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Words of Wisdom from 60 Years of Life

Today, Oct. 8, 2019, is a memorable day for me. Sixty years ago at Polyclinic Hospital in Harrisburg, Pa., I came into the world at 9:43 p.m. as an 8-pound, 10-ounce newborn. I was a four-day-late first wedding anniversary gift to my parents.

Dwight Eisenhower was president, Richard Nixon was vice-president, and “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin was the No. 1 song in the country that day – a song I’ve always enjoyed but for years had no idea why. Now I think perhaps it was because it played on the radio a lot in those very first formative days and weeks of my life. 

In honor of this milestone I felt that I would take a few moments to pass along some words of wisdom that I have collected during my 60 years on the planet. These are sayings, thoughts, quotes and quips which have made a strong impression on me, and it seems fitting that having reached this age I should give back some of this accumulated knowledge. Much of this wisdom is the work of others (duly credited), but some is my own.

And before you ask, yes, feel free to consider this my own version of columnist Mary Schmich’s hypothetical speech published in 1997, that was the basis for Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ spoken word song released 20 years ago. However, my primary purpose is to put these thoughts in one spot in the hopes that as we move forward together on this planet we are operating on the same proverbial page. Because after all, today it’s about me!

Which brings me to: It’s not about you. A line from the Marvel movie “Doctor Strange” when The Ancient One tells Dr. Stephen Strange, “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.” To which Strange asks, ”Which is?” and the The Ancient One responds, “It’s not about you.” My wife introduced me to an expanded version of this advice years ago: Your life is not about you. Fr. Richard Rohr uses this message in retreats to separate people from their thoughts about themselves and realize that they are about life. As Spock says, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” My internal voice often translates this into: You’re not the only person on the planet – act like you know that.

This “greater good” theme shows up in another quote I appreciate. Jacqueline Kennedy said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much. Not everyone will have children, but for those who do, it doesn’t matter how many diseases you cure, titles you win, or accomplishments you achieve. What matters is your children. Because someone else can and will cure those diseases, win those titles, and achieve those accomplishments, but only you can raise your children well.

Our personal experience with raising children taught us that we had two primary choices in how to perform these parental functions: we could make our kids’ lives fit within our lives, or we could fit our lives within our kid’s lives. In the vein of “it’s not about us,” we mostly chose the latter. Which brings me to three important words we found were very helpful in our parenting journey: co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and home-schooling. We highly recommend them. 

But with life and raising children comes a great deal of unknown – which causes worry and scary feelings. As I tend to be someone who appreciates proper planning, over the years I’ve read many management and self-help books and articles and found Deepak Chopra’s thoughts speak to me on the topic of the unknown. Especially when he writes, “I will factor in uncertainty as an essential ingredient of my experience.  The more uncertain things seem to be, the more secure I will feel, because uncertainty is my path to freedom.” The best laid plans can and will go awry on occasion and embracing uncertainty is a means of allowing life to unfold in a positive, adventurous way. 

In their song “Closer to Fine,” The Indigo Girls – who I’ve seen more times in concert than any other group – sing, “…the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” It’s another way of saying that uncertainty has its benefits. 

As a college student I had a set of wooden bunkbeds in my dorm room for a few years that became a graffiti board for all who ventured in. Most were the mindless ramblings of teenagers, but one nicely printed comment stuck with me through the years: Yield to temptation – it may not pass this way again. Although not always the best advice, remembering the spice of life is from the experiences, if your heart says go with it, do so. I have rarely been disappointed in the result.

On those occasions, though, when life does take an unfortunate twist, Deepak offers this: I will take responsibility for my situation and know that every problem is an opportunity in disguise. This eliminates the “blame and shame game” many of us play, and allows us to move forward and change things for a greater benefit. Deepak refers to this as part of the Law of Least Effort. 

Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, wrote something similar regarding living in harmony and working smart rather than working hard: An integral being knows without going, sees without looking, and accomplishes without doing. In more current terminology the Indigo Girls, in that same song mentioned above, note that, “…darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable, and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.” Which reminds me that the noise in life is the problem.

These days during times of trouble many people will reach for the term karma – as in “It’s a bitch” – to describe a cause-and-effect relationship they hope some people achieve in a very negative fashion. The flip side to that is within ourselves we have the ability to push forth positive karma, which Deepak reminds us as follows, “Every action generates a force of energy that returns to us in like kind . . . what we sow is what we reap. And when we choose actions that bring happiness and success to others, the fruit of our karma is happiness and success.”

But what’s a person to do if they don’t want new-age philosophy? Aren’t there a few concrete business adages I’ve found memorable? Luckily there are. One Joseph Vincent Paterno wrote in “Paterno By The Book”: “Many people… think of success and excellence as though they are the same.  They are not. Success is perishable and often outside our control. In contrast, excellence is something that’s lasting, dependable and largely within a person’s control… People who truly excel don’t fear or resent excellence in others.  People who shoot only for success, however, always feel threatened by other people’s success. Success is measured by what others think… Excellence is best measured by the achiever.” Which is why when given the opportunity to strive for something, I will choose excellence. Be the best you you can be. 

Moving on to a major part of our life experience – friendships — I keep the following saying push-pinned to the small bulletin board behind my desk: Eventually we find human differences too subtle for easy classification, and the web of our relationships becomes too complex for analysis. We try to move toward more and more sensitive discrimination, so that there are those we can learn from, those we can work with, those good for an evening of light talk, or for a little warmth of affection, and so on – with perhaps those very few with whom we can sustain a deepening relationship for an entire lifetime.  

I’ve long since lost any reference for who wrote it or where it came from, and internet searches have proved fruitless. But I enjoy it because I am and have been blessed with many friends in my life, especially my wonderful wife, and it reminds me that friendships come in many flavors and all are precious.

So far I’ve listed words of wisdom from others, but what about my own material? I’m fairly succinct in that regard.

For those who believe the axiom the squeaky wheel gets the grease, they often forget that if it keeps squeaking it gets replaced. 

Your word is your bond, do your best, and don’t take anything personally.

Presentation counts. You can cook the most fabulous dinner in the world, but if you serve it on a garbage can lid no one will eat it or pay for it. 

Well, there you have it. Sixty years of wisdom compressed into 1,500 words or so. Which is about the limit of my attention span on any topic, including my own life. However, in this age of cross-promotion, should you feel the need for greater depth and detail in your quotes, sayings, and words of wisdom, two of my columnist peers have books just for you. Joe Battista’s “The Power of Pragmatic Passion: 7 Common Sense Principles for Achieving Personal & Professional Success” and Jay Paterno’s “Paterno Legacy: Enduring Lessons from the Life and Death of My Father” are chock full of great life lessons and stories. 

Enjoy, and here’s to another 60!