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.

Be Curious about Spirituality

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.

A Reader Writes: Bob’s Lesson on the Transitory Nature of Life

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.

Bob wrote:

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.

Honesty and Trust: A WW II Veteran’s Lesson for Living

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.

Know and Share Your Values – Jeanne’s Lesson

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.


Going, Going, But Not Yet Gone: The Greatest Generation

I recently had a stunning realization: We’re about to lose one of the most precious resources in America. I’m not talking about oil, gas or rare metals. What we’re about to lose Is the living presence of the elders who make up the Greatest Generation.

This amazing group survived World War II and the Great Depression, but unfortunately even they can’t hold back the passage of time. And our world will change when they are no longer with us.

This inescapable reality hit me when I saw this chart.

A little over a decade ago, there were around six million living WW II veterans; by the end of this decade (with a few hardy exceptions) they will all be gone. Sooner than we think, this unique, inspiring generation will be no more.

Having spent the past six years gathering the practical advice for living of older people(who in my book 30 Lessons for Living I call “the wisest Americans”), I know that we’re not just losing individuals; we’re losing a way of living and of seeing the world.

When the Greatest Generation is gone, what will we miss? Here are just a few examples:

Their Unique Historical Experiences

Why is this generation so special? Part of it is what they’ve been through that most of my peers (the Boomers) haven’t. To a much greater degree than most Americans alive today, they had experiences that pushed them to their ultimate limits: a world at war, an economic downturn that makes ours look mild by comparison, immigration, upheaval, poverty, and deprivation. They also remember a time when communities were stable and closer, when air and water were cleaner, and when people didn’t lock their doors.

It’s these experiences that make their advice on how to overcome adversity so meaningful. Monty in this video from our Legacy Project is a great example.

Their Work Ethic

America’s elders grew up working. And working hard. And if there weren’t any good jobs available, they took whatever was available and worked hard at it.

Manny, 78, talks about how he got through school:

My first job? Delivery boy. Seventeen bucks a week, that was big money back then. Then I became a tool and die maker’s apprentice in a machine shop on Saturdays. Then I had a friend, her father was a shop steward in a commercial bakery, so I got a big increase. I joined the bakery as a truck driver. That was a dollar fifty an hour. I did that on the weekends, on Saturdays and summers. I had to. I had no money. I used to walk home because I couldn’t afford the subway.

Lifetimes of hard work have given the oldest Americans a unique sense of what makes employment happy or miserable. They are experts on how to be persistent when it seems like rewarding work can’t be found, and they know how to take a bad job and make the most of it.

They Know You Can Live Well With Less

Growing up in the Great Depression taught our elders the intense enjoyment that lies in small pleasures. Our needs and desires have become bloated to an extent that it takes an enormous amount to please contemporary Americans. But many of the oldest Americans grew up learning the lesson: Savor the small stuff.

Listen to Larry, age 89.

Let me tell you, in the 1930s we had the Depression. If you think you got a Depression today, it’s nothing like it was then. People didn’t even have enough to eat back then. A lot of the dads in the neighborhood weren’t working. And we shared simple things because people didn’t have money. We’d maybe get a nickel once in a while. We were half a block from a wonderful park, they had lots of activities there for kids, and wading pools, and we had a huge skating pond down there. And they’d have band concerts down there in the summer the whole neighborhood would go down there.There were popcorn wagons parked all around there. We kids would have a nickel and we’d sit there for several minutes trying to decide “What I should I have?” And these poor guys, they’re trying to wait on you, they’re patient waiting for you to decide: Do you want popcorn or do you want ice cream? You want a Holloway sucker or what do you want? And once in a while at the movies, they would have Saturday matinees for kids, for ten cents. And after the movie if we had another nickel we’d stop at a place that had ice cream and popcorn and we’d get that. And boy, we really had a Saturday afternoon.

 “And boy, we really had a Saturday afternoon.” After listening to Larry, I had difficulty getting that phrase out of my mind. I have watched kids come back from the mall or a movie at the mega-plex, revved up on candy at $10 a box. And I don’t think I ever heard one of them sigh contentedly: “Boy, we really had a Saturday afternoon.”

We should all become aware of just how precious a resource are the remaining members of the Greatest Generation – how rapidly they being depleted. The world will go on – our elders would be the first to assure us of that – but forgive me if I think it will be a less interesting without this remarkable cohort.

Any thoughts on how we can celebrate the Greatest Generation in their few remaining years?

The Emphasis Should Be on Life!

Among the Legacy Project elders, I found the advice from people in their 90s and beyond to be particularly stirring. The sheer quantity of historical and personal events they have been through makes their comments particularly meaningful. Wilfred, 93, reflected on his long life experience and offers these lessons for living.

Be true to yourself! Times have changed, academic degrees are necessary today in business and even in the armed services; they are the markers used to score you. Nevertheless continue to pursue interests that appeal to you, because that is where the joy fights the pain. If you like what you are doing, happiness and success should come in time.

As I grew up, I abided by a code of ethics that came from my inner self. I always attempted to do the right thing both for my customers in business and with my friends as I went through life. This may sound corny and preachy but it worked for me. I rarely regretted an action and maintained peace of mind.

The most important thing is to keep busy, whether it is business for profit or volunteering services to help others. May I point out that I never thought I was doing a “Good Deed” or a favor, since they were also providing me with companionship and an opportunity to use my alleged mind.

There is a line in “Zorba the Greek” that says, “Life is what you do while you are waiting to die.” The emphasis should be on Life!

Sometimes a Few Words Can Change You: “Elder Mantras”

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six years interviewing the oldest Americans about their lessons for living — advice they would like to pass on to future generations. As described in the book 30 Lessons for Living” the elders have outstanding advice on the “big picture” issues: love and marriage, child-rearing, choosing a career, health and of course, aging well.

One of the biggest surprises for me, however, has been the influence that a few profound thoughts or phrases have had on me. When confronted with a work problem, a stressful event, or just the usual tension that can build up during the day, I find that the voice of one or another of the elders will come to me and help me re-think the situation. I’ve come to call these my “elder mantras.”

Here are a few of these “mantras” that I find particularly helpful, all from wise people in their 80s and beyond. They reflect some of the core elements of elder wisdom.

Swimming in the sea of life

Paul, 85, had a successful and high-powered career as an architect. After both a hectic career and personal life, he has found old age to be a time of both clarity and serenity. When asked: “What have you learned during your life that you would like to pass on to a younger person,” he said: “I’ve learned how to swim. ”

That was a surprise, and when questioned, Paul went on:

I’ve learned how to swim. In life. I’m not a particularly good swimmer in water, but I’m a reasonable swimmer in the flow of living.

 This image of learning to swim in the river of life, of going with the flow of living, is a powerful and serene image when called up during a busy day.

Let it be

This mantra comes from Sister Clare Moran, whom I interviewed shortly before her 100th birthday. (I can’t give all the details here, but believe me when I say: If you want to hear about an interesting life, sit down for a while with a 100-year old nun!)

Reflecting on her nearly 80 years in the religious life, Sister Clare pointed to doing away with worry as her lesson for younger people. Early in her career as a nun, she learned a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:

There was a priest that said mass for us, a youngish priest, very fragile and frail. Beautiful, beautiful man. He said that at a certain time of his life, something happened; he didn’t tell us what it was. I heard that he had been working on a mission and they asked him to come back to the States and it broke his heart. It must have been a very hard thing to do. And he was very angry, he just couldn’t be resigned, just couldn’t. He got back into work here, but he couldn’t get his mind off it. Just couldn’t see why it had happened.

So he went to an elderly priest and he talked to him about it. He 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 young man was saying it just the way the priest said it and he said, “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.”

 Sr. 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.

A feather from an angel’s wing

Flora, 80, is a poet who writes about her love of the landscapes of the Southwest. Her approach to living is to embrace the pleasures each day can hold, and she reinforces that attitude with a daily habit. One phrase stands out as a mantra.

If I were to give any particular word of advice I would say: Go about the business of the day, hum-drum as it might be, but walk on your tip-toes waiting for the “ah-ha!” experiences. That happens when you’re going around the corner doing the normal everyday things. So be prepared for those ah-ha experiences that may happen any time. That way, you’re always open to and watching for something different — watching for a feather from an angel’s wing.

It’s sorry you didn’t do…

One last mantra I carry with me is from Eleanor, who says about regrets: “Mostly it’s sorry you didn’t do than sorry you did!”

You can meet her (on video) as well as other elders sharing their wisdom.

A Teacher’s Advice to Young People

Arlene, 83, was raised in the segrated South, became a teacher, and helped many children throughout her life. Life wasn’t always easy for her, but she feels fulfilled and satisfied by what she accomplished. She worries, however, about young people today and shares her advice for them.

My most important life lessons? Well, my marriage life, I was married about thirty years, it was a good marriage. And I was a schoolteacher; I enjoyed that for thirty years. And my parents were good, we weren’t rich, but I had good parents and that’s more important than having a lot of money. We would sit down to the table and eat. And  we went to church; church has become important to me in my older years.

I was born in the South, and I had to sit in the back of the bus, but over the years I’ve become proud of my heritage. I think we’re special.

When I lost my husband, my children became the most important thing in my life. My kids were important, two went to college. One’s a teacher and one’s a chemist.

I’m not rich or anything, I’ve got a fair income, but the main thing is I thank God that I am living, and I do have aches and pains, but they come with growing old.

A big choice for me was becoming a schoolteacher instead of a lawyer or something. I found that it’s not making as much money, but it’s been more enjoyable. Sometimes in teaching you not only teach, but you’re a friend to those kids. It’s not just teaching, it’s listening to the kids. And most of my time, being a Black teacher, I spent quite a bit of time with the white students and I found out they didn’t care about color. If you were their teacher and on their side, that’s all that matters. And my decision to go to church rather than going to nightclubs was good. I never got into drugs; I found that was a good way of doing it. I’d rather be in church than going to the bar every week and doing this and that.

Being honest is the main thing. When it’s all said and done, you have to do things the right way. There’s no outdoors or backdoors to lying. Somewhere along the line, you have to be honest with yourself. And by being honest with yourself, doors are open. I’m not “religious-religious,” but I do believe that if I do the right thing and so forth, things will open up for me.

About advice for young people: I found out two things by being a teacher: one problem is drugs, and the second problem is they are having babies. They’re out there, they never go to school, they start out on the corner selling drugs, and they don’t know anything about education and so forth. And we’re paying more money to house them in prison than we are if we could get them in and teach them the right and wrong. I cry about it sometimes to see our young people out selling drugs and they think that’s important. But their parents never taught them the right way of doing things.

Now, about getting old. As you grow older, take it day by day. I know we cry about this and that but we know we’ve got to grow old, so we should try and do the best we can. I retired about five or six years earlier than I should of, but I couldn’t help it because health problems set in and I had to. I would say if you can, try to prepare for retirement. But take a day at a time and things will work out.

Don’t Worry about What Everyone Else Thinks

Winona, 72, tells younger people that they need to be true to themselves, rather than trying to please everyone else.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that when I was younger I paid much too much attention to what everybody else thought. I didn’t always do what I thought was best. Instead, I often did what everybody else thought I should be doing. And every time I stood my ground and did what I thought I ought to be doing, I did better and things went better. I cared too much about what other people thought about my profession and about me as a person. I think that’s the biggest lesson and it spills over into so many different things.

And that led me to another another life lesson: that following the rules doesn’t always get you where you want to go. There are ways of staying within the boundaries of legality without following every single rule that your mother laid down for you. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken and I think I paid a little too much attention to the rules. They got me quite far, but I think I would have gotten much farther had I not paid attention to the rules, not caring whether people like what you are doing.