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.

 

John’s List of Life’s Lessons Learned – Pursue Questions, Not Answers

We welcome contributions of life lessons to the Legacy Project site. This wonderful list of lessons learned was list.2sent to us by John, age 77.

 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.

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!

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

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

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

Older people are a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

So while we are visiting older relatives, why don’t we all  take an hour (okay, it can be before or after the trip to the beach) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on vacation (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.(and you can watch elders sharing their lessons on our YouTube channel).

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

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

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.

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.

Ask Your Elders: Pearls of Wisdom from a Reader

We love it at the Legacy Project when our readers offer their wisdom. One such person (who wishes to remain pearlsanonymous) read an article I wrote in Aeon Magazine about why we need to see older people as sources of life wisdom. I think you will enjoy the insightful response – and the beautiful poem.

 I wish more young people (including myself when I was young) paid more attention to old people as sources of all kinds of things. My grandmother was a pioneer emigree to an cattle ranch, from  an English drawing room in the early 1900s. Instead of embroidery and piano recitals she coped with 13 children, winters, a log cabin and wolves around at night. But she died before I was old enough to talk to her much  or appreciate what she might have told me about her thoughts and ideas about life in those years. Perhaps you could lead (or are leading) a movement to revalue the old, who are not all wise and wonderful but at least have experiences to share that offer some insights into life as is. I have to say magazines etc. for old people don’t play their part in showing the depth of what old people can offer, since so much of their material has to do with health, finances or travel. I once tried to get my retired teachers’ magazine to have ideas about life as  a theme for one issue, but they didn’t bite and so we still get issues on hobbies and pets and cooking etc.  etc. Pity!

And I just had to send you this poem – one of 60 in a book I self published for my kids when I was sixty, 15 years ago.

Sociologists study the old, write theses

On how people fit into society

Or don’t.

Their machines survey,

 Make graphs, collate pages

On finances, food habits, maladies,

But they don’t tell the true tale

On their tables and charts, how things strike the mind, the brain.

Sixty years hand in hand with experience

Don’t  show on an axis.

As I walk by the sea, watch a child,

Study the stars,

Feel wonder and terror,

Only I know my real statistics.

For MLK Day: Life Lessons from a Tuskeegee Airman

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’d like to share the story of one of the true heroes we encountered in the Legacy Project. TUSKEGEE-AIRMENWe heard many stories of overcoming adversity and discrimination, but no interviewee was more inspiring to me than Hiram Mann (pictured here in World War II). Hiram had to fight to find the work he loved, overcoming prejudice along the way. The struggle and the rewards of his 90 years were encapsulated in his first words in our interview: “I was one of the original legendary Tuskeegee Airmen.”

In the early 1940s the military was almost completely segregated and the Air Force did not even allow Blacks to enlist. But what if, as a young Black man, this was your chosen career, indeed your dream?

Hiram’s experiences as part of this unique group allowed him to achieve his childhood dream, and so shaped his lessons for work and career.

Back when I wanted to get into the military, before America got into the fighting in WWII, I wanted to fly an airplane. I had never been in an airplane in my life, though we’d seen them fly over. Well, I was a Depression-era child and pennies were very, very, tight to come by, but I would save my pennies in my box of wood and go to the hobby shop and try to make model airplanes and things when I wanted to fly.

Sometime in early 1941, I wanted to know about getting flying instructions to fight for my country. The letter of rejection that I received said point-blank, no easy words to smooth it over, that there were no facilities to train Negroes to fly in any branch of the American military service. That ticked me off. I balled the letter up and threw it away. There were Negroes that wanted to fly. But, all over the United States there were others in similar situations. I went back to my job being a bellhop in Cleveland, Ohio.

I applied again and I was very lucky. I passed and I continued to pass all of the examinations that I was given and I was in the 27th class that graduated.

Hiram thus refused to give up despite setbacks and his own self-doubt that emerged from being raised in a segregated society. Hiram needed a mix of courage, drive, patience, and forbearance to succeed in the 1940s military, where Blacks were unusual and Black officers an exotic curiosity. Nevertheless, he achieved his dream of fighting for his country, putting his life at risk in the war in Europe:

I was in combat. I’m a combat survivor. One of the questions a youth asked me was, “Were you afraid?” And I said, “Yes, I was afraid! When you let somebody get behind you who’s shooting at you and they’re trying to kill you and you know they are trying to kill you, you’d be afraid too if you had any sense.” So I will not lie. I told him, “Yes I was afraid.” I could see the bullets coming.

Where others might have given up, Hiram refused to become discouraged by the racial environment in the Air Force. Instead, he used the military experience, despite its difficulties, to create a career path that would have been almost unimaginable to him as a child. Hiram might be looking back on a lifetime as a hotel bellhop rather than as one of the pioneers of desegregation in the military, sought after in his ninth decade as a speaker, and a living symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity.

In the Legacy Project, Hiram shared some of his lessons for living – all good advice for young people today:

On tolerance:

I accept my fellow man as an individual. I try not to prejudge. I try to enter, whatever the situation may be, to get going to it with an open mind. I don’t look down at my skin or anyone else’s and say, “Oh, I’m colored.” That’s the way I approach most areas that I get into. I don’t let being colored keep me from doing something. Tolerate the other person.Tolerance – that goes a long way

On perserverence:

My mother had her basic teachings, she would not let me look down. She would tell me: “Hold your head up. No matter what, hold your head up.” And, my mother could not stand when I would say that I don’t have the background to do so and so and so. “What do you mean you don’t have the background?” She couldn’t stand that word background

On creating a legacy:

My legacy—I don’t know just what it’s going to be. I haven’t written it yet. But I do hope that I’ve contributed something to mankind, individually as well as connectively. I know that the Black pilots were instrumental in doing away with segregation in the United States. We broke the ice. We were a cause for eliminating segregation because of our combat record. We, the 332nd fighter group which later was re-designated as the Tuskegee Airmen, became the most requested unit to fly escort duty for the bombers because of the protection we gave them. There’s a part for that. Nothing I did individually, but my contribution to that will be part of my legacy. I’m very proud of the life I’ve lived. I’m proud of having been a black pilot and my contribution to society.

To learn more, here’s a video of Hiram sharing his life lessons to young people.

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.

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