Gain the Wisdom of a Lifetime
My grandfather will be 86 years old this May. He is a great man. That wasn't always clear to me, though these days, it couldn't be more obvious.
He comes from a background that I can’t imagine. Born and raised in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), he lived through World War 2 as a teenager, coming into adulthood just as the Russians took control of his homeland. He watched as the new communist regime systematically dismantled his city and society. He didn't believe it right and said as much. For that he was sent to a political prison and thus missed the birth and early months of his only child – my dad.
Eventually he took the most courageous step of all. He, along with my grandmother and teenaged father escaped into Austria under the guise of a vacation. They left everything untouched and unaware – their home, their belongings and most importantly, their families – all because they believed a better life was possible. Eventually they found their way to Canada where, in mid-life, they taught themselves English and integrated into a Canadian way of life. They never saw their parents alive again.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up. My grandparents were the epitome of the good-cop, bad-cop stereotype. Grandma is my angel. She was always the good cop, Grandpa was always the bad. I recall a very strict man, one who cared deeply for his family and would not tolerate any form of disobedience. For my part I recall testing those limits often, always with the same scolding result.
With age came softening. He began to see grey where before it seemed he saw only black or white. Likewise, I began to see context and conditioning where before I saw mean-spiritedness and anger.
Gradually I began to see my grandfather for the great man that he is. A playful sense of humor came to the surface and continues to grow bolder and funnier each time I see him. I also finally began to understand (and appreciate) the sacrifices he and my grandmother made in their lives in order for me to have every opportunity in mine.
This year his physical body has started to fail him. A very proud man whose greatest passion was hiking high alpine passes, he now moves gingerly about their apartment with a walker affectionately known as “the Ferrari”. With the reduced mobility has also come an end to his driving.
Now each week my father or I pick him up (always on time, for fear of a scolding like the old days) and chauffeur him from appointment to appointment. I sit side by side with him for everything from the superficial (haircuts, filling of prescriptions...) to the very personal (hospital visits, blood tests, X-rays...). It is on these humble outings that I witness something I never knew existed within him: vulnerability.
Sometimes in life we look upon others so reverentially that we forget that they are really no different from us. Yes, conditioning and circumstances affect the outer being, but at our essence we are all the same. We all feel fear, we all feel love, we all experience youth and we all experience death.
As my grandfather grows older and I get to spend this precious time with him, he is unwittingly teaching me one of the greatest lessons of my life. He is teaching me what it is to age with grace and humility. In other words, he is teaching me what it is to be human. You cannot ask for a greater lesson on living.
Yesterday a close friend posted a video online of a 109 year old Holocaust survivor talking about the most important things in life. The woman's name is Alice and I can't help but smile in watching this as she reminds me of my grandmother and her outlook on life. The video (below) is exceptionally touching and a beautiful reminder of just how much we have to learn from our elders.
No matter their path, the years our elders spent getting to where they are has granted them wisdom that no amount of reading ever could. The ability to learn from our elders is one of the great gifts we have as humans. They made mistakes and learnt hard lessons so that we would not have to. Just as we hope to do for our future generations. After all, it is in this way that we as humans evolve.
Next time you have the fortune of being in the presence of someone who understands first-hand how fleeting life is, take special care to listen. Listen to what’s being said but also listen for what’s not being said. How many of those things that you really want in your life are in line with what your elders want in their lives?
For a head start, check out this incredibly compelling list by Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse who recorded the 5 most common regrets of her dying patients.
If you have a story about an elder that has affected your life in a special way, we'd love for you to share it below.
And to my Grandma and Grandpa: thank you. Thank you for everything you sacrificed for me. Thank you for all that you've taught me. This year you’re 86 Grandpa so based off the contract you say you signed with the Pope, it looks like we've got another 44 years together. I look forward to all the precious time I get to spend with you both along this journey.