A List of Lessons – From a Life Well-Lived

Tammy, 87, wrote us a letter that tells, straight from the heart, the lessons learned over a long and full life. Fromlist for living.2 marriage, to education, to work, these lessons are worth a careful read. (And anyone out there who was in a 4-H club, you will find the 4-H pledge here, too!)

I am pleased to submit my response to the letter asking for comments on what we have learned over the course of our lives.

Having been married sixty-one years, I have had a chance to learn many lessons. One of the foremost is the need to communicate. This applies to family or employer. Along with communicating in order to have good relations, one must be willing to cooperate by compromising or even putting one’s own opinion aside.

My second lesson would be getting enjoyment out of each situation. In married life this would be with each child that is born, in participation in all your children’s activities, interest in your husband’s work, and taking an active part in community activities.

My advice for a happy life is to take advantage of opportunities as they come along. Value your education, be a faithful, honest employee, and if raising a family is one’s path, strive for a healthy and happy family. It all takes determination.

My prescription for life is pretty well summarized in the 4-H pledge which I learned years ago. I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to greater service, and my health to better living for my family (club), community, and my country.

We only go through this life once, and it can be a satisfying experience if we set our minds to it. It is sad today to see so many lives wasted by turning to self-gratification and lack of good goals. There is truth in the saying, “smile and the world smiles with you, weep and you weep alone.” Be thankful for every day.

I am so grateful that I was able to attend college. It certainly prepared me for the years that followed. As I look back, I know I didn’t take full advantage of all the wonderful experiences college offered but only maturity gives one a perspective to see things one may have missed.

Join Me at The Shift Network’s Transforming Aging Summit!

I hope you can join me and other experts on aging in a unique on-line event – that you can take part in from the comfort of your own computer! And it’s entirely free of charge.

This event features a new multidimensional paradigm of aging — infused with vitality, passion and purpose, as well as continual growth and service. I’ll be joining other top conscious aging experts — including Joan Borysenko, John Robbins, Rick Moody, Mary Catherine Bateson, Richard Leider, Connie Goldman and others — who will help empower you to make your later years your “greater years.”

Presentations will feature:

  • A positive vision of aging & conscious aging approaches
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  • A powerful pathway for being “relevant”
  • Dynamic mentors who are embracing elderhood
  • Access to many invaluable conscious aging resources
  • A supportive community of kindred spirits

It’s March 1-3 — and all the information is here.

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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.

Home for the Holidays? Here’s Wisdom on How to Enjoy It

It’s the time of year when extended families – who may not see much of one another during the year – come families holiday timetogether to celebrate the seasonal holidays. If popular culture is to be believed, many parents and their adult children (and in-laws) look forward to the holiday with a mix of pleasure and worry about how everyone will get along. My surveys of approximately 2000 elders translate to the experience of around 160,000 Christmases  or Hanukkahs. Here’s their elder wisdom for how families can have a harmonious holiday together.

Eliminate Politics from the Dinner Table Discussion

When you are together at Thanksgiving, the elders advise, make contentious political arguments out of bounds. The elders say that these conflicts are simply unnecessary. Often, the urge is to make your loved ones “really understand” what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. The elders’ advice: Get your family to make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember, we’re not talking here about a lively, enjoyable political discussion; they mean the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car).

Gwen Miles, 94, after many angry family fights over Democrats versus Republicans put her foot down: “I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: “If Dad starts in about politics, I’m going to walk out of the room and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.” The elders recommend applying this same rule to other “hot-button” issues  When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, “just saying no” to the debate is an excellent – and potentially relationship-saving – option.

Don’t Try to Fix Each Other’s Life at Thanksgiving

When it comes to parents relating to their adult children, the elders are unequivocal: Let them live their own lives. They sum up this principle as: Don’t interfere unless they ask for your help. As Harriet, age 79, told me: “Give your kids their own lives. Don’t make demands on them. Just be there for them when they need you. And certainly don’t tell them what to do.” Joyce, 90, agreed: “It’s their life. It’s not my life. They all have their own way to do things and if they get into trouble and want some help, they’ll come to me.” Thanksgiving is not the time to exhort your child to get out of a relationship or get into one, to get a new job or stay in the old one, or to get his or her life on track. And the same holds true in the other direction: This is not the time for adult offspring to push the folks to sell the house or to start exercising. Let the holiday also be a break, the elders say, from trying to change one another.

Don’t Take Everything Personally 

The elders recommend an important strategy when the family is all together: de-personalize negative interactions as much as you can. By considering, for example, how parents’ (or parents-in-law’s) background and upbringing influence their attitudes and behavior, it’s possible to take conflict less personally and achieve some emotional distance in the relationship. Annie, 81, lived near her parents-in-law for most of her married life and the relationship was not an easy one. But when they got together on holidays, she made this rule: “Rather than assume the worst, it’s more helpful to assume that they are saying things to you because they want to help their child and you. Try to realize that their intentions are good and sometimes people, especially as they get older, can’t change the way they deal with others in their life.” Parents can take the same approach toward their adult children.

Remind Yourself Why You Are Doing It

This final tip from the elders is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult family situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer – both to them, and to yourself. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into a Thanksgiving gathering, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your family. Talking about in-laws, Gwen, 94, said: “You may not like your in-laws very much but you certainly can love them and stay close to them.” According to our elders, stepping back and taking this larger view can get you through the pumpkin pie with a minimum of stress.

 

Learn to Be Grateful

It’s World Gratitude Day today – and it’s a day we like to celebrate here at the Legacy Project!
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An attitude of gratitude” is an expression that popped up frequently among the elders. Research shows that promoting a feeling of gratitude can lead to improved psychological well being. here are a few lessons from the elders that can help motivate you in a grateful direction:

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 my favorite, from Becky, 89:

In spite of growing up and attending college in the Depression years, the “good life” for me began in earliest childhood when I was raised in a loving and encouraging family and enriched by many inspiring role models. Then, fortunately, our marriage was a happy and rewarding one that enabled us to meet ups and downs together.  For both of us, gratitude and giving thanks to our parents and others along the way was simply a way of life.  I am not sure the importance of a simple “Thank you” or caring gesture is stressed enough today.

Vacation: A Time to Learn from Your Family’s Elders

In these last weeks of summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great time for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Genevieve, 77, advises young people to learn history (and ways of living better) from their older relatives. She prepared this letter for children everywhere. Perhaps yours can act on it when visiting with Grandma or Grandpa (or other older relatives)?

Dear Children,

            For you the world began only a few years ago. All of what happened before that is a jumble. The grandpa you never knew who died in The War – was it Vietnam or World War II? I know it doesn’t seem to matter. You look to the future. The past, whether of family, friends, country, or the world, doesn’t matter because you are planning to change everything for the better.

            I choose to believe that you will change at least some of everything for the better. But, you need a solid foundation on which to stand first. The Greek scientist Archimedes knew this; he said he would move the world if he had both a lever and a place to stand.

            Without a foundation in the past and present, you could shift ‘everything’ out of our grasp or even send it crashing backwards. There is a way you can make sense of past and present and avoid future problems.

            Find time to ask Mother, Father, Grandparents, Uncles and Aunts and other family members about their lives before you were born. Get them to tell you stories of the funny, foolish things they did as well as the things in which they take pride. Try to learn about friends and relatives they remember that you will never know. Some of them will be thrilled you asked about their lives; you may have to coax others but it is worthwhile.

            When relatives tell you these tales, pay attention and ask questions. You may find out why they moved to a particular place, took a certain job, what they thought would happen in the country at that time, and how events and people changed their lives. We all, even you, live in a moving world, not a static one. If you want to change the world, you must also know how the world changes you.

            When you can, keep a diary whether on computer, on tape, or in a book. Include things that are happening in  your own life. Put in it lots of events and names of friends and family. You may not think so now, but someday after many years your mind will be so cluttered up that memories and names you think you’ll know forever will simply start to drop out and disappear.

            When you are grown and have children, pass on to them, in turn, as many as you can of these stories heard and lives lived. You will be giving your children a great gift that they too will learn to appreciate as time moves on.

Our Graduation Gift to You: Advice from the Wisest Americans

What would the wisest Americans like to tell today’s college and high school graduates? From our surveys of over 1200 older people (most in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond) here are a few gems for those heading out to college or to the “real world.” Like the elders themselves, their advice is by turns serious and funny. Pass these on to the graduates in your lives. Continue reading

George’s Lesson for Living – Blog from Our Summer Intern

Our summer interns are back! Three great undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older people about their advice for living. Here’s the post from Ryan, a rising senior attending York College at the City University of New York, majoring in Gerontological Studies and Services and minoring in Black Studies. He learned an important lesson about making the most of one’s life – travel!

Vacations are great opportunities to escape. They allow for time to de-stress from all of the work and anxieties left back at home.Welcome-Interns-Sign When traveling, though, perhaps more significant than what you leave behind is where you go. Retirement provides a great opportunity for traveling, but there is something to be said about traveling at a young age. When George, 73, was asked about a turning point in his life, he did not have to think twice for an answer:

When I left General Motors, before I went into teaching, I decided I was going to take my retirement. And at the time I was perhaps 35 at the most. So I decided I was going to retire. And I took that time to travel. And I traveled throughout Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. And that changed my life a great deal, because it taught me a lot about cultures and the value of having the experience of other cultures and to compare cultures and to see how other people lived and how they did things. And I’ve been pursuing travel ever since then. And that was one of the key turning points in my life, probably when I was about 35, and determined that I wanted to retire to see what retirement would be like in the future. A weird choice, but I’ve always been a little weird.

When I went into the classroom, I went in telling students, ‘If you don’t travel, you don’t become educated.’ Because to be educated you gotta have a whole panorama of experiences and those aren’t going to come from home. Especially when I got to teach in New Jersey, where kids had not even left the state. Had never even left the state and were in college. And that was kind of sad to me that they had nothing, no point of reference in which to place things, you know? And so that was kind of sad and scary and so I’ve always preached ‘Travel is the second part of education.

As I get closer and closer to graduation, George’s suggestion to travel becomes more and more appealing!

Learning to Live in the Moment: Why Not Do It Now?

John MacGregor, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic career. His lesson is to learn to live more in the moment. He learned this in his sixties, but suggests younger people learn it sooner.

I don’t say people shouldn’t think about the future. But when you really give yourself up to the present, when you’re in the room and you look around you, and there are other people in the room and you’re able to really zero in on those other people, and being able to really sense what they’re feeling and tap in to their own presence, then it’s not aimless at all. You feel very connected, very grounded, and it’s energizing. So you receive energy by making those connections in the present moment.

And it’s not just with people. The same thing is true with a walk in the woods. If you can really open yourself up to hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, and feeling the touches, the wind, and all those things, then you increasingly feel like an integral part of that system, so that you too have feelings, and they begin to connect with what’s going on around you. You may feel small, but it’s not a very frightening smallness. Instead it’s a feeling of being a part of a larger something. There’s a connectedness that is very, very reassuring. So that’s what I mean by being present and being connected to now.

I think you inevitably look at the future, but to the extent that you can still appreciate what is going on today and at the moment, then exactly what that future is going to be continues to be an open question, and that openness I think has great value. You’re allowing in some sense your intuition to play a role, and not being afraid that somehow that intuition is going to compete with and overwhelm your reason. That the two can work together, and support one another, influence one another.

It’s not easy, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in academic institutions or other jobs where the rational part of you is applauded. Living in the present and enjoying life isn’t something that you complete, or accomplish; it’s something that you strive toward, something that you work on, something that you engage with. It’s a process, at least in my experience.

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Luck, Flexibility, and Keeping Your Options Open

Mara’s life wasn’t always easy, but adversity taught her three very important lessons for living.good luck

I can summarize the lessons I have learned in 71 years of life. I’ve had two marriages: the first one unsuccessful and the second spectacularly successful for the past twenty years. I have two daughters and two stepdaughters and have excellent relations with three of the four. I also have six grandchildren. My husband and I agree that the most important things for a happy life are: luck, flexibility, and keeping one’s options open.

First, luck. No matter how conscientious and hardworking one is there is a limit beyond which one has absolutely not control. One’s health, circumstances, and children are subject to all sorts of outside influences. A catastrophic illness, accident, job dislocation, etc. can wreak havoc with one’s best laid plans. As far as children, no matter how carefully one supervises them at home, once they are away from hoe, other forces come into play and one can only hope that they do not come to harm. So it pays to be lucky!

Second, flexibility. To build lasting relationships with loved ones and to adapt to unforeseen problem situations one has to be flexible. You must be able to “roll with the punches” or you will be broken by them.

Third, keeping one’s options open. Often one is faced with forks in the road, choices which must be made. If one is wise, one will try not to leave oneself with no other recourse. It is not true that one can always retrace one’s steps. So one must carefully weigh the possible consequences of one’s actions. When I found myself with two young children in an unfortunate marriage, I was fortunate that I had the educational background to get a job that enabled me to obtain a divorce and support myself and my family. If I had not had this background life would have been far more difficult for us all. And that is why I always stressed to my daughters that they have a good education.