Archive for Tom Beech

What’s in a Name, or Label

A "Wiser Together" contribution from guest blogger Tom Beech:

A little while ago, I received an email that caught me up short.  It was from a young, 20’s-something, friend of mine.  He and I are working on a project together and he sent me a copy of a note he had written to another friend of his, a young guy he wanted me to meet.  In this email he said, “I’d like you to meet an elderly man I know…..”

OK. Well, first let’s get some facts on the table.  I’m 74 years old, in pretty good mental and physical health, retired from a long career but still active in my community. I can string several strands of thought together and keep track of most of them without losing my way or boring others. “Elderly,” is not a word I’d use to describe myself.

I don’t think I’ve earned the status of “elder” and when you add a “-ly” on, I get a little defensive.  To be fully honest, I get defensive in the face of judgement and criticism more easily than I should, but that’s another story… I think. I don’t label others or lump them into arbitrary groups.  For example, I don’t refer to someone who’s young and then automatically add on the word, “whippersnapper!” Adding this on wouldn’t be very useful anyway since most young people wouldn’t have a clue about what it means.

So, after taking a few deep breaths, I started to think about what I’ve learned as a result of receiving this email.

First, this brought home the fact that other people don’t see us the way we see ourselves.  I see myself as active, healthy, interested in learning. My wife, Carol and I have been married for more than 45 years and we still find joy, excitement, love and fulfillment in being together. Every once in a while, I get the sense that our kids and others see frailty, lack of competence, lack of energy and lapses of attention that we don’t either feel or experience.

I’ve learned that age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom.  Some of the wisest people I know are in their 20’s and some of the dumbest are in their 70’s. Truth be told, these folks were dense when they were in their 20’s too.  But age and experience, if we pay attention to what’s happening to us, and if we listen to the people around us, open the possibility of accumulating some wisdom. This of course requires us to be open both to those who think we’re terrific and heap praise on us and those who question our every move and thought, without getting either self-congratulatory or defensive.  And what good is this wisdom?  At the very least, it helps us avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly, and if we’re lucky, someone may actually listen to us once in a while.

I’ve learned that living at a slower pace is not a weakness. It allows me to pay attention, even in moments when it appears that I’m lost in my own thoughts. The fact that others don’t expect me to “keep up” is a blessing because I can savor what I’m experiencing, living with it more fully without feeling guilty. I used to feel that I was expected to keep all of the plates spinning, all of the balls in the air…all of the time.  That was exhausting and sometimes everything crashed at once.  Now doing one thing at a time or listening to one person at a time seems right, even if I have to ask, “What did you say?” often enough to exasperate Carol, who has the patience of Job.

I’ve learned that curiosity and failure are two sides of the same coin, and together, they keep life interesting. Curiosity may have “killed the cat” as the saying goes, but it keeps me alive. I’m learning new skills and exploring new arenas of information every day and one of the prices I pay for this is frequent failure.  I used to worry about failure a lot, mostly because I feared what other people would think.  Sometimes, my failures did affect others and in these cases, trying to avoid them was not just the safest thing to do, it was respectful and thoughtful.  But most of the time, the only person impacted was me. I still care about what people think, but now I realize that most of the time most people are unaware of what I’m doing. They’re busy just trying to get through their own days. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to see it….only the tree knows.

The meeting with my friend’s friend went well.  I learned from him and I think he enjoyed meeting me, even if he thought I was “elderly.”


Tom Beech is recently retired from a long career in philanthropy and is now active in his home community of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Balance Lost

We were kindly given permission to post the following piece by author Tom Beech.

The idea of “a more perfect union,” in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States has has always rested on the principle of balance…balance of power among the three branches of the Federal Government, between the Federal Government and the States, between freedom, individual rights, interdependence and mutual responsibility. 

Of late, it seems that we’ve lost sight of the importance of balance and in recent days, the proposed law passed by the Arizona State Legislature (mercifully vetoed by that State’s Governor) was at least for me, a stunning example of this. In the last few years our attention has been focused on the importance of “religious freedom,” the “right to bear arms,” the “rights of natural born citizens vs. those of immigrants,” the “rights of free enterprise.” 

What has been lost in the furious debate about these freedoms, one of the founding tenants of our democracy, is that one person’s freedom cannot be expressed at the expense of another person.  And we have developed amendments to the Constitution and a body of laws and regulations to safeguard this balance…balancing my freedom with yours. We have looked to government at the national, state and local levels to provide these safeguards.

But over the last 30 years or so, government has not played this role effectively.  The behavior of the investment banking industry leading up to and following the market crash in 2008; the debate over gun violence; our current immigration policies and practices; the existing rules for campaigns for elective office; the debate over religious freedom and even over the role of government itself,  are graphic examples of the inability of government to safeguard balance among competing interests and “freedoms.” Government officials at all levels are held captive by various interest groups, and the “fourth estate,” which historically played the important role of providing information and analysis of complex issues, is now chiefly interested in entertainment, sensationalism and short term financial gain for its owners.

Elected officials who have differing views on important issues facing us, only talk to the people who already agree with them and the people who will help them get reelected, and from that platform, preach to the rest of us about the “truth” according to them. Broadcasters shout at one another in prime time, apparently in the belief that this is “good theatre” that will hold our attention and feed the advertising budget that keeps them on the air.

Lost in this noise is any kind of reasoned public dialogue or civil discourse.  Lost is the realization that more fundamental than my personal freedom is the idea that we have to live together in order for any sense of real freedom to survive. Lost is the fact that “freedom” we take from one another is in reality, tyranny.

Amidst all this noise, there are a growing number of quiet (and not so quiet) hopeful voices.  And among these quiet (and not so quiet) voices is Parker Palmer, who has been listening, speaking and writing for years about the importance of balance and the living tension imbedded in any sense of balance. His latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, offers for our consideration, five “Habits of the Heart,” that in his words, “…are critical to sustaining a democracy.”

  • An understanding that we are all in this together,
  • An appreciation of the value of “otherness,”
  • An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways,
  • A sense of personal voice and agency,
  • A capacity to create community.

These are ideas for each of us, in our families, book clubs, classrooms, community activities, boardrooms, congregations and halls of government to take into our hearts and into our daily lives. This is one way in which each of us can nurture the quiet (and not so quiet) revolution on which the survival of our democracy depends.

Tom Beech is recently retired from a long career in philanthropy and is now active in his home community of Kalamazoo, Michigan.