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.

 

Go Out and Make A Difference

Today, one of the Legacy Project elders tells us to get out there and take action. Jared, 80, has been a farmer and making a differencebusinessman for 60 years and he has lived through setbacks and tragedy. But he is actively engaged in making the world a better place – and he thinks we should be, too.

My lesson for people is to get involved. Many times, I could have sat back and grumbled and nothing would have gotten done. But I got out there and made myself an annoyance enough so that these laws did get passed. You get involved and you can make a difference.

Maybe that’s my major point. People feel insignificant. They feel overpowered by the world. It’s easier to come home at night and sit in front of the television set or read the paper and go to sleep. I tend, I guess, to have maybe gotten somewhat of a reputation of a rabble rouser. Trouble maker maybe. If there’s something that needs correcting, I’m quite apt to get out there. In fact I’ve got a project going right now. I’ve been told maybe I should sit down and shut up. We’ve got an unfair situation the county I live in. I think it can be changed and straightened around, but it’s going to take a lot of work. That type of thing. You can make a difference if you get out and get involved!

Cultivate Equanimity and Awe for Real Happiness

These observations from Mary, 90, really got me thinking. So many of us associate happiness with emotional awehighs and gathering possessions, but Mary believes it lies in emotional states like equanimity and awe.

Equanimity, the ability and discipline to maintain clarity and balance regardless of the forces around us, enables us to develop as true individuals, never before and never again in existence. Only with the development of equanimity are we able to stand in our own unique space, to differentiate our essential being, and thus to offer our particular gifts to the world.

Awe, that rush of quiet passion, that sudden gasp in the presence of great beauty or immensity or unfathomability is another necessary ingredient for the full appreciation of life. Cousin to gratitude, fear, and ecstasy, it overwhelms and enriches us beyond our usual boundaries.

Arnold, 95, Preaches Tolerance – with Humor

I met Arnold, 95, at a New York City senior center. A victim of Nazi persecution, Arnold fled Germany to the United wisdom signStates and made a good life for his family. He believes that curiousity and tolerance are the keys to lifelong happiness. He’s a funny guy, so he offered wisdom with a joke.

You ask about life lessons? I will tell you a story. A father talks to his son, and he says to his son, I want to talk to you about sex. And the son says, “Dad, what do you want to know?”

There’s your answer. We have to learn from the young and always stay curious. I had such convictions that I changed completely. Circumstances taught me that what I believed wasn’t so. One of my advantages is that I am willing to recognize change. In life, we are confronted with constant change, and you can’t be dogmatic. You see what happens with nations, what happens with people when they are dogmatic. You have to be open, be involved in new things.

Let’s Care About the World: Gwendolyn’s List for Living

care for the worldMany of the Legacy Project elders were concerned about the state of the world. Their lessons reflect long lifetimes of observing humanity and current events. Gwendolyn, 80, offers her views about things we should deeply care about and how to act on them.

Among the most important lessons I have learned during my life are the following:

1. The important role of family and the great benefits realized when there is a close knit and supportive family unit.

2. The very deleterious effects of the increasing emphasis on materialism and material possessions.

3. The destructive impacts on the environment caused by overdevelopment and over population. I am fearful for the coming generations.

4. The pervasive dishonesty and lack of integrity of public officials and the sense of hopelessness for change felt by the average citizen.

5. The alarming tendency manifested by our society’s support of political wars, destruction and mass slaughter of human beings.

6. The apathy of the public to critical issues such as global warming.

My advice to younger generations would be to remain close to your families, pursue education, completely avoid drugs and crime; maintain a code of honesty and integrity despite peer pressure to the contrary; work for honesty in government; care about our environment and work to preserve and improve it.

Do You Need More Stuff? Some Christmas Elder Wisdom

First, let me say that I love the holiday season. But, as Christmas approaches and we are inundated with advertisements and messages to spend wildly, it’s worth taking a break for elder wisdom. In the Legacy Project, over and over the elders told us that people and experiences matter more than things. In hundreds of interviews, they unanimously caution that time spent getting a lot more stuff than you really need is time wasted. The holidays seem like the right time to listen to our elders and think twice about how much we buy.

Steve, 78, tells how he learned to put material rewards in perspective, focusing instead on the accumulation of love for family and friends. As I’m planning my Christmas shopping, I try to keep his lesson in my head!

We were among the very lucky ones. Both my wife and I were born into middle class merchant families, with caring parents in small communities where you knew and were known by your neighbors. My wife lost her father when she was only 13. She, her mother and sister moved to another, beautiful small community where life was comfortable though not luxurous and values for the young were set by the example of parent and community. My childhood with loving parents and an older brother was uncomplicated and also filled with good values set by example. Owning and accumulating was not an important part of life for either of our families.

This upbringing undoubtedly established most of our values and attitudes for the adult years. Honesty, integrity and compassion for ones fellow human beings remained the anchor for all decisions. As we matured, reared and educated four children and attempted to pass along those values to them, we learned that listening is far more important than lectures, and though it sometimes seemed we were not heard, the example of our lives spoke loudly to our youngsters.

Now, at 71 and 78, as we progress through our senior years, living comfortably — not luxurously — we are increasingly aware that accumulating STUFF is of little importance. The accumulation of love for each other, of our children and of life-long friends and extending that love to those less fortunate than we have been is the centerpiece of our lives, of humanity and civilization.

Giving Thanks: The Core of Elder Wisdom

In our surveys of  over 1200 of the oldest Americans in the Legacy Project. 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!

Growing Up Is the Work of a Lifetime

Maurice, 77, has a different take on the expression “live life to the fullest.”

The advice I would give to my grandchildren is to treasure every day of  their existence and to do their best at every task they face. 

I do not believe in “living life to the fullest” in the sense in which that expression is often used.  Most important when you look back on your life are the unselfish things you have done, the love and support you have  given to others, and the sense that you have made the most of your talents and  opportunities.

I have learned that growing up is the work of a lifetime and that  we should strive to continue growing until the end of our days.

Doing Well, and Doing For Others – A Better New Year’s Resolution?

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.

“If We Don’t Forgive…” Sr. Clare’s Advice

Sr. Clare, 83, has been a nun for over six decades. She has devoted her life to helping the poor and to the spiritual life. When asked what older people are likely to regret, she told me:

I think generally speaking; unfinished business with others or with what they wanted to do or be. For example, not asking about family history, or failing to pay attention to family stories. Failing to have important talks with people, especially around forgiveness or assurance of one’s regard for them, and failing to forgive or reconcile.

There’s a wonderful saying – I  can’t remember the person who wrote this but something about: “If we do not forgive, we keep the person imprisoned in our heart and our heart becomes a hardened prison.”