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.

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!

Be Curious about Spirituality

A common theme among the elders was to be open to spirituality. Few were interested in telling younger people what to believe. But their long life experience often has directed them toward a spiritual life, and it’s one of their lessons for living. Here’s Juliet, 88, who suggests that at a miminum we should be curious about religion:

I grew up in a religious family and I think and I am still a very spiritual human being. I’ve had a lot of interest in it because of my curiosity. I don’t understand people who are not curious about religion. I don’t understand people who just completely reject it, most of our wonderful poetry, our wonderful literature, our wonderful music have some background in some religion. So, out of curiosity I think that people should pursue at it at least a little. They don’t have to involve themselves completely, but they should find out before they reject things like that.

I think its because I believe in a spiritual being that I never would have survived unless somebody had been there for me when I needed the support of another person, and I mean a whole lot of somebodies all down through my life. There have been people, most of them I’ve had some contact with at some point when I needed them. Either a working relationship or a social relationship, but they just sort of pop up and they have no idea what they have done for me.

Connecting to the Universe: The Power Within Us

It’s probably no surprise that most of the elders endorsed the idea that faith and spirituality are important to a happy life. But there was a very wide diversity of beliefs. Some people were involved in mainstream religions, whereas others had developed their own spiritual perspectives.

Marie, 92, was married for nearly 70 years. Over the years, they provided a home to many foster children, and her work as a teacher allowed her to help many students over the years. Raised a Methodist, she has moved away formal religious participation. But she also recommended spiritual beliefs that help make sense of the universe:

It’s very important. There’s a vast difference between spirituality and religion. I feel that I have a very close relationship with the total power of the universe, that we give the name God, because we don’t know what else to call it. And I feel that it’s very important to maintain that connection to the universe, to the total power. And that little flake, the little tiny bit of the power that is within each of us, that is light, is a real connection.

It’s a bit strange, I had never heard anybody else explain the feeling of the total universe as I see it. The stream of eternity, no beginning, no end, flows on. And that is the sum total of all power. And every now and then a little flake of that power breaks off and goes into a vehicle like us. And as it travels along this highway, this detour, there are potholes, hills to climb, decisions to make, go this way or that way, and eventually the vehicle wears out and the little spark returns to the highway. So I’m continually seeking to be in harmony with that power. You know that when you feel good inside yourself about what’s happening. And when things are falling in place for you.

Have Faith – But How You Do It Is Up to You

I wasn’t surprised that the elders often profess a very deep faith in God. But I was struck by the degree to which they also stressed tolerance for the beliefs of others. Over and over, they reported that a spiritual life is important, but the form it takes is up to you.

Grace, 84: Well, it all depends on your denomination. Regardless of whether we bow to the east or west or whatever, there’s only one guy up there. We just have to have that faith. Faith gets difficult sometimes because we’re a species that likes instant gratification and solutions, and life is not about that. So we have to have faith. Also, don’t do wrong things for the sake of religion.

Ruth, 83: My parents were religious Jews, nothing Orthodox like that, but they observed the Sabbath and the meat was Kosher, you know. But we always had Christian friends, we had Jewish friends. My parents weren’t that tight, you know, they accepted anybody- “I don’t care what you are, you’re a nice person.”  Thank you Mama and Papa, because this is what they taught me. The thing is that if there’s a God, there’s only one God. There can only be one God. And everybody prays in a different way. Tolerance is very important. Especially since the way that I grew up, and the fact that we had Christian friends.

Oscar, 76: Well, I have very strong feelings about my faith but I would not impose them upon other people, that’s strictly a one on one decision between them and God or whatever they choose to worship. I observe one school of thought and that’s very real to me and it would be up to everybody else to come to that same decision or a different one, so they would choose. But I think that everybody should believe in, preferably what I believe in, but then that’s not likely. But you should have something to center your life on, to sustain you.

Juanita, 71: We all have to believe in something, I think, and whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, it doesn’t really matter to me, there’s God. And how you get to Him through Catholicism, Judaism, it really doesn’t matter, but just to believe in something. We just didn’t appear, you know? I think faith is important because we have to realize there is a higher being, just look around, look at life itself, so everybody should have something to believe in.

Among the 1200 elders we interviewed for the book 30 Lessons for Living, only a small number had no use for spirituality or religion; faith of some kind was seen as a key to happiness by almost everyone. But what seems to grow in old age is a sense of tolerance for others’ beliefs, and a sense that there are many paths to spiritual fulfillment.

Finding God and Serving the Common Good

I’ve talked in previous posts about the fact that some kind of spiritual belief was important to most (but by no means all) of the Legacy Project elders. For many age 70 and over, faith has shaped their core principles for living. In many cases, this deep faith led them to compassionate living – a desire to move beyond themselves and serve others. Let me share with you one spiritual elder’s thinking on this topic.

I sat in the cool, quiet Motherhouse of the order of an order of nuns, talking to Sr. Monica. Despite recent health problems, Sr. Monica is a slender, vigorous, highly focused 80-year old, who speaks with the thoughtfulness and precision of a former language teacher. In her order, sisters commit their lives both to God and to serving the sick, the poor, and the disenfranchised. The sisters take the Gospel message seriously, working to help people overcome obstacles that keep them from living full and dignified lives.

Sr. Monica shares a house with two other nuns in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood, allowing them better to identify with and share the lives of the poor. Her decades as a nun have seen seismic changes in the Catholic church (including dropping the nun’s formal habit for street clothes). But in my interview with her in the peaceful atmosphere of the Motherhouse, the core of her faith has clearly not changed:

I have just celebrated my 60th year as a sister. And I really feel very blessed and I’ve had a wonderful life and many wonderful opportunities. I have always felt very close to God. And my Catholic education just reinforced that with the example of the other sisters in my order.

I have a sense of God as a loving presence that walks with us. Not just me as an individual, it’s God hearing the cries of oppressed people, as the Exodus story says. God is there. And so paying attention to that and how do you find God in the beauty of creation, and in the beauty of the people around you, is very important.

The religious life that I’ve chosen is a mutual struggle to discern where God is calling us. You know, it’s hard enough to see what God is asking us to do right now, but especially where he wants us to go in the future. But it’s a very powerful kind of thing to come together as a group and make decisions that are mutually beneficial for the common good.

That’s a big thing for me, the common good. And we can live out a search for the common good in our life as Catholic nuns. Our vow of chastity is again a statement that stands in the face of using sex to sell everything, you know. Our life is a seeking of God, true love of a neighbor, and the commitment to dedicate one’s self to service, service to those affected by poverty, sickness, or death. I have no regrets that I have chosen this life.

Farewell, Sr. Maria – Thanks for Your Lessons!

The Sisters of St. Joseph are a remarkable group of nuns, devoted to the spiritual life, teaching and the pursuit of social justice. In the Motherhouse in Rochester, NY, I visited Sr. Maria, age 93. Although her body was beginning to fail her, she was clear-eyed and enthusiastic. I have thought about Sr. Maria often, and I was deeply saddened to learn last week that she has left this world (or as she would have put it, moved on to the next life!). Her lessons for living, however, stay on in the Legacy Project.

She told me right off that she was born on Election Day, 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was re-elected the President of the United States. Her parents were Polish immigrants, hard-working and deeply religious.

She grew up in a close-knit Polish neighborhood.

It was a close community because all the people in the neighborhood were from Poland, or Russia or Ukraine, so they were all neighbors from Europe and they maintained their own language. It was a homey place with little stores, mom-and-pop stores, and the meat market was a meat market. It wasn’t everything, it was a meat market. The grocery store had groceries, the bakery was just bakery. It was translation from Europe and it was maintained like that for many years. The Polish bakery was just marvelous. And it was a wonderful business, especially around Christmas time, Easter time, you had to buy tickets to wait in line to do your shopping.

And the church was the center of activity, things were centered about the church, and when we think of people not having a social security, well that wasn’t in vogue yet. But the people – the church groups, the people from the same villages of Poland – grouped together and formed societies. So there would be St. Casimir society, St. Stanislas, St. Lawrence, and each society would have certain plans to provide for the members. We paid like maybe fifty cents a month for dues but if you were sick you would get groceries for a week, two weeks and other benefits. And people from these societies had projects like a dinner dance, activities connected with church to raise funds.

It’s sad because people now are not as close. We knew everybody in the neighborhood. I could name every family on our street, the name of their children, and you respected everybody’s family. If someone else’s mother told you not to do that, you had to listen, you had to obey. And growing up we just thought that our neighborhood, that’s all there was. Our own little world, the stores were there, the grocery stores, the meat market, the bakery, the shoe repair shop, everything was right in line.

Sr. Maria didn’t speak English until she started school, “First grade was a little difficult because I had to learn to speak English and learn how to read in English and my mother didn’t help me because she didn’t know the words, she didn’t know the language. If she tried to say it, she would say it with an accent. So in school I sat on a little step and a girl whose parents were Americanized already would sit with me to help me read, listen to me read.” She was determined to speak “like an American,” and achieved that goal.

Some her most important life lessons were learned during the depression. Her father’s work schedule was reduced, and the family had to learn how to live on very little. “Bread and butter was a treat.” Her advice to people going through current economic difficulties is this: “We should be grateful if we have what we need, even if we don’t have all the delicacies we want. We never knew we were poor. There were people who were poorer. We had enough to eat and that was a big blessing.

An even more important lesson Sr. Maria learned during the Depression was compassion. Even though her family had little, they shared with those who had less.

There was one family whose father didn’t have a job. Wherever he worked he lost his job, so there was no income coming. But I remember some evenings, maybe once a week, my mother would fix up a basket with some groceries, maybe a head of cabbage, some potatoes, vegetables, and put it on their porch after dark. And she herself had come from Poland and they had had hard times. And I remember seeing her many times, if she was going to eat a piece of bread she would pray over it first and she would kiss it sometimes too. Yes, they were hungry many times, so we grew up with that respect to appreciate what we had.

As Sr. Maria retired and grew older, the importance of compassion as a life lesson increased.

The idea that everything we do to help someone else, there’s a return value in it. You realize that you did something for that person, and at the time you didn’t understand it well yourself. Sometimes I receive a message, a note or card, from a student that I taught fifty years ago, and they’ll say that they appreciate what I did for them, that if I hadn’t done that they would never have succeeded. Like this one boy told me recently that if I hadn’t coached him special when he was my eighth grader he never could have gone to high school. He wouldn’t have had that motivation. You couldn’t help everyone, but you did as much as you could to as many as you could.

It’s not surprising that someone who had been a nun for over 70 years would recommend include pursuing a spiritual life among her major lessons:

Well. I think that the first lesson would be that you have a relationship with God and you live by his teachings and his commandments. Because by ourselves we can’t really do too much. And we have abilities and powers, but everything that we have is a gift from God to use and to give it back to Him.

For Sr. Maria, this lesson led again to compassion:

And I think being considerate for other people is important. And there are many small ways and gracious ways to do kindnesses and thoughtful actions. And if I know that I have something I know someone would like, maybe I can graciously get it into her possession without her knowing it. You try to help other people, you encourage others, you assist others.

At the end of our interview, we talked about the end of life. Sr. Maria told me:

Well, you do think about it more often and you do realize that we’re not here forever and we have to face God in the end. I’m not sure if I’m completely at that stage yet. Well, God has been good. You know, I don’t know if I pray as much as I ought to pray for death and acceptance. It’s still kind of, I know it’s going to come, and I tell the Lord: ‘I’m ready Lord – but maybe not yet!” Life is a gift from God and it’s important to keep busy – not just busy, but active. Meaningfully active.

It’s never easy when we lose one of the Legacy Project respondents, but we can still profit from their lessons. And that’s a good argument for asking our loved ones about their lessons for living – while they are still with us!

Faith Helps in Hard Times

The elders came from all the world’s major religions, but many had one thing in common: They recommend faith of some kind as an invaluable tool for getting through rough patches in life. Coming from the Christian tradition, Cecile described how she learned this life lesson:

We had great difficulties pretty early in our marriage. My husband had heart problems as a young man. He came home and of course heart patients are known for depression after heart surgery, and he became depressed and that was very, very difficult for me. And that’s when faith came in. I mean we had gone to church ever since we’d been married, the whole family, but that’s when I truly, truly knew that I needed God totally in my life, I couldn’t handle this on my own. And God was preparing me for the death of my son. My son had also become more committed to faith in God shortly before he died, at age 19, in a car accident. I had four younger ones at home.

Faith in God helped me again when my husband had his heart attack 10 years ago. He died the way he wanted to die. It was a shock even though I knew that the day was coming, because he always had heart problems. I miss him terribly, but I know we all have to die, and I know he’s home with God, and that’s just a blessing. If it wasn’t for God, I don’t know – I just have a beautiful life right now.