I love to listen to the life stories of elders. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview various senior citizens — family members, friends, and strangers — and learn some of the major and minor events that helped shape their lives. What has surprised me the most are the negative incidents that have been related to me during an oral history.
As a private person myself, I’ve always been reluctant to “air dirty laundry” by talking about my own past failures or problems. But it becomes clear that the most remarkable people are those who have faced and overcome many obstacles throughout their lives.
When I ask someone who is old enough to have acquired a great deal of wisdom to explain how they became who they are today, I should not be surprised when they tell me about the bad things that have happened to them. And as they talk, I realize that each negative event became a twist in the road that determined the ultimate direction they would travel in life. Extreme poverty during childhood led to ambition, hard work, and frugality that resulted in a nest egg for the retirement years. A failed first marriage was followed by a subsequent focus on making the second marriage work. The death of a loved one caused priorities to change and a closer connection among the survivors.
That’s not to say that all tragedies early in life eventually result in a fairy-tale happy ending. One of the saddest interviews I ever did was with a dear lady who had just turned 100 and related to me such a long tale of woes and regrets that I “accidentally” deleted her oral history from my recorder rather than share it with her family.
But who among us cannot look back at an event that seemed to have no redeeming value when it happened, but turned out to be the catalyst for a very positive life change.
If we can keep that in mind when bad things are happening, maybe it won’t be so hard to get through the inevitable storms of life. And maybe those with the courage to share the stories of their own tragedies and mistakes will help the rest of us recognize the blessings and possibilities beyond our own present-day troubles.