By Scott Westerman
A man ninety years old was asked to what he attributed his longevity. I reckon, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, it because most nights I went to bed and slept when I should have sat up and worried. – Garson Kanin
Colleen’s grandmother passed away this week. She lived to be 100. Her body outlasted her brain and her final months were uncomfortable for her. But for the bulk of her life, she was alert, feisty and engaged. Her marriage was arranged. It didn’t last and divorce was something that women did not typically initiate when she decided to go her own way. She was determined to get what she wanted out of life and to understand what life wanted out of her. I admired her greatly.
When we got the call, I looked back over my notes from my “Father Factor” chapter in The Spartan Life. Colleen’s grandmother couldn’t have been more different than my dad. But that determination to make sense out of our sometimes insensible world and to leave it in a little better shape than you found it was their common denominator. As I re-read my 11 dimensions of a life well lived, I realized that each of us define them in our own way.
Make a difference for all the world – Dad’s career as an educator was all about helping everyone he knew broaden their field of view to understand the potential for greatness that exists in each of us. Grandma’s world was centered around her five daughters and their progeny. Her message: take control of your life, do good things and do your best to influence others to do the same.
Give your all – As he approaches his 87th birthday, dad still frets about not having enough time to do everything he wants to do. He drops off to sleep with a duality of conflicting emotions. “I’m glad I had the energy to do all that I did, but there is so much more I want to do tomorrow.” Grandma’s attitude was always, “What needs to be done,” and “What do I need to do to get it done.” I have an indelible picture in my mind of pulling into her driveway after one of those snow dumping winter storms Michigan is famous for. The sidewalk was pristine and clear. I wondered which of the grandkids had done the deed but when I asked grandma, well into her 80s by then, she said, “I did it. I didn’t want you to fall and break something.”
Seek balance – This is the biggest challenge of a passionate life. When you become aware of the wealth of opportunity out there to express your passion, it’s easy to focus solely on that activity to the detriment of the things that sustain your ability to engage. Dad and I have had many conversations about this and we’ve come down to these priorities in this order: Family, Fitness, Philanthropy. Take care of your family first, but don’t neglect to take care of your body. Without that tool in full function, nothing else gets done. Philanthropy is our definition for the contribution we can make to the world. Figure out what that is and build your profession around it. Share your bounty with those in need and encourage them to pay it forward. My sense is that Grandma struggled with this, too. Her family was her total focus. That focus seemed to be the force that sustained her. She was rarely ill and even when confronted with cancer, she refused to let it deter her from her life’s mission.
Be inclusive – I learned young that our lives are improved to the extent we can broaden our understanding. Dad’s taught us that you can learn as much from someone you don’t particularly like as you can from a good friend. Love your enemies and if you can’t bring yourself to do that, try to understand what makes them who they are. I know of no other person who so embody’s Dr. King’s mantra that we should evaluate an individual based on, “the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” I’m pretty sure that Colleen’s family had worries about this young disc jockey that she brought home. Her dad called me a Geek, before that was a compliment. But they all worked to understand who I was. Fed me well and ultimately embraced me. Grandma lead the charge.
Develop diverse interests – This is a bit of a conundrum. It is the key to Dad’s world view and a catalyst for his success and durability. You continue to anticipate every new day based on the excited anticipation of the adventures that await you. Grandma, on the other hand, was probably a Buddhist without realizing it. She knew the zen koan, “chop wood, carry water” by heart. Her needs were few and her life practice was simple. Yet that formula provided the center that enabled her to live long and prosper.
Have faith – Dad’s career came into prime time in the late 60s when everybody and everything was in flux. Grandma came of age when the underpinnings of our economy fell apart at the dawn of the Great Depression. Both of them were able to rise above these monumental challenges as a result of their faith. The ability to trust that good people will ultimately emerge and do good things, that our toughest trials will lead to the right outcomes, is essential to resilience. Faith keeps you centered when the world around you is in chaos. Faith keeps you moving forward when the tide presses against you. Faith is the power that can help us face the worst and hope for the best.
Be well read – This is where Dad and Grandma diverge. Dad is a voracious reader. Grandma wasn’t much of a reader since her formal education ended in the third grade. But perhaps her definition of being well read was the television she consumed. When carefully chosen, the things we see and hear on screen can teach us just as much as the printed page. My own belief is that a broad exposure to great writing leads to a large vocabulary leads to the ability to effectively communicate with more people.
Get an education and seek to become a better person – The definition of an education used to mean progressing through a traditional school experience. Today, textbooks and the classroom are not enough. As one of my friends likes to say, “It’s possible to be book smart and street stupid.” Dad is a classic example of someone who is both book smart and street smart. He has never stopped learning. Even though Grandma never got what many would define as a classical education, her Phd from the college of hard knocks did just as much to help her become a better person.
Don’t do it all yourself – We’re all self made. But we all had help. Co-workers, teachers, mentors, bosses, faithful friends, all of these are the resources we have to cultivate if we are to achieve sustainable success. Whether it’s the hundreds of people who crossed Dad’s path, or the committed family members who helped Grandma at every stage of her life, an exuberant existence is a team effort.
Be joyful – I love calling Dad. The joy he feels for his life is contagious. And he always makes me feel better about myself during every conversation. I try to emulate that when I talk with our kids. Grandma had her own acerbic way of expressing joy. Whenever we were together, she would always say something that cracked us up. The last time Colleen and I visited her, she greeted us this way: “See!! I’m not dead yet.” Happiness and health go hand in hand
Be present and be who you are – There is no doubt that Grandma was who she was. “That’s the way I am and I don’t care if somebody doesn’t like it.” We heard that one often. What you see is what you get. That’s the essence of authenticity. Whenever my sister or I needed Dad, he was there. That’s not the way he remembers it, but it’s true. He was as busy as most high performance people are, but he knew when to engage, what questions to ask, had most of the answers and calmly admitted it when he didn’t. We figured the tough stuff out together and always knew he loved us. The only times I saw him struggle was when circumstance pressed him to be something he wasn’t. He never gave in. That’s a lesson I’ll never forget.
I just turned 57. Things hurt a little more than they used to and it takes a lot more effort to keep up my preferred pace. But I try to echo my well seasoned role models. They surrender to the inevitable but never lose their lust for life. Except when dementia intervenes. One of today’s great tragedies is our inability to effectively treat Alzheimer’s. The worst possible thing to witness is the slow decay of the soul of someone we love.
But it happens. You play the cards you get and deal with the results. No regrets.
The easy advice for living long is to avoid self destructive behaviors. But the best I’ve heard on the subject of longevity is this: You may not live a day longer, but always live a longer day. Wring every last minute out of every 24 hours you’re given. If there’s a heaven, I intend to slide into home plate with an ice cold Coca Cola in one hand and an MSU flag in the other, bucket list complete, totally worn out and as fulfilled as I can possibly be.
Whether that happens tomorrow or sometime during the 47 years is irrelevant. We all know those singular people who cram a century of experience into a much shorter time frame. Others may reach the chronological age of 100 without having lived a decade. As Brian Willis says, focus on what’s important right now. Work the objective side of your brain first but then follow your heart. Live your life, not what your parents or your friends might expect. Don’t fear the prospect of reinventing yourself. Forgive and forget. Always tell the truth even when it hurts. Be who you are.
And to paraphrase Emerson, “laugh often and love much; win the respect of intellingent persons and the affection of children; earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; appreciate beauty; find the best in others; give of yourself; leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; play and laugh with enthusiasm and sing with exultation; know even that if just one life has breathed easier because you have lived – this is to have succeeded.”
Achieving a full life is accessible to all of us once we discover that it’s not about quantity. It’s about quality.