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Lessons for Surviving Crises, from the Wisest Among Us

Karl Pillemer, faculty
Man standing in a chapel with stained glass windows, holding a book

The COVID-19 pandemic has us asking difficult questions: How will we survive this? What are we willing to sacrifice? What comes next? In a moment that feels unprecedented, we can learn from the hard-won wisdom of a generation that weathered the most devastating events of the 20th century. Professor Karl Pillemer’s book (2012) 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, started with the premise that older people have invaluable knowledge on how to live well through hard times. He asked them: Based on your experience of these world-shaking crises, what advice do you have for living through them?

Take the long view: Focusing on what your future can be a decade or more from now can provide an antidote to worry, the elders advise. This lesson is also a reminder: Present actions are the future stories of how we survived. What story do we want to tell?

Be generous: If you want to help yourself, the elders said, help others. Pillemer noted that their own poor families helped out even poorer ones during the Great Depression. They remember World War II as a time when communities came together and everyone joined hands and hearts to support one another at home.

Don’t worry—prepare instead: The oldest Americans have experience worrying about an event, going through the event and dealing with the fallout. According to Pillemer, they overwhelmingly agree: At best, worrying wastes time; at worst, it increases your suffering.

Enjoy small daily pleasures: The last lesson Pillemer shared was the importance of experiencing joy and savoring small daily pleasures. The elders tell us that a positive attitude in a crisis depends on thinking small. “A morning cup of coffee … a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio,” he said.

Read the full story by E.C. Barrett, Cornell Chronicle

Watch Professor Pillemer present some lessons book in 2011.