The value of recalling our stories is twofold: Doing so enables us to better understand ourselves, and it enables us to more effectively connect with others in the world. So one test for whether our recollections are helping us to grow as new elders is to see whether they are inspiring self-awareness and deepening our relationships. Uncle Joe's tired litany of woes seems unlikely to do either of those; the life lessons communicated by new elders like Richard Strozzi Heckler or George Leonard seem to have both those effects.
Dave recalls a story that he often shares with the Philosophy for Children classes he leads.
I tell this story to illustrate a couple of things—the ethical theory known as Utilitarianism and some problems with it—but most importantly, my own steps and missteps in trying to figure out the right thing to do. It's a pretty simple story, grounded, more or less, in the Utilitarian view of right and wrong: that actions are right insofar as they maximize total happiness. That is, actions are right providing they lead, in the words of one of Utilitarianism's seminal theorists, John Stuart Mill, to the "greatest good for the greatest number."
In any case, the story is this: Some years ago, I had very dear friend, Jimmy, who was dying of AIDS. He was a wonderful man, with amazing joie de vivre and a bittersweet gallows humor about the situation in which he found himself. In the last few months of his life, due to the wasting syndrome associated with AIDS, he could hardly eat. He lived, during this time, mostly on bottled water and Triscuit crackers. But with his attitude on life, he found even this strangely humorous, and as a result, developed this sort of ironic fascination with Triscuits. Whenever he would finish a box of them, he'd stack the box next to his bed, building up what he referred to as "The Great Shrine of Triscuit." He joked that when he died, he wanted to be buried in a casket made of the tasty wheat snacks.
I was living in Santa Fe at the time and was planning one last visit to Los Angeles to see him before he passed away. I was shopping around for a gift and found myself in a cooking goods store. As I walked in, I saw, on a small dorm-sized refrigerator, the perfect gift for Jimmy. There, stuck to the door of the mini-fridge were four magnets—Triscuit magnets! Made out of plastic, like the demonstration food in the windows of sushi restaurants, they were perfect replicas of the small square crackers that Jimmy so adored.
I took one off the refrigerator and brought it to the checkout counter. "I'd like to buy this magnet," I said to the shop owner who stood behind the cash register.
"Sorry," she replied. "Not for sale."
I didn't quite get it at first. "No, I'd like to buy this," I said. "Pay cash money for it."
"I understand," she said. "But that magnet isn't for sale."
"Oh, please," I said. "Let me explain." I told her all about my dying friend and his love for Triscuits and how this would be the perfect gift.
"Yes," she said, "I see. But I'm sorry, I had to go all the way to Japan to get those magnets and they are not for sale."
"I'll give you 50 bucks," I said.
"Sorry, not for sale," she replied with finality. "We have many other lovely gift items, and I'm sure if you shop around you can find something. But those magnets are not for sale."
At this point (I tell my audience), I had a decision to make. What was the right thing to do? According to Utilitarianism, the act that maximizes total overall happiness is what's right. So, I had to do a little Utilitarian calculus. I added up how happy Jimmy would be to get the magnet, how happy I'd be to give it to him while keeping in mind how unhappy the store owner would be to have one of the magnets go missing ... and the answer was clear.
The right thing to do was to steal the magnet.
So, I tucked it into my pocket, browsed around a bit to allay suspicion, and darted out the door. And of course, I was right: Jimmy was delighted to get the magnet—and even more delighted that I had stolen it for him—and I like to think that when he died a few months later, that perhaps someone took it off the metal lamp next to his bed and placed it gently in his coffin.
But now, when I look back at this, it seems to me that I didn't do the right thing—or at least, that I could have done much better. I didn't have to steal the magnet, after all. When I tell this story to kids, they ask me things like: "Did you leave the 50 bucks?" "Why didn't you just make your own magnet using a real Triscuit, some varnish, and glue gun?" One fifth-grade girl said to me: "How do you know that those four magnets weren't given to her by her four children who died tragically, and those are the only mementos she has of them?"
So when I recall this story and tell it, I am not simply—I hope—recounting an event in my own life. I'm also hoping to make a larger point about learning from one's mistakes and perhaps even a larger point about the human experience of trying to do our best but failing.
Students tend to really enjoy it when I tell them this story. It humanizes me, shows how fallible I am, and gives them some insight, I think, into their own attempts to do the best that they can.
Also, each time I recall it and retell it I find I learn something more about myself. I used to tell it simply as an explanation of Utilitarianism. Later, I came to see it as illustrating how difficult it is to determine the right thing to do. Lately, I find the central lesson to be, as I said above, something about human fallibility. And I think as I continue to recall and retell it, I'll discover something else as times goes on.
The point we want to make here is that recalling our stories is not something we do once and then are done with. It's an ongoing process of recollection and revision, one that can help us more fully understand ourselves and help others understand us better, as well. We urge you, therefore, to take advantage of opportunities to recall your own stories and as a result, find new connections to ancient and powerful stories of which we are all a part.