The following four posts focus on the wisdom that can come with age:
Give and Ye Shall Receive (originally posted 2/25/13)
This past weekend, I went to my mother’s 86th birthday party. I will use the occasion of her birthday to spell out some thoughts on giving.
My mother is a remarkable woman. Had you been present at the celebration, or seen her in her assisted living residence, you likely would have been startled at the sheer number of adoring friends she has; it has ever been thus.
She worked in publishing in the early ‘50s to help put my dad, who had fought in World War II and attended college thereafter, through law school. She bore and raised seven children with very little help (dad worked almost all the time to pay the bills, and needed what little free time he had to rest), was the first woman to run the vestry of our church, and has always been surrounded by adoring friends. They would do anything for her, and she for them.
The secret of my mother’s wealth of friendships is simple: she is genuinely interested in other people. She encourages them to tell her their stories, listens carefully, remembers everything and only passes along those stories that are meant for general circulation. When her friends are hurting, they turn to her. I have seen it all my life.
Roughly twenty-five years ago, I learned a great lesson from observing my parents as my father entered a new stage of his life.
My dad, who has been gone for over a dozen years now, was a brilliant, accomplished man. He worked incredibly hard for decades to make sure that the resources were there to provide great educational opportunities to my six siblings and me. His life was all about providing for us – which meant having to be very, very good at his job, and working endless hours. Having started with nothing himself, he was furiously focused on making sure that we started with every conceivable advantage. My admiration for him, and gratitude for his life, are boundless.
My mother’s life had also revolved around all of us when we were young, of course, but in very different ways. When she reached her fifties, we had mostly moved out and she needed to begin to redefine herself. She did so by spending more time with her friends and church, as you might have expected from the opening paragraphs, but also by throwing herself into charitable work. She had always done some work for “her” charities – but this work became more important to her. Gradually, she moved from stuffing envelopes for these groups to serving on their boards.
The day eventually came when dad retired – was pushed out of his firm, really, based on his age. Overnight, he went from being Somebody Important to being, in his own eyes, almost purely a burden on others. He no longer had giant responsibilities and a corner office.
Dad had devoted himself to work and family to the exclusion of all else. Having often worked on Saturdays, he had never had time for golf or other shared interests. Like many of his generation, he smoked, drank and got little exercise. By the time of his retirement, this lifestyle had caught up with him.
After dad retired, he briefly sought ways to reconnect with the broader world. He asked my mother whether he could help her with some of her charitable board responsibilities – but that wasn’t practical. She had spent decades working her way into positions of responsibility within those organizations, and there was no shortcut. After trying a few times to reach out in this manner, he gave up; already in his late sixties and in poor health, he didn’t have the energy to reinvent himself.
For me, watching my dad retire was like watching the decommissioning of a great ship that has been in service of one kind or another for fifty years. My beloved father, who had worked so hard and accomplished so much, became a shell of his former self. He only knew how to work, and to provide thereby for his wife and children – and both of those roles ended abruptly with his retirement. We still adored him, of course; but he was painfully aware of having no role in the world that was useful to others.
Once a month he would get together for lunch with a group of other men, most of whom had also had highly productive professional lives. I went with him to a couple of those lunches, and what shocked and pained me was how lonely those wonderful old men were. They missed being important to others – having roles in the world.
Twenty-five years later, my mother still serves on her charitable boards – and she’s a dynamo organizer in her assisted living facility. She still loves giving of herself, and in return she receives the immense joy that comes from being truly involved in the lives of others. She is also well enough to visit and be visited by her children and grandchildren. She is a lucky – and happy – woman.
The lesson I learned from watching my parents’ changing roles twenty-five years ago is that I really didn’t want to find myself in my father’s position some day. I had to find ways to be useful to others that would still be possible once my working days are over. Friendships would be vital, of course; but if I also wanted the organizational leverage to my efforts that comes from being part of one or more institutions, an ongoing involvement with charities whose missions I admire would have to be an important part of the picture.
Long before I had planned to start looking for such an opportunity to help others in an organized way, though, one found me. Eleven years ago, my older son introduced me to a young man who had an inspiring vision, but needed lots of support both organizationally and in terms of charitable funding. I didn’t have anywhere near the financial resources to underwrite his ambitious dreams, but I offered to help him in the ways that I could.
What evolved out of that first meeting has been one of my life’s most wonderful experiences. I started out by giving the young visionary – and I use the term advisedly – a modest sum and agreeing to introduce him to some friends who shared an interest in the problems that he sought to address.
Without fully realizing what was happening, I became drawn into the project. Once my friends started giving to help try to establish the nascent organization, I realized that they were doing so, in part, because I had given and on the basis of their faith that I would ensure that their contributions weren’t wasted, i.e., that the project would actually bear fruit. Suddenly, my credibility with my dearest friends was at stake – the new organization couldn’t fail.
I have spent eleven years working diligently in my free time to help that young man’s vision come to life – and come to life it has, thereby immeasurably improving the lives of hundreds of young people. Its successes have given me two distinct sources of pleasure: the first and more important of these is that I have joy in the lives that our efforts have improved, knowing that I played an important role in bringing the organization to life. This was a great privilege.
The second is that my involvement has unexpectedly enabled me to establish or greatly strengthen bonds of friendship with many, many people. There is something very special about the bonds that arise out of standing shoulder to shoulder in common cause, for the greater good.
For our own happiness, each of us must do things for others, and by exercising personal judgment about who should benefit from our acts of kindness, we define ourselves as individuals.
I guess I learned those things from my parents.
Character (originally posted 9/9/13)
Last week, I saw my business partner do something extraordinary.
I have known Richard for 27 years and worked with him as a partner for 15. He is the founder, principal owner and CEO of the business we manage; I am the President and a significant shareholder.
Richard is a larger than life character. He started his career as a taxi driver, then parlayed a $25,000 loan from his father into a fortune worth hundreds of millions. I have seen him act generously with our employees – and me – innumerable times, and donate millions, and time and effort, to worthwhile causes. What I saw last week was on a different order of magnitude.
We employ two shoe shine men and a manicurist to provide their services as a perk to employees. Richard pays for the manicurist, who comes once a week, out of his pocket; either he pays the shoeshine men, or I do. (It’s an historical quirk that I don’t help pay for the manicurist; habits turn into rules).
Each of the shoeshine men comes once a week and stays for a few hours, offering shines to any employees or guests who want them. The younger of the two is a charming and good looking young Brazilian; he does a great job on shoes, and chats up the “customers” pleasantly. When he is in the office, a line forms of people wanting their shoes shined, and everybody gets a communal kick out of the experience.
The older shoeshine man is in sad shape. An Italian-American, he must be 90 years old. He is terribly stooped, and mumbles strangely. He has been shining shoes weekly at our company for decades, but over the last ten years or so it has gradually become clear to all that he can no longer do even an adequate job. He sometimes puts brown polish on black shoes or vice versa. Even when he gets the color right, shoes often look worse after he shines them.
Even so, he loves the job. He has a sharp eye for the fact that he is paid generously – always $100 in cash for a few pairs of shoes – and he can eat all the free food he wants from our kitchen as an honored guest. He sometimes sits in our kitchen for hours.
But nobody talks to him and very few let him shine their shoes.
Last Thursday the older shoeshine man made a scene in the foyer to our office. He had come in thinking it was “his” day when it wasn’t, only to discover the younger guy with a long line of shoes to shine, and people chatting with him. The older man exploded in mumbling and incoherent anger. It was Rosh Hashanah, so Richard and about half the office were absent; I paid the angry and sad old man as if he had worked, told him he was mistaken about the day, and asked him to come back this week.
On Friday, another of our business partners came to speak to Richard and me in my office. He said it was time that we should tell the older man to stop coming: his presence had become downright creepy, and he didn’t even really shine shoes any more. We should just give him some money and tell him he was retiring.
Richard acknowledged the truth of much of what our partner was saying. But he denied the request to tell the older man that he is not welcome, saying:
“You know, you and I will both be old men some day, too. And we will want our dignity.”
Richard decreed that henceforth, the older shoeshine man will be designated as the Executive Shoeshine Man – he will serve only Richard, the business unit heads and me, for the same pay. That way, he will not have to interact with the employees who find him off-putting. We can let him shine (or mis-shine) our shoes; he can maintain the dignity of still having work, and feel welcome.
Over my decades of working with Richard, I have been exposed to lots of little bits of Jewish lore from him, and from our many colleagues who are also Jewish. One bit that I only vaguely remember is of the medieval scholar Maimonides, who categorized charitable acts into different levels of generosity, characterizing one of the highest as being those charitable acts that are done anonymously.
I think the scholar missed a category: an act of kindness that is not only not done to gain the admiration of the crowd, but is done, rather, in contravention of the crowd’s less-than-generous impulse to hide or ignore the aged and infirm, of whatever faith.
A small act of kindness – or its opposite – can say more about our characters than anything else.
Old Man (originally posted 3/13/14)
This week, I was privileged to have had the opportunity to have lunch with one of the more successful businessmen of the last forty or fifty years, and his son, who is a friend of mine. Now perhaps ninety, the older man, whom I had not previously met, had a storybook career: he was, at various times, one of the principal founders of a stupendously successful business, the CEO of major public companies, a member of the US Cabinet and a philanthropist on a truly grand scale. In short, he is one of the few living people who have triumphed on many fields of endeavor – a titan.
He is also, to my eyes, still a loving father to my friend, and was a gracious lunch companion.
I asked him to reminisce about his long-ago public service, which he did with some gusto. He gave his perspectives on world leaders and fellow cabinet members about whom I had read, and whom I had seen innumerable times on TV. He had stories about how each of them had behaved in his presence; some were, and are, his friends, others he held in very low esteem.
Astonishingly, while the three of us were eating, a world-famous businessman, much younger, stopped by our table because he had noticed our host, who had been his mentor decades ago. He exchanged some banter with the older man, expressed his warm wishes, and moved on. When I got home that evening, I told the Boss that for me the experience of the second man stopping by our table was kind of like dining with Elvis, only to have Bob Dylan drop by unexpectedly.
Our host was soft spoken and understated in manner. I can’t say that he was modest – modesty itself can be unbecoming, if false – but it is fair to say that he alluded to his own headline accomplishments only glancingly and with a sense of perspective that seems to come with age. Things that were of earth shattering importance thirty or forty years ago somehow seem less so now; life is a fast-moving stream.
My mother once told me that in her senior living facility the hierarchy of prestige is based not on how much money you had or have, or who you used to be (in the American sense of: you are your job), but whether you still have your health and your children and grandchildren are still a part of your life, and you a part of theirs. For many of her contemporaries, their offspring have moved on.
Worlds that had once been wide – stupendously so, in the case of the elderly gentleman with whom we were having lunch – grow narrower in old age. What is left, if you are lucky, is the love of people who matter to you and the knowledge that you did the best you could do.
Mother’s Favorite Sayings (originally posted 9/16/13)
My 86 year-old mother drove down from Massachusetts to visit us in Connecticut this weekend. Blessed with an unstoppably sunny disposition, she motors right along, seemingly impervious to health issues that would have most of us wallowing in self-pity. She’s thoroughly enjoying her ninth decade, regularly visiting her children all over the map and spending her own time in church, on “her” charities and with her friends, many of whom are in rough shape.
I was the fifth of her seven children; the Johnston home was a beehive of activity. After school and on weekends, mom often didn’t know the specifics of where we were or what we were doing. Helicopter parenting hadn’t been invented yet, and if it had been, she wouldn’t have approved. It was fine with her if we broke a bone or scraped our knees while running around the neighborhood.
School was serious, though. The memory of her reaction to my report card in second grade still pains me. (My teacher wrote: “At least he is average in math”). Parental disappointment and pity cut more deeply than anger.
Presumably, mom’s attitudes reflected her upbringing by her parents, who were immigrants from Sweden. I have a photograph of my grandfather and his brothers standing in front of their first house in America, which they had built with their own hands from wood they had cut themselves. They are bursting with pride.
At odd moments over the 40 years or so since I went to boarding school, I have thought of my mother’s favorite aphorisms. Eventually, when I became sufficiently self confident, I began quoting them to others.
My siblings and I have compiled a long list of those aphorisms; here are my favorites:
Mother’s Favorite Sayings:
1) Don’t wish away your life.
2) If you don’t build castles of sand, you won’t build them of stone either.
3) If there’s room in the heart, there’s room in the home.
4) Two wrongs don’t make a right.
5) Let your conscience be your guide.
6) If you go looking for trouble, you’re going to find it.
7) You can be dead right and still be dead.
8) You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
9) You can’t get blood out of a stone.
10) You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
11) How soon we grow old; how late we get smart.
12) I want to wear out, not rust out.
How you live matters a lot more than what you say; but in my mother’s case, I really don’t see a distinction between the two.