Life Lessons from the Wisest Among Us

At the heart of life is the taste of strawberries – all those moments when we were in the present moment and fully ourselves. (That’s a little sage wisdom from me and Ingmar Bergman)

I have been busy, busy this week. I am getting ready to get married (yes, that’s right!). We are also preparing for a long-awaited move to Germany, where Mike will be stationed for three years. But more on that in a later post. Today, I wanted to share a book I just read, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. A friend recently gave this book to me and the timing couldn’t be more perfect as I embark on a new life in union with my true love and best friend.

30 Lessons is the result of an ambitious project to collect interviews from 1,000 elderly Americans about what advice they would give younger people as they look back on life from their sunset years. The author, Dr. Karl Pillemer, managed to distill this wealth of experience from the “experts” into 30 important lessons, which seemed to recur over and over in the interviews.

Much of it is advice we have all heard before. However, some points surprised me. Also, hearing a truth I’ve discovered on my own repeated so adamantly by so many experienced folks is somehow affirming. For example:

You know those nightmares where you are shouting a warning but no sound comes out? Well, that’s the intensity with which the experts wanted to tell younger people that spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake. There was no issue about which the experts were more adamant and more forceful. Over and over they prefaced their comments with, “if there’s one thing I want your readers to know its…” From the vantage point of looking back over long experience, wasting around two thousand hours of irretrievable lifetime each year is pure idiocy.

Other points that the “experts” made on finding happiness in work included: choosing a career for intrinsic rather than financial  rewards, seeking autonomy in one’s work, and learning as much as you can from every bad job you have.

The book also has great advice on marriage, parenting, and facing the inevitability of aging. The experts by-and-large thought marriage was more likely to succeed when the couple had shared values and put more into the relationship than they expected to receive in return. They also emphasized the importance of spending time with your kids and healing family rifts before they become intractable.

Here are some other choice quotes on marriage:

I would say get to know the person well and don’t marry very young. I married too young, and in retrospect it would have been better for me and I would have been happier if I had been a little bit older and had a stronger sense of myself. I thought that I could make some changes in the person that I married, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that (Allison Hanley, 72).

Be sure that you’re really good friends. That is the most important thing. All the romance and the bells and the whistles are all very nice, but it doesn’t last. Be sure that you’re very good friends. (Patty Banas, 80)

Well, marriage is not a fifty-fifty situation. It sometimes can be 90 percent to 10 percent. It depends on the situation. You have to keep giving a lot. You have to understand where the other person is coming from – put yourself in his or her shoes. (Sue Bennett, 86)

On parenting:

Enjoy your children while they’re young. Don’t be so eager to get back to work. (Sarah Rothman, 83)

My husband and I have the same attitude about our kids: we put them in situations where they could make decisions, and they didn’t always make the right ones, but they learned from their mistakes and that’s important. If you never make a mistake, you never know there’s a right or a wrong way to do things. (Lenore Fruchter, 78)

On finding happiness:

Happiness does not depend on how much we have but is based on personal success of skills and artistry, a sense of humor, the acquisition of knowledge, the refinement of character, the expression of gratitude, the satisfaction of helping others, the pleasure of friends, the comfort of family, and the joy of love. (Jane Hilliard, 90)

My single best piece of advice is to take responsibility for your own happiness throughout your life. (Gretchen Phelps, 89)

See, it’s all very straight-forward, and yet I have had to learn many of these lessons the hard way myself. Perhaps it’s inevitable: you get a few hard knocks and, if you are smart, you begin to look around, and realize there is tremendous wisdom in the world available for the taking.

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