When I started working as a pastor at First Christian Church here in Muscatine, I had the privilege of meeting a lot of new people. My first Sunday there was an elderly woman who was waiting to chat with me. With a big smile, she asked me a question that I’ve learned to dread, “How old do you think I am?” She asked playfully, so I figured I’d humor her.
She looked like she might be 83, so I subtracted a flattering number of years, being polite. “Would you be in your 70s?” I asked tentatively. “I’m 104,” she proclaimed proudly.
I’d get to know Mary Ella better over the next three years. She was old enough to remember the Kaiser and World War I. She grew up on a farm operated by horses and plain old-fashioned manpower. Over the course of her life, she lived through world wars, the advent of automobiles and airplanes, a Depression, 19 Presidents, landing on the moon, the sequencing of the human genome, the Internet, and even, to her dismay, Facebook.
Sharp to the very end, I learned a lot from Mary Ella. She was a good storyteller with a prodigious memory of days gone by. When I’d spend time with her, I always walked away with a richer sense of time and place. Most of the things that I worried about day-in and day-out, Mary Ella had been there already. And, she usually didn’t get too worked up about things going on in the news. Befriending her was a lesson in keeping perspective.
She lived to be 107, easily the oldest person that I’ve known, and I’ve missed seeing her these past six years. The Roman thinker Cicero once wrote that the purpose of education is to free human beings from the tyranny of the present moment. When I am feeling tyrannized by life’s circumstances, overwhelmed, ready to give up, or ready to detach from whatever is going on in the news or in the communities I am a part of, I remember Mary Ella and her perspective. She saw more change in her lifetime than just about any human being in history. Yet she was able to cope, even to thrive.
If you find yourself swept up in the tyranny of the present moment, befriend somebody who is a different age than you are. It’ll open up your world. And, if you’re the person who is getting older (and maybe you’re dreading it a little bit), maybe you’re on this earth to help a younger person learn important things. Most of us don’t learn important things all by ourselves. The most precious of things, like faith, hope, and love, we learn from the people in our lives who show them to us. In this all-too-broken world of ours, if you’re able to connect with even one person, then it can change the world. I know Mary Ella changed mine.