The Wisdom of Our Elders

What happens when a python swallows a pig? The snake opens its jaws and begins the long process of moving the tasty obstruction all the way through the tube. For several decades, the boomer generation has been described as “the pig in the python” while the supersized group makes its way through American institutions.

Schools, clubs, and workplaces which were comfortable for previous generations had to expand and adapt to accommodate the new kids. Big crowds always generate their own buzz, and in the case of boomers, the clamor has lasted for more than 50 years.

But there is much to be learned from people who followed a different set of rules in pre-boom America. New York Times columnist David L. Brooks asked older people to look back on their lives and to share some of the important lessons they’ve learned. His project, The Life Reports, solicited short essays a few years ago from people born in the 1920s and 1930s.

He found that most people gave themselves higher grades for their professional accomplishments than for their private lives. But people who started family businesses seemed especially happy. Another factor that led to lifelong satisfaction was the willingness to take risks. Far more seniors regret the risks they did not take than the ones they did.

The happiest people divided their history into chapters or phases, each with its own requirements and successes. This mental habit can turn closed doors into open windows and helps focus energy towards future accomplishments. Unhappy people thought of themselves as corks bobbing up and down on the ocean of life, helpless to control their own fate. A continual emphasis on what has been lost through the decades (a favorite job, security in one’s profession, the empty nest) leaves every chapter unfinished.

For the past fifty years, our society has celebrated the outsider and the rebel. But Brooks reports that the “most miserable” of his correspondents were always rebelling against the world and ended up not achieving much except sour memories. His advice is to work within groups or institutions to try to accomplish meaningful change.

Boomers have been faulted for rejecting many old-fashioned values, for disrupting social conventions, and for ignoring the positive contributions made by previous generations. It’s worth remembering that people we consider “elderly” today, the generation just a decade or two ahead of us, also lived during a time of unpredictable financial cycles and dramatic social changes. It’s nice to have their wisdom to guide us into the future.

What would you like to tell the younger baby boomers, those who were born in the 1960s and came of age in the eighties? Many of them have the time and the inclination to shift their priorities in life. Email your thoughts to: bookreviews  at berlin dot com.  [Sorry to be cryptic — I’m trying to minimize spam. There are no spaces in the previous address, and you have to put in the “at” circle symbol yourself]. And thank you for sharing your wisdom.

“Through the Eyes of Our Elders” is long-term care consultant Diana Waugh’s topic at the Boomers Resource Network Caregiver symposium to be held at Sunset House, 4020 Indian Road in Toledo on Saturday, March 8th, 2014. Registration and complimentary continental breakfast begin at 9:30 a.m. Presentations on various topics related to caregiving and advance planning will run from 10 am to noon in the Community Room. There is no charge to attend the symposium. For more information, please contact Janet Sulewski at 419-806-9826.

-Copyright Cynthia Poe 2014