Life Lessons from Our Elders
I recently had the privilege to interview about 90 people, primarily between the ages of 85 and 103, for an exhibit at the Charlotte Museum of History called “Personal Legacies: Surviving the Great Depression.” With the ups and downs of our economy in mind, I originally set out to discover secrets to financial security, should we ever come into hard times again.
Many shared that being practical and learning to do without helped a great deal to survive during that era. (Who does not have stories about their parents saving pieces of soap, tin foil, or other such odds and ends?) They also advised future generations to avoid spending money you did not have and to save what you can. The universal wisdom, however, that I gleaned from those conversations turned out to be something quite different from what I expected.
I came to realize, and now truly believe, that the prevailing message for survival is not something you could buy, much less accomplish on your own. What actually holds everyone together through the lean times are the extended families, close-knit communities, and neighborhood churches. Survival is not about accumulating wealth, but sharing what you have.
People not only survived, they thrived. From the destitute mill towns and farms to the small neighborhoods in the city, everyone knew each other and looked out for one another. Within those tightly knit communities, there truly was no child left behind and elders were cared for and treated with respect.
Fred Brown, who lived in a rural area, pointed out that people lived closer together in those days and they respected and helped one another. People left food for needier families on their porches and made sure to pass on hand-me-downs to their children. Even Sarah Bryant, who lived in the city, said she learned the importance of looking out for others when she helped her father make sure the little boy down the street whose father had no work received presents for Christmas.
In today’s world, it appears that this strong sense of community, where everybody knows each other, is being mowed over with rapid growth and bigger-is-better attitudes. After listening to my elders, I believe the best investment I can make is to bank my time, money, and efforts in my family and my community.
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