If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.
— Songwriter Eubie Blake (1883-1983)
There’s an old saying to the effect that the years know something that the days may not have realized. Indeed, there are a lot of hoary sayings that impart a certain guidance or enlightenment, often passed along by elders who may have heard (and perhaps initially shrugged off) that advice when they were young. For example:
Learn how to breathe and move on. There is plenty of pain to go around, but if you get stuck in it, you don’t move on. (page 209)
Advice for a stable marriage: ‘Never go to bed without saying “I love you.” I don’t care if you have to grind your teeth and say “I love you.” But you do it. (page 48)
Surprising words from a Catholic priest to troubled brethren: Stop looking at yourself. Because when you do, you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, and you know exactly what you look like. Go over to the window and look outside and see. (page 75)
These are a few of the insights included in “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans”. It is the fruit of an ambitious effort by The Legacy Project, led by Karl Pillemer, Hazel E. Reed Professor in Cornell’s Department of Human Development and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College and founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. Dr. Pillemer is the author of five books and principal or contributing author of many scholarly papers on such topics as nursing home practices, parent-child relations in later life and social isolation intervention. He is considered one of the world’s leading gerontologists.
“30 Lessons for Living” is both very broad in its content and very personal. Over a period of five years Dr. Pillemer and his colleagues interviewed about 1,500 people – he refers to them as the “experts” – about their experiences, decisions and advice they would give pertaining to marriage, career, child-rearing, growing old, regrets and happiness. It was in many ways a personal quest. “Despite decades studying the problems of older people,” the 56-year old Pillemer states in chapter 1, “I had a nagging suspicion that there was more they could tell me about how to live the good life.”
The result is a book of life lessons “different from any kind of advice book you’ve read before.” Advice from the experts on marriage: “Be friends, try to get past the initial heaving and panting and make sure there’s a real friendship under that.” On career: “…the most important thing is to be involved in a profession that you absolutely love.” Parenting: “Accept that you may have favorites among your children, but do not ever let them know.” And about aging itself: “Embrace it. Don’t fight it. Growing older is both an attitude and a process. And if your attitude is that you’re still good, you still enjoy life, there’s still purpose in your life, you’ll do well.” Gerontologist Pillemer admits to some surprises from his experts, including “later life as embodying a serenity, a ‘lightness of being’, a sense of calm and easiness in later life” and “the experts’ view of aging as a quest” and even an adventure.