90-year-old lessons for a 20-something

A few things about working hard while remembering not to sweat it

I recently had the honor to attend the 90th birthday celebration of my grandfather, Henry Barnes, in Warm Springs, Ga. Everywhere in Meriwether County and miles beyond, the name Henry Barnes inspires a sense of deep respect and simple integrity. As a war veteran, former commissioner,  father of five (and father-figure to dozens more) with over 65 years of marriage (and counting) he could reasonably demand your respect and attention, but this is never the case. A man of few words and great actions, when Mr. Barnes speaks you want to listen. At 25 I often forget, if not disbelieve, that I might actually be alive when I’m 90 years old. A 5-year plan feels like pretty long-term. But sitting in that room listening to story after story of the impact one man has had on so many people over not just a few years, but over whole decades of faithfully investing in his family and community has made me eager to learn from those so far ahead of me in life’s journey. Will the things that seem important to me now still be important to me then?

Last year I called “Dad” Barnes, as we call him, from Oxford on his 89th birthday. Nearly crushed by the relentless demands of grad school, the present moment seemed ever filled with the urgency to accomplish and I felt choked for time as I put aside my studies to give Dad a call. I’ll never forget our conversation. “So you’re 24,” he said, “and I’m 89. Look at how young you are!” Funny that this obvious pronouncement actually came as somewhat of a revelation to me. Reminded of this bit of perspective I asked, “So, any advice?”  I think I was still half-way expecting some specific political or investment advice that would once again help me capitalize on every ounce of the precious commodity of time; However, his response was not about actions but attitude. “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Do the best you can each day. Just keep plugging away. Thank the Lord for the good days, and if you don’t make it one day, don’t worry about it. Maybe you’ll make it tomorrow. It’ll all work out. Don’t stress. That really does the most harm.” In the midst of a season where I was operating on a diet of stress for breakfast, lunch and dinner in order to get it all done, those simple truths were exactly what I needed to hear. Do the best you can. Be diligent. Be grateful. Be hopeful. Trust. Don’t worry. Offered from the time-tested authority of 89 years of experience, and today at 90 his message is the same. Like an anchor whose strength is most evident in its stability, so much of his quiet strength flows from his steady example of hard work and harder faith. As someone who can often depend on using anxiety to fuel action and prevent laziness, I want to lean into this wisdom that trust and hope can also fuel a thriving life. Trying your best every day without fearing failure because you trust in the bigger picture. Go for it, but don’t worry.

Just a day later, I also attended an awards ceremony that would honor my grandmother Margaret Parsons Andrews (on the other side of the family) for her role in founding the Gwinnett Art Council. I remember seeing some of her early designs for an art center on the desk in her studio. She sagely made a point to design the arts centre at the corner of the property to leave room for growth. Her vision became a reality with the beginning of the Gwinnett Center that now includes the Hudgens Arts Centre which houses art galleries, a chidlren’s museum and studio spaces for children to learn the arts, a performing arts theater that supports all forms of community music, dance and drama, and which has since been expanded to include a conference center and the massive Gwinnett Arena where I have seen performances by artists such as Elton John. As the eldest daughter of Calvin Parsons and therefore a direct descendant of the first settler and founder of the city of Duluth, her involvement in the city was practically obligatory, but her vision and determination went far beyond the call of duty. She could have settled into the family’s business and the small comfortable town without many obstacles, but progress requires a vision for opportunity and willingness to face new challenges. Margaret was not afraid of a challenge, but she was terrified of public speaking. So, in college she picked a major that would force her to confront and overcome this fear, speech communication. At the awards show, they handed her a microphone as an entire theatre of people gave her the only standing ovation of the night. After nearly 30 years with Parkinson’s disease, her mobility is pretty limited and her words are often soft and strained, but that night she sounded loud and fearless and she expressed her gratitude and redirected her praise.

Some of the greatest lessons I learn from my grandmother are not gleaned from her words, but from her life. As an artist and businesswoman always on the move, being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease would have been devastating, an easy excuse to dwell on the injustice of this tremendous struggle and step-down from ambitious pursuits. Granted, I’m not old enough to remember when she was first diagnosed and I know I’m not present for many of its many little daily struggles (surely we all have our moments), but I know that I personally have never heard her complain or resign. This has been an especially valuable example to me of late. Having spent the greater part of December and January between surgeries, in and out of the hospital with tubes in my arms and side and a plethora bandages, stitches, scars, and medications by no particular fault of my own, it would be easy to dwell on the injustice of the temporary and permanent setbacks I now face (and again, we all have our moments); But this would be irrelevant to my present ability to accept those challenges as a part of my reality and just roll with it.

Everyone’s challenges look different and it’s not always fair. It usually isn’t. No, I didn’t deserve all of those health struggles, but I also didn’t deserve the amazing friends and family that encouraged and supported me among many other blessings. We probably don’t deserve our windfalls any more than our pitfalls. This lack of control may plague our sense of justice (rightly so), but it does nothing to change the fact that we can and must choose how to respond. Since I’m 25 and probably don’t know anything about anything, I’m going to try to follow my grandfather’s advice: “Do the best you can. Be diligent. Be grateful. Be hopeful. Trust.” Well, that and “eat your vegetables and get some some sleep.” I’ll work on that too.