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
Documented in the film “Red Tails,” the Tuskeegee Airmen became the first African-American aviators in the U. S. military and despite unremitting discrimination, they flew missions with great heroism, shot down German planes, and garnered a slew of medals. The also struck a massive blow to the forces of segregation and racial prejudice in the Armed Forces. Continue reading
Once again this year, I’m proposing 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?
Add your own! And ask your elders!
It’s been a while since we posted one of the elders “Lists for Living.” We love these organized lists, in which some of the Legacy Project elders were able to sum up a lifetime of wisdom in a few key points. Liza, 68, has some thought-provoking ideas for living the good life:
1. You will NOT experience regret over a decision to remain single and childless. Creating your own life can be as exciting as the predictable stresses (and even the joys) of the procreation and education of progeny.
2. Friendships should fit your emotional and intellectual needs. You should have many different kinds of friends – never depend upon just one or two. Understand that you, and thus your friends, should be expected to change over time. Llife is far richer if you vary the nature of your relationships – it is stifling to hitch yourself to/depend upon/share experiences with only one other person.
3. Always take advantage of an opportunity to have new experiences – travel, activities or in the realm of ideas. You learn as much from unpleasant experiences as you do from pleasureable ones.
4. Strive throughout your life to achieve a clear sense of who you are, what you want, what you want to be recalling as you die, and how you wish to be remembered.
5. Devote as much time as possible toward understanding the evolution and history of the universe and of humankind This long-range perspective makes you grateful and more generous.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.