One of my greatest fears of aging is not the loss of title, status, money or even health. It’s the fear of being irrelevant. Who wants to find themselves in a place where they’ve finally figured out a few things about life, only to learn no one cares.
Reality television personality Heidi Montag lost her place in the sun when her TV series, “The Hills,” was cancelled. So she underwent 10 plastic surgeries in one day last fall to once again make herself relevant, even if for all the wrong reasons. Staying relevant is hard work in a culture that defines relevance as whatever holds our attention for at least 15 minutes.
Lately, I’ve been reconsidering my passion to be relevant. Right now it seems what our culture needs is not so much relevant people as wise ones. And that’s something all of us have a shot at becoming.
Years ago I lived in a neighborhood filled with wise people, although I didn’t realize it then and they didn’t either. No one on my block was rich or famous, but everyone had a story and their stories lasted longer than 15 minutes.
The local police chief, an African-American, lived with his family down at the corner. His lawn was always immaculate in the summer, even though neighborhood kids regularly cut across it on their bikes to get around the block faster. Their transgression never drew anger because he relished that he had a lawn and his kids had bikes—both of which had been absent from his own childhood. Chalk one up for grace and gratitude.
Russian immigrants lived down the block in the other direction. They pretty much kept to themselves, except for Saturdays when we’d see them walk to synagogue in identical black hats and long black coats to celebrate with orthodox friends. Their traditions were difficult to practice in an America that held such different values, but they relished walking freely to worship without harassment and constantly served their neighbors in small, unannounced ways. Chalk one up for faith and service.
A middle-aged Greek security guard lived across the street with his German shepherd guard dog. He was a cranky guy. All the wrongs of his life (which he would eagerly recite on a regular basis) were always someone else’s fault. He never came to the block parties—probably for fear he might have a good time. He finally moved and no one noticed or cared. A cautionary tale for us all.
The greatest source of wisdom on my block was a tiny 85-year-old Vietnamese woman who didn’t speak a word of English. She lived with her granddaughter, her granddaughter’s husband and their four-year old boy. She managed the couple’s home and took care of their child while they pursued rigorous professional careers.
Her energy seemed preternatural. She tended the family’s extensive backyard garden, wearing the traditional Vietnamese wrap-type outfit with baggy pants, similar to what martial artists wear. She handled her precocious 4-year old great-grandson with a firm hand, without ever raising her voice. Whenever she sat down, her hands always held some sewing project. And, if all the food left surreptitiously on my doorstep was any indication, she must have cooked all day long.
I once made the mistake of telling her granddaughter how much I liked the hot sauce she once left as a condiment with one of her meals, although I could barely handle a teaspoon of the fiery substance. Soon thereafter, the tiny woman began depositing giant mason jars of the sauce on my doorstep every Saturday. The stuff was so potent it could have been used as a weapon of mass destruction, except there was too much love packed inside.
Every day, without knowing it, she demonstrated what really constitutes a relevant life. Love, hard work, family, discipline, kindness toward strangers, hospitality, generosity, a smile and a positive attitude regardless of the circumstances.
Intriguing people may turn our heads for a moment and try to convince us they are what’s relevant. But a wise person and their ways stick in our memory for a lifetime.