We’ve all heard the tired, overused cliché that says, “You can’t take it with you.”  Personally, I think most who have died have “taken it with them.”  They’ve taken their memories, their stories that were never told, and knowledge that was never shared.  What they left behind was the stuff that didn’t matter. Why do we focus on them leaving us what doesn’t matter, while ignoring what does?  Why do we choose not to seek the value of what’s been recorded in the hearts and minds of the elderly?

But then again, you don’t have to be older to have had an incredible life experience but let’s be honest, in general, older people have more life experience to reflect upon.  I do recognize that even very young children could have lived through some incredible, life changing events but, for no other reason than youth, they were unable to grasp the magnitude or value of those events until they got older. Time is often required to build an inspiring perspective on life or see what type of positive character traits, during long bouts of adversity, can develop.  That’s why I think some older people are in a unique position to help us learn.  We should ask questions of them and listen intently.Picture of older man

Just to clarify, I would also like to mention that, just as there are young people that can gain wisdom through adversity encountered at a very young age, there are also older people that will have wasted a lifetime and gained no more perspective on life than that of an adolescent, in spite of opportunities they encountered.  So although it would nice if wisdom always came with age, we know this isn’t true.  Oscar Wilde once said; “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”  So true.

So how do we choose to look at the elderly?  Everyone talks about a “beautiful soul” and how “the soul doesn’t age, just the body.”  Sounds good right?  Yet, we only have to go as far as any major media advertising firm to see how youth and beauty are being exploited and over-valued.  Plastic surgeons make their livings on this supposed asset of youth.  I think the word “plastic” is appropriate here.

Our young adults are being told that the keys to life are held in their appearance and their youth.  You never hear of the media saying the keys to life are in gaining wisdom, of learning the value of honesty, integrity or ethics.  If we did find the media endorsing this, it would be next to the article on pigs flying or hair pieces for snakes.

If you think you possess all the wisdom you need and that you’re, “all that and just a little bit more” because your abs look good and your teeth could possibly be mistaken for a mirror, then you might already be a victim of this never ending social advertising campaign for appearance.  If you’re already an appearance warrior, it will be much harder for you to ask questions when you already have all the answers.

How much more shallow can our thinking get than to tell someone that youth and good looks will put them at the top of the social food chain?  What will become of these raving beauties when youth dissipates?   What will THEY feel they’ll have left to offer?  This is why so many young people look at the elderly as “done” with life and valueless to them. They look at them as “irrelevant” or “out of touch”.  They’ve been programmed to see youth and beauty as the only relevant assets in our society.  They’ve lost the ability to see the value in getting older and so are blinded to the gifts right in front of them.

Youth and age together

So what’s my point?  It’s all too clear that when we look at old people we’ve been programmed to see age first and sometimes that’s all we see.  We see someone who is “incapable” or “slower than they used to be” or “they’ve had their day”, etcetera, etcetera.   We have already been programmed to determine what is valuable in life and we, even subconsciously, make our judgments primarily on appearance and see no value beyond the veneer.  We’ve actually been trained to lack the intellectual wherewithal to see below the surface.

What we fail to see in the elderly are the valuable experiences and character development that only age (when spent wisely) can produce.  Some have incredible stories of self-sacrifice, trauma, and pain that would be challenging to anyone having to go through it. Others have incredible adventure, lost loves, lives that took dramatic turns or maybe they came face-to-face with someone in history that you’d be tempted to write off as a “tall tale.”  Instead of looking for an adventure book to read, how about we just ask the “old person” in front of us something about their life?  It may surprise us as to what we might hear.  It may exceed our expectations and we may find ourselves telling them, “you need to write a book.”

I used to ask my grandmother about the depression of the 1930’s and where she grew up. She talked about World War I and II as if it were last week.  She was alive when the Wright Brother’s took off from Kitty Hawk and when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. What an incredible perspective on history.

It was always interesting for me to talk to someone who lived in a time that otherwise was only available to me in a very limited context through a book.  My grandmother told me once that her great grandfather was Roald Amundsen.  In case you don’t know who he was, he was credited with discovering the South Pole.  The story was always entertaining to me but didn’t really seem like much more than a story until, when she got older, she received an invitation from the King of Norway to come visit as one of the last living Amundsen’s.  When I heard that, it became surreal.  This was incredible history that was part of my family. It wasn’t just a story anymore.  It made me look at myself differently.  I never would have known.  Why don’t we ask more questions of those who have lived so much longer than us?

If you really look into the eyes of anyone, you’ll see them as ageless.  They say the “eyes are the windows to the soul.”  Why do we so often ignore those windows?  Think of the wisdom we could all gain by talking to someone who has lived the years we’re still waiting to pass through?

Windows to the soul the eye

Next time you hear someone drag out that old tired cliché “you can’t take it with you”, if you’re an older person, tell “cliché quipper” to sit down.  Tell them, “I have a story to tell you, wisdom to pass on, an adventure you may want to hear about.  Don’t let me take it with me, you may find it interesting or even life changing.”

If you’re younger and you hear that cliché from an older person, tell them that you don’t want them to take it with them. Ask them a question of their life, or their past experiences and remember to look into their eyes, the windows to their soul.  You’ll see their timeless soul is no older than yours.

Finally, I’d like to close with a reminder.  When we encounter adversity in our lives, when things go terribly wrong, we can do one of two things; try to learn and grow from the sometimes overwhelming bad situation or waste the opportunity and call ourselves victims for the rest of our lives.  Fyodor Dostoevsky said; “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

Look into the eyes of those who have been there, ask questions, love and learn.

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