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
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.
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.
One of the joys of hosting this blog is the elder wisdom we receive from our readers. I would like to share this reflection from Bob about the need to acknowledge our limited time horizon, and to life fully in the face of loss.
In Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out,” a young man dies tragically, and for a moment all those around him are affected by the tragedy of his loss. Yet soon, “…they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
I recently lost my brother, and in the gathering at his funeral the members of our family were, for a time, more closely united with one another and with the deeper wisdoms of life than we had been for quite some time. We felt our kinship, and the transitory nature of life. We considered the legacy of the one lost, and wondered what essence of worth and goodness we ourselves would leave behind. We searched for that worth in a history too often filled with days of mundane business and busyness. And for a brief time we connected with each other, and deeper truths about love, and service to others, and humility, and faith.
But soon we returned to our mundane affairs, our busyness, our separations, our self-absorbed pursuits. My wisdom is this: live a good life today; give and receive selfless love; serve others – so that when you come to a time of reflection you can say: “I have made good choices. I have lived, and loved, and been loved, and served others well.” It will make all the difference.
If there is one lesson for a good life that nearly all of the Legacy Project elders agree on, it’s honesty. This may be worded in different ways: being truthful, being a person of trust, or having integrity. But it shines above all others in the advice elders give about core values.
And this isn’t just some hollow platitude. The elders believe that honesty is not a lofty ideal; rather, it’s a daily practice that is highly beneficial for every individual.
Max, age 88, passionately summed up this lesson and how he learned it:
My father died when I was 12, and my mother appointed me head of the household. After my freshman year in college (1942-43), I was drafted into the Army. In World War II, I was a combat medic attached to infantry in the 95th Infantry Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army. In December of 1944, I was wounded by a German machine gunner while I was trying to rescue a fallen comrade. Gas gangrene cost me my left arm for which I have worn a prosthesis ever since. After honorable discharge, rank of PFC, I completed my undergraduate education in biology and then got a Master’s Degree. My career, influenced by the War, was as a high school teacher of biology and English.
As a fatherless boy I soon learned to be skeptical of authority, institutional and religious. However, I realized intensely – and still do – that trust is the most valuable bond that keeps us civil and loving. Cheating and lying, of every kind—in school work, business, friendships, sex, marriage, parenthood, social contracts, just as examples—weaken that bond.
Just think of what a dissolving marriage does to the sense of trust children have in their parents! Just think of what a dreadful toll the failure of trust in our current federal administration is taking on us as a people and on our international relations! Just think of what casual sex has done to the bonds of trust and love! Trust keeps us together in marriage, as families, as social groups, in business negotiations, as a nation. Betray that for personal gain or pleasure and you lose more than your integrity; you weaken the fabric of society.
In our interviews with the Legacy Project elders, we received lots of very useful advice about raising children. One of the most frequently endorsed suggestions they have for young parents is this: Be sure to communicate your values to your children. And your example is often what counts most.
I was deeply moved by this letter we received from Jeanne, age 86. Jeanne responded on behalf of her husband, and her response illustrates the elders’ emphasis on living by core values.
Your request for life lessons was received yesterday by my husband, who at 86 years of age suffers from dreaded Alzheimer’s disease. I, his wife, decided to answer for him. I will tell you what I would tell my grandchildren.
Upon graduation from university, he immediately joined the Navy. As a lover of the sea and a sailor he wanted to fly – fly he did as a carrier based bomber pilot hunting German subs in the Atlantic – thus keeping the shipping lanes to Europe open for much needed equipment.
One untold story follows: a blip on sub was received in the North Atlantic. As the seas were calculated to be too high for a safe bomber launch – no order was given, but a request for volunteers. One volunteered – my husband. He said as the only non-married bomber pilot he’d try to find it. His crew also volunteered, which was not necessary – “if he’s going – so are we.”
This thoughtfulness of others was always a character trait which others admired and even is exhibited through this period of Alzheimer’s. His love for me and his children is still there, at times, observed through his smiles, and “Can I help you with anything.” He has forgotten how to open a new toothbrush package, but still wants to help me with any project I’m involved with daily.
“Without honesty there cannot be a relationship”; this phrase he repeated to our three children, and they comment on how this has governed their lives.
After over 61 years of marriage, many trips, many meals, many memories, he still tries to say a blessing at supper – it’s sometimes short but he tries.
As a salesman career, after U.S. service, he was admired by all his customers and many became close friends – this due to his honest method of sales; as I was told many times by his customers.
His commitment to his country and his patriotism is with us every day – he’s living on a ship, and thinks that on Sundays he should wear his blues. One recent day he dressed in his best and after a pleasant country ride, we arrived back home all happy.
So I tell my grandchildren: Try to imitate grpa’s way of life; by being loyal to your country, serve in need, love and be faithful to family and God, give a helping hand where needed, and be honest at all times to everyone – including yourself.