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Lessons For Living

Finding pearls of wisdom from our elders.

Karl Pillemer is a gerontologist at Cornell University.  He has spent the past five years sitting down and talking with hundreds of older Americans, most of them between the ages of 75 and 100. This was not idle conversation that he engaged in. On the contrary. Dr. Pillemer set out to preserve the wisdom and capture the kernels of advice concerning what these individuals have learned about work, marriage, and parenting.

In his book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice From the Wisest Americans,” Dr. Pillemer shares the lessons these folks learned throughout their lives and, in doing so, illustrates that we have much to learn from people who’ve led long, full lives.

For example, one 80-year-old gentleman shared that “faithfulness [in marriage] is one of the most important things that people should cling to.”  He spoke emotionally of the intense regret, and subsequent depression, he lives with as a result of his lack of faithfulness in his marriage. 

“If I could only do it over,” he laments.

Another interviewee, a woman of 76, spoke about the necessity of savoring each day and developing a positive outlook about life.  “Enjoy each day . . .  there are no guarantees for the future.  Lighten up ... and walk cheerfully on the face of the earth. 

Also on the topic of marriage, an interviewee advised that it’s important to marry someone like yourself.  “I don’t think you have to have identical interests, but you’ve got to have shared values.  That is quite important.”  She spoke tenderly of the 47 years of marriage she shared with her husband, who died recently.  “We both loved movies, we both loved to read ... we had a similar sense of humor. 

These pearls of wisdom got me thinking about what the 80-something people in my life would say, if Dr. Pillemer had gotten a chance to interview them for his book.

To learn more, I first chatted with my father-in-law, Frank Cunningham, 82.  Frank raised eight children (almost single-handedly), is a beloved Grandpa to 17 grandchildren, and still works full-time as a Court Clerk in Boston.

Frank and I touched on several topics during our conversation, including parenting, education, politics, and the importance of adhering to a moral code.  On parenting, he was clear.  “It is not a parent’s job to befriend children.  Parents need their children’s respect to raise them appropriately.”

Regarding education, Frank offered that, while education is one path to success, “the education being pursued must have a purpose, it must be meaningful” and not just random.

“I think it’s important to find a moral code and try to live by it.  The Ten Commandments are a good place to start, and are shared by many religions.” Frank paused here, then added:  “But it’s good to keep an open mind too and to learn from others in your life.”

Frank, who loves to spar on political topics, stressed the importance of being well informed on the issues.  “Be political” he advised, “know what you believe in, know why you believe it, and always challenge those who oppose your views.”

This last piece made me chuckle.  I can attest firsthand to the fact that Frank does not shy away from challenging those who oppose his political views – that frequently includes me!

Later that evening, I called my dad: Tony Gibalerio.  At 83, Tony lives alone in the home I grew up in in East Providence, Rhode Island.  Retired now, he spent his career as an elementary school principal.

“Let’s start with this,” he abruptly stated, “get an education!”

Ready to move on from that topic, my father then became thoughtful.  “Here’s one thing I’ve learned over my life that I wished I’d come to understand sooner and that is that, no matter what happens in life, most things are never as bad as they seem to be.  Most things that seem awful, do in fact, have a resolution.  Problems have a way of working themselves out.”

“It may sound cliché, but never act on anything when you are in the grips of anger,” Tony advised.  “Wait a day or two, when things are calmer.”

As our conversation wound down, I asked my dad if he had any insights to dispense on the topic of relationships.  After all, he had been happily married to my mother for 41 years.  “Remember,” he said, “you can’t reason with your heart.”  He paused here and added:  “And never give up hope!  When I first met your mother I thought she was annoying and uppity.  And she was engaged!  But, we became friends, good friends, and well, you just can’t reason with your heart.”

If you’re fortunate enough to still have parents, consider giving them a call  to capture their life’s lessons.

Rebecca Richards March 07, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Hi Lisa: Such great "pearls of wisdom" for me to think about today as I celebrate my birthday and look forward to the future but also reflect back on the past. As always, I look forward to reading your next column. Rebecca
Joanna Dunn March 08, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Lisa, I really appreciated this article, especially your father's words about how most things that seem awful in fact usually work themselves out. My grandmother used to say that worrying never helps, and this bit of wisdom has helped me when I hear her voice saying it to me in my head. Also, "haste makes waste." I can remember her saying that when I was a little girl and I just liked the way it rhymed. It really is true. Whenever we're getting out the door in a mad rush is when someone ends up forgetting a coat or a lunchbox. Also, my grandmother steadfastly believed in being kind to your spouse, and forgiving people's faults. All good things to practice. I'm thinking of her today because of your article. Joanna

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