Sunday, December 22, 2013

Wisest Words of 2013

Apart from readings in the Bible and biblical commentary, the wisest words I read this year were from George Vaillant's Triumphs of Experience (2012), a book about the current research findings of the Harvard Grant Study.  These words are highlighted in bold below.

To begin, here's an excerpt from the book jacket summary of the book:

"Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days.  The now-classic Adaptions to Life reported on the men's lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation.  Now George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement.

Reporting on all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study's subjects), Triumphs of Experience shares a number of surprising findings.   For example, the people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa.  While the study confirms that recovery from a miserable childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength.  Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50.  The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic makeup."

One striking story from the book was the biography of a man named Godfrey Minot Camille, who was a wreck in early adulthood -- perpetually stressed, essentially friendless, hospitalized for 14 months at age 35 with pulmonary tuberculosis -- but finished life a joyous man.

From p. 51:

"At eighty, Camille threw himself a potluck supper birthday party.  Three hundred people from his church came.  He provided the jazz band.

At eighty-two, Godfrey Minot Camille had a fatal heart attack while climbing in the Alps, which he dearly loved.  His church was packed for the memorial service.  "There was a deep and holy authenticity about the man," said the bishop in his eulogy.  His son said, "He lived a very simple life, but it was rich in relationships."  Yet prior to age thirty, Camille's life had been essentially barren of relationship.  Folks change.  But they stay the same, too.  Camille had also spent his years before the hospital looking for love.  It just took him a while to let himself find it.

By the time Godfrey Minot Camille was eighty, even Aristotle would have conceded that he was leading a good life.  But who could have foreseen, when he was twenty-nine and the Study staff ranked him in the bottom 3 percent of the cohort in personality stability, that he would die a happy, giving, and beloved man?  Only those who understand that happiness is only the cart; love is the horse.  And perhaps those who recognize that our so-called defense mechanisms, our involuntary ways of coping with life, are very important indeed -- the missing piece I mentioned above.  Before age thirty, Camille depended on narcissistic hypochondriasis to cope with his life and feelings; after fifty he used empathic altruism and a pragmatic stoicism about taking what comes.  There are two pillars of happiness revealed by the seventy-five-year-old Grant Study (and exemplified by Dr. Godfrey Minot Camille).  One is love.  The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away."

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