Elder Wisdom from Tennessee! Great Advice for Living

One of the joys of working on the Legacy Project is learning about similar ideas from around the country. This week, I received an email from Tina Jones, who runs the Spring Street Outreach Program at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, Tennessee  (pictured at right). Assisted by volunteers, Tina brings a group of around 40 low-income elders to the church each month for a hot meal and activities. All of these elders are African-Americans who lived through segregation, integration of the schools and many other significant events in our country’s history.

Tina had the great idea to have the participants offer their “Words of Wisdom” for young people. They created a lovely compilation of lessons from these wise ones, which you can read here. And the project was intergenerational: A group of students at Battle Ground Academy (a middle school in Franklin) helped summarize and present the elders’ advice. 

Here’s a sampling of the advice from several participants:

From Sheila:

People who hide nothing have nothing to hide!

To hate or be angry with someone is like you drinking poison and

wishing that the other person dies.

If you settle for what you got, then you deserve what you have!

Unsolicited advice is nothing more than criticism.

From Thelma:

Get the best education you can; everyone needs to be able to read and write well.

Leave all the bad habits alone (drugs, alcohol, crime, etc.). because they will hurt you later.

Get a job and go to work. It may not be the job you really want; but, if you work hard and people see you are a good worker, you will move ahead and things will get better.

Go to vote in every election. Get into politics to make a better world.

If there is a “black sheep” in the family, remember that his wool is just as important as the others.

From Henry:

Love one another

Learn how to pray

Stay and finish school

Follow your dreams

In the Legacy Project and the book 30 Lessons for Living, we strongly urge everyone to ask the elders in their lives for their lessons for living – before they are gone. Hats off to Tina and the St. John’s Episcopal Church outreach program for this terrific project idea. Why not try sponsoring something like it through your faith community?

Advice to Graduates – From a Pretty Cool 91-Year Old

Here in my college town, the campus is bustling with end-of-semester activities and preparations for graduation. Who better to give advice to graduates than the oldest and wisest Americans?

Verna, 91, wrote this “list for living” for young people starting out in life. It’s a good one to pass on to the graduates this month!

1. So many things in the world have changed since the time of my grandparents and parents and the earlier times of my own life, and I know that there will be lots of changes in your lifetime too.

2. I hope you will always take education seriously (I was a teacher) and become well-educated to be ready for whatever kind of work or service you will be doing.

3. I hope that you will respect your body- take good care of it and try to have good health.

4. I hope that the governments of the world will do a better job of getting along with each other so that you can experience peace among nations.

5. I hope you will be a positive thinker, not negative or cynical.

6. Look for the good in people and things, and fill your life with love, kindness, and thoughtfulness for others.

7. I would hope that you will know the peace and joy and courage that come from following a life of love and service- the peace that passes all understanding.

8. Your real success in life lies is the kind of person you become, not with how famous or wealthy you are, so my most sincere wish is for you to live the wholesome life that will lead you to make good choices along the way, to Reach That Star that you are striving to reach.

YOU CAN DO IT!

Worry Wastes Your Life

What do older people regret when they look back over their lives? I asked hundreds of the oldest Americans that question. I had expected big-ticket items: an affair, a shady business deal, addictions — that kind of thing. I was therefore unprepared for the answer they often gave:

I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.

Over and over, as the 1,200 elders in our Legacy Project reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I would have spent less time worrying” and “I regret that I worried so much about everything.” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people felt that if given a single “do-over” in life, they would like to have all the time back they spent fretting anxiously about the future.

Their advice on this issue is devastatingly simple and direct: Worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime. They suggested training yourself to reduce or eliminate worrying as the single most positive step you can make toward greater happiness. The elders conveyed, in urgent terms, that worry is an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment. And it’s not just what they said — it’s how they said it.

John Alonzo, 83, is a man of few words, but I quickly learned that what he had to say went straight to the point. A construction worker, he had battled a lifetime of financial insecurity. But he didn’t think twice in giving this advice:

Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So stop it.

That was it. His one life lesson was simply to stop worrying.

James Huang, 87, put it this way:

Why? I ask myself. What possible difference did it make that I kept my mind on every little thing that might go wrong? When I realized that it made no difference at all, I experienced a freedom that’s hard to describe. My life lesson is this: Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.

This surprised me. Indeed, I thought that older people would endorse a certain level of worry. It seemed reasonable that people who had experienced the Great Depression would want to encourage financial worries; who fought or lost relatives in World War II would suggest we worry about international issues; and who currently deal with increasing health problems would want us to worry about our health.

The reverse is the case, however. The elders see worry as a crippling feature of our daily existence and suggest that we do everything in our power to change it. Why is excessive worry such a big regret? Because, according to the elders, worry wastes your very limited and precious lifetime. By poisoning the present moment, they told me, you lose days, months, or years that you can never recover.

Betty, 76, expressed this point with a succinct example:

I was working, and we learned that there were going to be layoffs in my company in three months. I did nothing with that time besides worry. I poisoned my life by worrying obsessively, even though I had no control over what would happen. Well — I wish I had those three months back.

 Life is simply too short, the oldest Americans tell us, to spend it torturing yourself over outcomes that may never come to pass.

How should we use this lesson, so that we don’t wind up at the end of our lives longing to get back the time we wasted worrying? The elders fortunately provide us with some concrete ways of thinking differently about worry and moving beyond it as we go through our daily lives.

Tip 1: Focus on the short term rather than the long term.

Eleanor is a delightful, positive 102-year-old who has had much to worry about in her long life. Her advice is to avoid the long view when you are consumed with worry and to focus instead on the day at hand. She told me:

Well, I think that if you worry, and you worry a lot, you have to stop and think to yourself, “This too will pass.” You just can’t go on worrying all the time because it destroys you and life, really. But there’s all the times when you think of worrying and you can’t help it — then just make yourself stop and think: it doesn’t do you any good. You have to put it out of your mind as much as you can at the time. You just have to take one day at a time. It’s a good idea to plan ahead if possible, but you can’t always do that because things don’t always happen the way you were hoping they would happen. So the most important thing is one day at a time.

Tip 2: Instead of worrying, prepare.

The elders see a distinct difference between worry and conscious, rational planning, which greatly reduces worry. It’s the free-floating worry, after one has done everything one can about a problem, which seems so wasteful to them.

Joshua Bateman, 74, summed up the consensus view:

If you’re going to be afraid of something, you really ought to know what it is. At least understand why. Identify it. ‘I’m afraid of X.’ And sometimes you might have good reason. That’s a legitimate concern. And you can plan for it instead of worrying about it.

Tip 3: Acceptance is an antidote to worry

The elders have been through the entire process many times: worrying about an event, having the event occur and experiencing the aftermath. Based on this experience, they recommend an attitude of acceptance as a solution to the problem of worry. However, we tend to see acceptance as purely passive, not something we can actively foster. In addition to focusing on the day at hand and being prepared as cures for worry, many of the elders also recommend actively working toward acceptance. Indeed this was most often the message of the oldest experts.

Sister Clare, a 99-year-old nun, shared a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:

There was a priest that said mass for us, and at a certain time of his life, something happened, and it broke his heart. And he was very angry — he just couldn’t be resigned, he couldn’t get his mind off it. Just couldn’t see why it had happened.So he went to an elderly priest and said, “What shall I do? I can’t get rid of it.” And the priest said, “Every time it comes to your mind, say this.” And the priest said very slowly, “Just let it be, let it be.” And this priest told us, “I tried that and at first it didn’t make any difference, but I kept on. After a while, when I pushed it aside, let it be, it went away. Maybe not entirely, but it was the answer.”

 Sister Clare, one of the most serene people I have ever met, has used this technique for well over three-quarters of a century.

So many things come to your mind. Now, for instance, somebody might hurt your feelings. You’re going to get back at him or her — well, just let it be. Push it away. So I started doing that. I found it the most wonderful thing because everybody has uncharitable thoughts, you can’t help it. Some people get on your nerves and that will be there until you die. But when they start and I find myself thinking, “Well, now, she shouldn’t do that. I should tell her that . . .” Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think, “If I did that, then what?” And let it be. Oh, so many times I felt grateful that I did nothing. That lesson has helped me an awful lot.

Worry is endemic to the experience of most modern-day human beings, so much so that following this piece of elder wisdom may seem impossible to some of you. But what the elders tell us is consistent with research findings. The key characteristic of worry, according to scientists who study it, is that it takes place in the absence of actual stressors; that is, we worry when there is actually nothing concrete to worry about. This kind of worry — ruminating about possible bad things that may happen to us or our loved ones — is entirely different from concrete problem solving. When we worry, we are dwelling on possible threats to ourselves rather than simply using our cognitive resources to figure a way out of a difficult situation.

A critically important strategy for regret reduction, according to our elders, is increasing the time spent on concrete problem solving and drastically eliminating time spent worrying. One activity enhances life, whereas down the road the other is deeply regretted as a waste of our all-too-short time on Earth.

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

John, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished 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.

The Old Cliches about Living the Good Life Apply: Miguel's List

Miguel, 76, 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.  

 

Genevieve's Lesson: Learn from Your Elders – While They Are Still Here

Genevieve, 77, advises young people to learn history (and ways of living better) from their older relatives. She prepared this letter for children everywhere:

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.

For some ideas about how to start the conversation, try these “six questions to ask your elders.”

Lessons Learned: John's List for Living

 We welcome contributions of life lessons to the Legacy Project site. This wonderful list of lessons learned was sent to us by John, age 76.

There are no definitive answers to any of life’s questions, but quality joy-in-life can be had in the pursuit of those answers.

Loyalty to one’s own personal beliefs and respect for others’ is the path to a serene life.

Family, country (maybe God if you are religious) need to be honored if one is to survive in an intolerant, unjust world.

Little things do matter and must be tended to so they don’t pile up to become complex things and more difficult to cope with.

Health and marriage must be treated in the same way…daily maintenance with occasional spoons full of sugar to make bad times go down.

You should listen more than speak, which is hard for us to do, so that takes practice.

You should find work that you will be content with because 40 years is a long time doing the same thing.

Heed the advice of your elders. They may not have all the answers, but they have had much more experience than you.

Experience can be a cruel teacher; learn from it.

Being cautiously pessimistic about life will make the sporadic good things that actually do happen seem even better.

You should not fret very long; all things pass. One way or another they will no longer be experienced.

Whether or not you believe in heaven and hell (religion) should not prevent you from being a nice person.

Injustice exists. Get used to it.

Putting Money in Perspective

Many of the elders grew up in the Great Depression, and they knew what it was like to live on almost nothing. But there was something else they learned: you could be very happy with almost nothing if you had a loving family, a supportive neighborhood, and you weren’t competing with a lot of other people who had more than you did.

Maybe this is why so many of the life lessons of the elders had to do with not over-valuing material things. They don’t want us all to be starving artists, but they want you not to be ruled by possessions or an overwhelming urge to make money.

Ed, 76, a retired engineer, told me:

You don’t want your things to own you. The best example that I can give you is my mother and father. Their house was their idol. All the stuff in it was pristine and laid out and my mother saved every book she ever read, every lesson plan, everything she’d ever done, and the house was chock full of all kinds of stuff. Some really good stuff, but, after my father died we took a few things and all the rest went into the dumpster. All that worry, all that thought. And it’s hard to shake. You look at all the stuff and think ‘all this crap owns me, I’m a prisoner of it.’ There’s a lesson in this that I hoped I’ve learned while I’m still alive. I’m not owned by expensive things because they’re expensive.

Micah, 77, stressed not choosing work just for the paycheck:

That was always the way people that 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, and everything revolved around ‘what are you earning? what are you making?’ and stuff like that. So  the more money you made the more successful you were. And that became of more importance 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, 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. When I was a kid, down the street we had a shoemaker. He was a father with his kids and they all did the shoes, leather soles and stuff, and they were a pretty cool family. They loved working there. They were making shoes and fixing shoes. So there’s ways to be happy without having to be this big shot corporate guy.

Lighten Up! A Nice Lesson for the Holidays

Isn’t it ironic to see all the media stories at this time of year about “holiday stress?” How did what should be a relaxing and restorative time become yet another stressful event? As I think about the life lessons of the Legacy Project elders, one message seems to me helpful in staying relaxed over the holidays: Lighten up.

The elders often pointed out that a key to savoring each of life’s wonderful moments is developing and maintaining a sense of humor. Here are two takes on that theme from Alison and Margaret.

Alison, 79, has traveled the world after her retirement for a career as a teacher. She gave this advice:

You should see the fun in the world instead of dwelling on the unhappy things. Take each day and live it, love it, it might be your very last day here. Don’t be aggravated, don’t aggravate anybody else, and just keep a smile on your face. You’ll be happier and everyone around you will be, too. Try to remain upbeat, no matter what, and never lose your sense of humor, even if your jokes are awful. Keep cracking your jokes to whoever you see. Find something fun and pleasant and happy to say to them. You’ll lead a much better life that way. Look at the glass as half full – be positive – look at a problem as to how it can be made to work out, not that it cannot.

Margaret, 71, whose responses sparkled with good humor, wrote:

It’s like I’ve taken the attitude of what difference does it make? So I eat my chocolate, I have my martini at night, I don’t take as good care of myself since I’ve gotten older. But I feel pretty darn good to be as old as I am!

Many elders have learned to take a lighter attitude toward life – perhaps this is a good New Year’s resolution for all of  us!

Good Thought for the Season: Being Happy In Spite of Hard Times

As we prepare for the holidays, many families are worried about their financial situations. Perhaps we can take some reassurance from the elders in the Legacy Project who experienced real hardship in the Great Depression.

Among adults, the Great Depression caused the disruption of professional and personal life and led to immense stress and uncertainty. For the Legacy Project elders – who were children or teenagers at the time – a somewhat different picture emerges. With few better off to whom they could compare themselves, and without high expectations of material excess, they simply learned to have a good time with what they had. This can be a powerful first lesson for how to be happy in spite of difficult financial times.

For example, two elders told us:

I grew up during the Depression, but I didn’t know I was poor because we had our own garden, our own car, our own chickens- everything that we had, we produced. I learned also to try to be happy – you went dancing, you went to baseball games, and most of it didn’t cost much. (Evelyn, 91)

I would say that our generation came from a more impoverished society, so our expectations weren’t that great like you guys are. You people grew up with computers and everything else, but we didn’t. So we didn’t expect it. We have it now, but if I lost it tomorrow morning it wouldn’t bother me, I’ve lived most of my life without it. (Phillip, 87)

I also think of Jennifer, 85 years old, with such good health that she traveled last year to Germany, Canada, and Alaska. She is an active volunteer and participates in continuing education programs. When approached by us, she quipped: “’Advice about life’ for younger generations in your letter surely opens the gates for us oldies!”

Her life’s lessons clearly represent the “happy in spite of” mentality:

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. We likely became more conscious of this as our family grew, and greatly appreciate seeing this attribute in our grandchildren and their young children.

It may sound like old-fashioned advice, but a focus on “gratitude and giving thanks” may help all of us this holiday! And if you have wisdom to share about the holidays, please post it here!