Earth’s Elders, a book by Jerry Friedman, holds the stories, photographs, and ever-present wisdom of some of the world’s oldest people – above 110 years of age. “The only source of knowledge is experience” said Albert Einstein, something Earth’s Elders insists on teaching its readers.
I started reading Earths’ Elders expecting to find self-help, but ended up with self-discovery. But throughout the book I kept an eye out for the common threads between the lives and philosophy of these remarkable people, all the while marveling at how much I already knew, but which I had to be shown through a different lens, the lens of longevity.
Good Food, Excersise and the Great Outdoors
Far from being solely focused on the effects of the spirit on age, Friedman manages to incorporate proven scientific theories and some health related hypotheses of his own. It’s hard to deny the importance of good genes, but of course, the effects of a healthy diet were also present. Those interviewed grew up when all food was considered organic, and mostly in poor households, where portions were kept small and meat was rare. Green tea and green vegetables were also part of the secret to health, and so, to long life. An active lifestyle also proved important. Exercise and labour were part of their daily lives, often into their hundreds, with one supercentenarian, Fred Hale from Maine, even jumping off his roof after shoveling it at age 107. A connection to nature all through life was also a common trend in the elder’s lives. Growing up in the country air and still keeping a garden at the age of 110.
A Positive Attitude
Although cliché, this advice is reiterated again and again throughout the book and mirrored in the mannerisms of the supercentenarians. Each had learned in their own way the “ability to cope and adapt with a positive energy” and suffered their own traumas, triumphing over adversity. The most enjoyable to read about were those who, coupled with the wisdom of age, still retained the vigour and optimism of youth – all the more impressive when their personal tragedies were recounted. The way that Friedman put it, they had mastered that art of “[Isolating] difficult experiences and focus[ing] on the bigger picture of life in positive terms.” This new way of looking at positive thinking swayed even my cynical nature. Emma Verona Calhoun Johnston was the embodiment of this philosophy, a 114 year old woman in the body of an 80 year old with the spirit of one 50 years her junior. She was a joy to read about, and she talked about her past fondly, but in the end admitted she wouldn’t go back for anything. Her positive attitude gave the tools to remember old days with affection, but embrace present times with grace.
Many of the elders had a close knit-family or circle of friends that valued and respected their age, often as dictated by cultural values. It seemed the elders had all learned early on in life the importance of family through a loving grandmother, a small town community, or regular family dinners. The lesson they took from this was that the happiness of the group came before their personal issues, allowing them to retain their positivity. “Each drew their strength from the links with others.”
Most of the supercentenarians led simple lives, and the majority grew up and remained relatively poor and uneducated. Those who did pursue an education cherished the opportunity. More than once the elder’s words of advice to the younger generation included discouraging worry, somewhere along the lines of “Don’t worry, be happy.” Hazel Luther, for example lived a simple life, with her sole indulgence being the beauty of music. Still, at 113, Friedman describes her as “living proof that one can with the battle against worry and live with a heart as light as song.”
Of the 50 remarkable supercentanarians featured in this book, each one had spirituality touch their lives. More often than not, they credited the Lord with their long lives, and, despite the obvious hardships they endured, from living in a dugout house to losing children, held on to their faith and saw God in a very positive light. Spirituality provided them with a buffer from life’s sufferings, a beacon in dark times, a divine power to celebrate and a moral compass to live by.
For those featured in these pages, humour is not laughing over a particularly funny joke but way of looking at the world. The ability to laugh at life and laugh at oneself is a key factor in achieving happiness and aging with grace.
Besides opening my eyes to the elderly, the stories in Earth’s Elders also opened my ears to their words. The old sayings are true. “Money can’t buy happiness”, “Laughter is the best medicine”, “Home is where the heart is.” These are hardly the same values as those of our face-paced, celebrity-obsessed consumer society.
I have learned to look to what I was taught as a child to live the rest of my life, because after all, what is the advantage of becoming old if not allowing yourself to discover the freedoms and virtues of childhood again.
I have also learned that “life is too short” is the wrong way of looking at life. We have time. More time than most of us have planned for. As a self-proclaimed pessimist, this beautiful notion has helped me to look at life in a softer light. Susie Potts has become my new role model. Born in 1890, she aged with grace and elegance, carrying enough humour and history in her manner to thoroughly impress me, even from her all-to-brief description, and painted for me a beautiful picture of old age. Society is slowly falling apart, full of confusion and questions. I believe in order to keep the happiness in our fast-paced lives and patch things back together, we must look to the past for guidance, to people like Susie Potts and Hazel Luther. In learning about our elders and the experience and extraordinarily simple wisdom that they have share, we might have a better chance of finding the answers we are looking for.
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