath your means, make new friends, but cherish the old ones, admit mistakes, learn to listen, keep secrets, don’t gossip, never take action when you’re angry, don’t expect life to be fair, never procrastinate, call your mother.

Most important: (1) choose your parents with care – they will provide the good genes and set you on the right path; (2) pick the right spouse — everything else pales by comparison.

Life Gets Better after 90: Cecile’s Lesson

In Cecile Lamkin’s living room, a wall of windows looks out through the still-bare trees to a calm lake below. This house has been Cecile’s home for over 50 years, only she recently gave up daily swims, she said, “Because I can’t get down the stairs anymore.” Widowed several years earlier after 68 years of marriage, Cecile, 93, explained that live after turning 90 has brought her a sense of wholeness, acceptance, and the ability to enjoy small pleasures.

I am much clearer now. I say that as an older person, not just as an adult, but as an older person, things are much clearer. I was just telling my daughter, I think I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’ve been thinking about why it is that I’m happier now. I came up with a lot of stuff. First of all, things that were important to me are no longer important, or not as important. The second thing is, I don’t feel responsible in the same way that I used to feel. I’ve been a pretty responsible person, but I don’t feel that responsibility anymore. My children are in charge of their lives, and whatever they do with them, they will do with them.

And I live in a place, my house, that I love. In the summer here it is wonderful, and I live outdoors at that time. My family comes, friends come, and I use it like a vacation. I’ve also given up feeling that I have to entertain people. If there’s someone coming up, they will bring such and such. It’s very liberating for me. And I just feel a contentedness that I’ve never felt before. I’ve heard other people my age say the same thing.”

In the Legacy Project, so many people told us that they were happier than ever in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. So why do we all fear growing old so much? Please comment and share your thoughts on that question!

Vacation: Use It to Learn from Your Family’s Elders!

During the summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great opportunity for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Why not use this time to encourage your kids to have meaningful “elder wisdom” conversations with the elders in your family?

Older people are 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.

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.

So while we are visiting older relatives, why don’t we all  take an hour (okay, it can be before or after the trip to the beach) 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 vacation (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. More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.(and you can watch elders sharing their lessons on our YouTube channel).

  • 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?

Add go ahead and add your own. I guarantee it will enrich your summer vacation this year!

A Wedding Gift of Wisdom – What a Great Idea!

Need a wedding gift? Why not elder wisdom?

I’ve heard about many creative uses of my book 30 Lessons for Living. But this has to be the best one so far!

I received the following message from Shannon, of Washington State:

I loved the concept for The Legacy Project! I wish someone had gathered advice in such a meaningful way when I was younger.

When I first heard of the project, I thought: How could I introduce it to my step-son? A short time later he announced his engagement and a great idea came to me.

I purchased the book and will present it to him and his finance tomorrow night at their rehearsal dinner. During the dinner I am inviting people to add their own words of wisdom by sharing those on the blank pages of your book! Not only will the bride and groom have very personal wisdom but also that collected during your research! My hope is that they refer to it often.

I was thrilled (okay, maybe even a little choked up). So I asked Shannon if Adam and Lisa – the happy couple – would be willing to let me blog about it. They did me one better, and sent me some of the wisdom that the guests contributed!

Here’s what some of Adam and Lisa’s well-wishers – grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts, friends – advised them about marriage:

“Commitment, compromise, and communication will get you through the hurdles every couple will face throughout their lives together”

“Adam, buy Lisa flowers every now and then for no reason!”

“Look forward to a lifetime of happiness… Some times will be tougher than others, but the love that you share will overcome it all. Adam: listen to Lisa and love her. Lisa: love Adam with all your heart.”

“One very important advice: communication is key.” “Always take a deep breath and remember the first time you kissed!”

“Sense of humor!”

“In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths! Live a little, give a little, forgive a lot and laugh a lot”

“You can just tell by the way you two look at each other that this is meant to be! Your marriage will be full of happiness and you guys won’t ever lose that special connection.”

“Pick your battles! Always remember that a good relationship takes work, including lots of love, compromise, giving, trust and more love.”

“When naming children, make sure it’s one you can yell clearly out the back door!”

“Know that you can’t always be right and know that being wrong happens more often than you realize; know forgiveness truly and deeply and you will be able to overcome anything.”

So here’s to Adam and Lisa, and to the day when you may pass along your own wisdom about marriage to your next generation!

Honesty and Trust: A WW II Veteran’s Lesson for Living

Like many others, we at the Legacy Project have been following the D-Day commemorations. In my book 30 Lessons for Living, I was privileged to interview many members of the War and Crisis Generation, capturing their wisdom before they left us (only a few WW II veterans are still alive).

If there is one lesson for a good life that nearly all of  the Legacy Project elders agree on, it’s  honesty. This may be worded in different ways: being truthful, being a person of trust, or having integrity. But it shines above all others in the advice elders give about core values.

And this isn’t just some hollow platitude. The elders believe that honesty is not a lofty ideal; rather, it’s a daily practice that is highly beneficial for every individual.

Max, age 95, passionately summed up this lesson and how he learned it:

 My father died when I was 12, and my mother appointed me head of the household. After my freshman year in college (1942-43), I was drafted into the Army. In World War II, I was a combat medic attached to infantry in the 95th Infantry Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army. In December of 1944, I was wounded by a German machine gunner while I was trying to rescue a fallen comrade. Gas gangrene cost me my left arm for which I have worn a prosthesis ever since. After honorable discharge, rank of PFC, I completed my undergraduate education in biology and then got a Master’s Degree. My career, influenced by the War, was as a high school teacher of biology and English.

As a fatherless boy I soon learned to be skeptical of authority, institutional and religious. However, I realized intensely – and still do – that trust is the most valuable bond that keeps us civil and loving. Cheating and lying, of every kind—in school work, business, friendships, sex, marriage, parenthood, social contracts, just as examples—weaken that bond.

Just think of what a dissolving marriage does to the sense of trust children have in their parents! Just think of what a dreadful toll the failure of trust in our current federal administration is taking on us as a people and on our international relations! Just think of what casual sex has done to the bonds of trust and love! Trust keeps us together in marriage, as families, as social groups, in business negotiations, as a nation. Betray that for personal gain or pleasure and you lose more than your integrity; you weaken the fabric of society.

Patsy’s List for Living: What I’d Tell My Grandchildren

Patsy, 90, offers advice to her grandchildren (and young people of all ages). Some of the advice she gives is unexpected, and it shows us how life experiences from 70 years ago can lead to highly relevant lessons for living.

I’d like my 16 grandchildren to learn a few of my favorite things that helped me live a good life. Not necessarily in order of importance, these include:

Be moderate in your eating and drinking habits. Eat everything in moderation and step on a scale daily to ensure you are maintaining your ideal weight. Drink the drinks you like, but use moderation in carbonated drinks, especially cola drinks that harm your teeth. As a teacher, I often placed a child’s first tooth in a glass of cola to show it disappeared in about a week.

Engage in after school activities from the time you enter school through high school. Participate daily in whatever you enjoy – sports, dance, music, art, drama, science, writing, etc. These activities will not only keep you busy but help you get into college.

When you get advice from a smart source, take it. In the long run it could help you. During WWII, my college advisor said, “Someday, Patsy, you may have to work.” I took his suggestion and earned a Masters in Education and Government and so became qualified to teach in any school in the country. Eighteen years later as the single mother of six, I was able to get the “perfect single parent job” – a teacher with the same schedule as my children.

When opportunity knocks, go for it – even if it necessitates moving. As a teacher I moved from St. Petersburg, FL to Ft. Lauderdale, FL. to Los Angeles, CA, to Santa Clara, CA.

Don’t buy anything you can’t pay for on the spot. Use a credit card and pay it off at the end of each month. Never waste money on interest. Except for my house, I buy everything for cash, including my car.

Start your children with savings accounts when they receive their first allowance or gift of money. Encourage them to save all or part of all the money they receive or earn and amaze them with compound interest. My parents encouraged me to do this so on my 16th birthday I was able to buy a $1600 car (a new Buick in 1937) for cash. And it all started with 5 cents per week in a grammar school savings program.

Teach your children the sounds of the letters of the alphabet before they go to school. They will then be able to sound out most of the words in the English language. They can succeed as early as two or three years of age. Knowing how to read enables you to learn everything else. I taught Remedial Reading this way for 20 years and every one of my students learned to read.

I’m sure I will think of other things I have learned in attaining my good life. But these came to mind immediately. I note that most are not generally taught today. I hope that some of the methods I used in achieving a good life will help others do the same.

Go Slow in Committing to Marriage

Although many people today delay getting marriage, all of us know young people who have rushed into relationships. Sometimes people fall head over heels in love; others feel that their “time clock” is running out. For anyone seeking a mate, the elders tell you to be very careful – and don’t rush in!

Fern, 71, suggests looking toward the future of the relationship:

Some of the things that I am telling you are some of the things that I have made mistakes with. I have been married a couple of times and very fortunately, I have a second husband who was a very wonderful husband who was a wonderful father to my children. And I think when you look for someone to marry you should sort of forget a little bit about the love connection and look ahead. Do we want a family, what do we want out of life, do we a career or how are we going to provide for this and that, how are we going to pay for a home. I think they need to take a step ahead and look at the future before they make that step.

Dina, 80, tells us to wait until we are mature enough for the commitment:

I’m always a little bit leery of relationships for young people that are established really young, before I think people are mature enough and know themselves well enough to be in a really satisfying relationship. Women make too many compromises in that kind of a situation. I’m really glad for my kids, because both of my boys were a lot more mature than I was when they got married, farther along, had much more life experience. I think that that is really good because I think you come into relationships better prepared.

Love Your Kids – But Don’t Be a Pushover

One thing that surprised me in interviews with the Legacy Project elders was that, in general, they don’t approve of physical punishment of children. But that definitely does not mean they don’t believe in setting firm limits.  They believe in firmness, but they also acknowledge the need to strike a balance between respect and discipline. Here’s what some of them told me:

Yes, you need to set limits on them, don’t wait until they are teenagers and say you have to do this, you have to start when they are quite young. In fact, from the day they’re born; you start from the day they’re born and you set limits on your children. You have to love them but you also have to be stern enough to set limits. (Jeanette, 79)

 Well, you’ve got to be firm but not overbearing, you have to set a good example, and you don’t need a lot of rules, you just need to let them know what you expect and you get their respect. (Manuel, 83)

It’s a case of being consistent. When you’re raising a bunch of kids you’ve got to be consistent in your discipline and your handling of them, and yet at the same time understand them and help to see their point of view and help them along the way with what they want to do with their lives without being too pushy on the whole subject. (Guy, 72)

Well,  if you’re going to raise children, you’ve got to raise them right. You can’t turn them loose and let them go and do things that they want to do because they get into too much trouble. Discipline is important. I don’t like no squabbling in the house, if they’re going to do that, let them get in the yard and fight it out. (Queenie, 85)

Don’s List For Living: One for the Refrigerator!

Don, 77, offers a clear and succinct list of the lessons he’s learned throughout his life. Another good “refrigerator list!”

1. Apply yourself to everything you do.

2. Always be fair and honest

3. Be sociable even to those you may not like.

4. Greet everyone with a smile.

5. Always remind your family that you love them.

6. Be an optimist.

7. Always look for the good in people.

8. Life is for living. Enjoy it to the full.

9. Respect other people’s points of view.

10. But be prepared to fight for what you believe in.

11. Take time to smell the flowers.

12. Never get into debt.

Jane and Will: A Love Story

For Valentine’s day, I have been thinking of a question that comes up when I talk about my book 30 Lessons for Living: Was romance and marriage different for the elders I interviewed, or was it the same? And to that I answer: “It was the same – except where it was different.” The elders experienced the same anxiety – “Will I ever find someone to love?” – young people today go through. The were nervous before first dates, and they wondered if their relationships would last.

But they also remember a time of old-fashioned romance, where there was an element of surprise, mystery, and sometimes sacrifice involved in finding a mate. This week, I’d like to share a few stories about how the Legacy Project elders met their life partners. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!

Jane Scripps has lived what she sums up as “a good life.” Raised in the south, as a young woman she got a job in the PX on a local army base, where she met Will in 1943.

We were in our twenties. He was a first lieutenant. Well, he was terrific.  I fell in love really quick.

It happened like this. I had to go to the warehouse to check on some things.  And he and the troops he was in charge of were just passing by when I was walking on the platform of the warehouse.  They were on the base for two weeks for training because they were going to go overseas really soon.  And I heard him say to his men, “Eyes right!”  Of course I did not respond.  I knew there were a group of soldiers looking at me and I was way up on the platform with high heels on.  And I was a little shy about that!  But then he took his men off to where he was supposed to.  I found out that he spent his afternoons looking for me.  And finally we met at the PX which was on that same building.  And we talked for a while.  He asked me for a date.

I didn’t give him a date, not right away, but I said I would give him my phone number.  “And if you call me Tuesday between six and six thirty, I will consider it.”  He did, and I gave him a date and we had a great time.  We double-dated.  We had a wonderful time and from there on we were together.  I don’t mean we were together, like they mean today – No!  But we had dates for four weeks, then he was going to go to another base.  We still corresponded and in four weeks he asked me to marry him, and two weeks later we were married.

I had only known him for eight weeks when we married.  And then we were married for six weeks, then he went overseas. He was over there during the war for fifteen months, and when he could he wrote to me every night. We’ve been married for fifty-eight years, and so it did work.  It wasn’t always perfect, of course.  I don’t think it ever is, but we’ve always loved each other, and did the best we can, and were faithful,  and we worked through whatever we had to work through.

When asked for her thoughts on what makes a successful long-term marriage, Jane pointed to commitment, and to a belief that the institution of marriage is important in and of itself. As she put it:

Be committed to it.  Because there are lots of people in my age group that were committed.  And marriage was marriage and family.  And they stayed together.  We never ever talked about divorce or separation or anything in my marriage.  It wasn’t perfect, of course.  I don’t think it ever is, but we loved each other and we worked through whatever we had to work through. I guess I didn’t have a big problem that we couldn’t discuss and get over in a day. So be committed to it.