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What I learned from my wisdom project

Over the last two years, I interviewed nine women I admire as wise, all a generation older than I am, and asked them each twenty questions about relationships and life. Their responses deeply resonated with me and urged me on in my own search for wisdom.  I gathered their insights into a book called Warm Cup of Wisdom: Inspirational Insights on Relationships and Life, published in June 2014.

Since then, I’ve often been asked: What did you learn?

At first, I was too close to the project to find an easy answer. But now, with the benefit of time for reflection, I can see more clearly what I learned from these women—and from my own process of seeking wisdom. Here are the top ten.

  1. Wisdom and humility are directly related. People who think they are already wise usually are not. People who think they can judge who is wise and unwise usually are not either! (That would be me, before I started this project.)
  2. Young people sometimes have great insights, too. Recently, I was talking to my twenty-something daughter about “difficult people.” She says you should try to hear them and validate them. I often recall this now. When I clash with a difficult person, I think: what is that person’s intention? If it is good, I try to say out loud that I hear that. This is still a learning edge for me.
  3. Wisdom can sometimes be relative. For instance, when I asked about raising teenagers, some of these women said to be more trusting and some said, “Forget trust! That doesn’t work!” I concluded that it depends on the parenting style, as well as the individual kid. Some parents need to be less strict, some stricter. The key is balance. That’s where the wisdom can be found.
  4. In relating to adult children, the key is to show your respect, as well as love. Give advice only if asked. (Recently I’ve been talking to older adults who say their children can get very bossy. That’s another issue!)
  5. Having perspective on yourself is key. My goal is to be able to rise above each difficult situation and see how I am reacting to it and why. If I can clearly see my own role, I am more likely to handle the situation better.
  6. Inner talk is vital. It helps to learn to treat yourself as your own best friend, to nurture yourself and not to beat yourself up. Comfort yourself and gently learn from mistakes. Take charge of the troublesome inner voices—the whining child, the snappish one, the self-pitier—and make sure your best self is in charge.
  7. Stand up for yourself and make sure you get what you need—but in a loving way that considers the needs of those you love.
  8. Giving back to others is important, but it can start with friends and family. It doesn’t have to mean serving meals to strangers, starting a non-profit organization, or working for world peace. But it can—and when it does, that is hugely meaningful.
  9. Role models and mentors help tremendously. I highly recommend sitting down with older people you admire and asking them these questions. After I did this, I gained nine loving mentors—and I’d like to continue to cultivate these deep friendships. Someday I’d like to be able to pass on wisdom to others, too.
  10. Wisdom and faith. I’m eager to understand more about the role of faith in wisdom. I’d love to learn how women of other faiths—and no faith—express their wisdom. When it comes to leading a meaningful life and relating well to others, I suspect that the core of wisdom is the same across all religions and cultures, just expressed in different words. But I could be wrong.

I am planning a second book on wisdom now. I’d like to interview nine older women of different faiths than my own: Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, perhaps also Mormon, Baha’i, evangelical Christian. Maybe even a woman who is secular, agnostic, or atheist.

I would ask them each the same twenty questions I asked of these first nine wise women. I have listed them below. My new, underlying question would be this:

Is wisdom the same across all faiths?

How do these women of varying faiths express their wisdom in ways that differ from my worldview, which is progressive Christian? That will be a fascinating project.

Do you know someone you’d recommend that I interview? Let me know!

Here are the twenty questions I asked of people I admire as wise:

  1. Defining wisdom. How would you define wisdom—and why?
  2. Speaking Up. Tell about a time when you learned to speak up and make sure your voice was heard.
  3. Choosing happiness. What are your basic beliefs about happiness? Has your thinking about that changed? Do you think happiness is due to circumstances, to inborn traits, or to choice?
  4. Sustaining through hard times. During tough times, what sustains you and gives you hope?
  5. Rethinking forgiveness. Can we truly forgive? If so, how?
  6. Redirecting at midlife. Tell about choices you made at midlife to move in new directions. How do you make a meaningful life for yourself after retirement and/or empty nest?
  7. Finding your calling. What choices have you made about work (whether paid or volunteer) and how does that reflect your core values? What advice would you give to others about finding their calling, including changes at midlife?
  8. Raising teenagers. What did you learn about parenting when your kids were teenagers? What advice could you give to somebody else who’s going through a rough time? What do you wish you’d known before you went into it?
  9. Relating to adult children. What is the best way for parents to interact with their grown children?
  10. Lasting marriage. What are some keys to a good, lasting marriage?
  11. Healing difficult relationships. When you’re feeling estranged or angry with someone, what have you learned about healing relationships? What have you learned about dealing with people you perceive to be “difficult”?
  12. Managing anger. Over the years, what have you learned about how to deal with or express your anger?
  13. Emerging from dark places. When you’re feeling negative – whether depressed or anxious or judgmental or self-pitying – how do you get yourself out of it?
  14. Recovering from failure. How do you bounce back from setbacks or failures?
  15. Rethinking aging. What have you learned, from your own experience and that of your friends, about the best frame of mind for facing face aging and health declines?
  16. Moving on from loss. Tell about a deep loss in your life and what you learned about ways you cope with personal loss. How were you able to move on?
  17. Preventing regrets. What do you wish you had done differently, particularly in your 40s and 50s? What regrets do you have?
  18. Evolving faith. How has faith informed or guided important moments and decisions? How has your faith changed over the years?
  19. Making a difference. What do you do to try to “make a difference”? Do you do volunteer work or give back to the community? If so, what is the importance of that to your life?
  20. Seeking peace and hope. When are you most at peace? What keeps you moving forward into hope? Where do you look for inspiration?
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Looking for peace and hope this holiday season

In the midst of stressful lives, when we’re always running behind schedule and have fifty million things on our to-do list, it’s good to think about ways to bring our hearts to a place of peace. And when bad news splashes across the newspapers, television, and our computer screens, how can we restore our sense of hope?

Here are the final questions I asked of the women I interviewed for Warm Cup of Wisdom: Inspirational Insights on Relationships and Life:

When are you most at peace? What keeps you moving forward into hope? Where do you look for inspiration?

Here are answers that most inspired me.

Ruth: “I am most at peace with a book or a pen in my hand. When I am out of doors, either gardening or sitting in my old blue chair, listening to the chickadees. When I have cooked up a stew and am sitting around the table with my family. When I am talking with a friend, with someone I love and trust. Being with people that I love helps bring my heart back to peace.”

Eva: “One thing that has helped me is a benediction recited at the end of Anglican services I attended as a youth. It begins: ‘Go out into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold on to what is good.’ Very often, in my later life, I’ve felt so low that I’ve been reluctant to even leave the house. Then that benediction would come to me, urging me to ‘Go!’ Not just go, but ‘Go out in peace’ and ‘Have courage.’ That blessing has given me courage very, very often.”

Susan: “I feel grounded most of the time—if that’s what you call peace. I am grounded, but the peace definitely has a wavy surface. Anything can change in the blink of an eye. I think being grounded is much more important than being at peace.”

Isabelle: “I find music can be very helpful to pain. It’s an inspiration to me to have really good music or see really good theater. I love to go and see somebody who captures the spirit of another person. That can make me feel really happy inside.”

Katherine: “I’m at peace having coffee in the morning on my patio. The older I get, the more solitude means to me.”

Joy: “It’s very important to learn to be in the moment. Too often we don’t take the day, the hour, even twenty minutes to be in the present. Sometimes I compose haiku poems while driving. This a great mental exercise: think about this particular point of the trip and be open to why it is resonating. It’s better than taking a photograph!”

Anna: “I would love to get to hold a baby every day. That would just thrill my soul.”

Ruth: “I look for inspiration in the ordinary: in the ordinary beauty of the day, in the details of family relationships, in nature and my garden.”

Hope these images of peace and hope give you inspiration this holiday season!

Thanks for enjoying this five-month ride with me on my blog.


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Rethinking aging

In our forties and fifties, most of us don’t want to think about aging. The topic makes us squirm. Aging happens to other people, not to us. Not yet anyway. There will be plenty of time to think about it—later.

The women I interviewed for Warm Cup of Wisdom are in their seventies and eighties, and they’ve had to come face to face with the topic—after denying it themselves for many years. The question I asked them was:

“What have you learned, from your own experience and that of your friends, about the best frame of mind for facing aging?”

Their nuggets of wisdom surprised me. Here are a few:

  1. “I love this time of life because it’s a very freeing time. We can be more who we are than we have been.”
  2. “I’m convinced that living a long life enhances and enriches us.”
  3. “I think it helps to face aging with a sense of humor.”
  4. “Here’s what I learned from trying to help my mother move out of her house: Don’t wait till you’re ninety. You’ve got to act before the crisis happens.”
  5. “Being in denial is such a comfy place. But the ramifications of being in denial can be hard. If you insist on remaining independent too long, you may end up having no choices at all.”
  6. “I am more aware of the need to be accepting of people whose ideas and reactions may be different than mine. I’ve found it helpful to wait and listen more during interactions with other people.”
  7. “One of my goals for my eighties is to be more aware of the present. I try to be aware of my own body and my limitations and of what’s going on with family and with friends who are going through rough times, too.”
  8. “There are important questions you have to answer in your years after retirement. ‘Does my life have meaning?’ and ‘What’s the source of my hope?’ My own response is receptivity and gratitude.”

A very freeing time. The need to be accepting. Humor. Awareness of the present. Receptivity and gratitude. Their comments gave me a lot to ponder.

My favorite comment was this one:

“As long as I’m feeling good and as long as my mind is working, I think this age is good, very good. To be alive; it’s sheer luck.”

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Three wise women . . .

Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there would be peace on earth!

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Search for wisdom, search for meaning

Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, strikes me as fresh and stimulating, nearly 70 years after it was written. I missed it before because I thought it was a depressing story of the Nazi death camps. I didn’t realize it’s a compelling case for a whole approach to psychology and philosophy, one that I buy into completely. Unlike his mentor Freud, who believed the driving force for human life is the search for pleasure, Frankl showed that what keeps us moving forward is the search for meaning.

To me, this concept is at the core of wisdom.

A brilliant psychologist and neurologist in Vienna, Frankl advocated an approach he called logotherapy. He treated depressed and suicidal patients by helping them to find the meaning in their own lives. Once people embrace their personal meaning, they have something to live for. It worked in the death camps, and it works in normal lives as well.

How do you find your meaning? Three ways, Frankl said.

  1. In your work.
  2. In your love relationships or something you experienced.
  3. If you are facing unavoidable suffering, you can find it in your suffering.

He gave two examples of men in the camps who were considering suicide. One was a scientist who had written a series of books that needed to be finished. Another was a father who had a child he adored, waiting for him in a foreign country. Neither man could be replaced, and once they were aware of the responsibility they bore, they found a reason to keep living.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Frankl wrote. “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails . . . gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

This seems equally true today for a woman going blind with macular degeneration or man whose child has been killed in a car accident. Frankl cited studies reporting that 80% of alcoholics and 100% of drug addicts say they feel their life has no meaning. Imagine how different their lives would be if they could create or comprehend the meaning of their lives.

I’m currently listening to the wildly popular podcast, “Serial,” and found an example there. Adnan Syed, serving a life sentence in prison for a murder he claims he did not do, tells the reporter “I have a life” in prison. He is trying to live as a good Muslim and he has cultivated a set of friends. Yes, he is appealing his case, but he also found a way to live on.

My copy of Frankl’s book has passages underlined throughout. It often kept me awake at night, thinking of my own meaning and that of my friends. Frankl died in 1997 at the age of 92, but his ideas live on. They have changed the way I think.

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How do you bounce back from failure?

Failure is not my favorite topic—nor yours, I’m sure.

I told the story of one of my biggest failures in Chapter 14 of Warm Cup of Wisdom, and it’s still painful to read about it. I’d rather recall my successes.

But failure is part of life—especially if you dare to try new things and take risks. Overcoming setbacks plays a big part in how we grow our confidence, as explained in The Confidence Code, a 2014 book I highly recommend. Its authors, TV reporters Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, recommend taking action and courting risk—and learning from “fast failure.” If you live in fear and don’t ever take risks, you may never fail—but you won’t build your confidence either.

I remember telling myself: “You can let failure crush you, or you can figure out how to learn from it.” I decided to learn from it—to adapt to the new circumstances and try an avenue I had once rejected. I’m glad I did.

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Here are some tips from the older women I interviewed:

  1. When things go wrong, I usually retreat, beat myself up, and then spend a lot of time thinking about what I could have done differently. And then I address it if I can, or say, “That’s enough of that. Let’s move on.”
  2. When facing setbacks, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, continually, until you get through it.
  3. If you let your setbacks destroy you because you’re afraid you’re going to fail, then you’ve made the choice to be a failure.

In Silicon Valley, “embrace failure” is a buzzword. Investors encourage young entrepreneurs to jump in quickly and start up new companies; if the company fails, the entrepreneur is lauded as someone who is willing to take risks. After a failure or two, she looks more attractive the next time around, because she is experienced and knows what mistakes not to repeat. “Failure” is seen as a synonym for “learning experience.” Silicon Valley even has an annual event called FailCon that celebrates and studies startup failures.

It’s better to take a risk and fail than to stay in your comfort zone and refuse to act on your dream.

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