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.


  1. I expect you have indeed earned the title of ‘elder’! Elder to me means ‘elder wisdom.’ It is my reflection that it is time for us to claim the wisdom that we can bring from life experiences and caring about this world and seeking a better world. If it takes being an ‘elder’ to help make the world a place of #peace, so be it!

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