Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Hell of a Life

Walter Breuning died a few days ago. By all accounts he was a simple man who lived a simple life. But he did so for one hundred and fourteen years.

Before going further, look at the number once more: One Hundred and Fourteen.

He lived a hair over thirty of those years in an assisted living facility, and nearly another quarter century as a widower of the late Mrs. Agnes Breuning (with whom Walter is once again strolling along with in the valley of still waters after that 54-year separation). But he was apparently still very active, at least mentally, until the very end. Along the way he picked up a few insights that are worth expounding upon as careful consideration for how we all should live our lives.

On Change:
Embrace change, even when the change slaps you in the face. "Every change is good . . . I think every change that we've ever made, ever since I was a child — 100 years — every change has been good for the people . . . My God, we used to have to write with pen and ink, you know, (for) everything. When the machines came, it just made life so much easier."

Keep in mind that Mr. Breuning was a 50-year employee of the railroad . . . as a clerk. We are not speaking of Walter Breuning, CEO, whose ground-breaking innovations during his tenure carried an industry from Point A to Point B.

Mr. Breuning, after his career had ended, saw the industry shunt along in a mindless limp, following the pathways forseen by Harvard economist, Professor Theodore Levitt, in his paper on Marketing Myopia. That is, when an industry fails to see its potential outside of a narrow scope, it eventually dies, whether theoretically or in the literal sense.

Mr. Breuning watched many friends lose their positions, and perhaps their pensions as well, because the industry failed to embrace change. The majority of those friends probably died embittered at the thanklessness of the corporate executives and their short-sightedness on making channge work for the industry. But Walter Breuning championed the concept around change. Look where it got him . . . health and happiness for 114 years.

Yet, how many people do we all know (some of us stare back at those people in the mirror) who wring their hands and tremble at the thought of trying something, anything, that is new or unfamiliar. I used to be that way about some foods, or social interaction. Some people are that way with computers or electronic technology of any kind. "Oh, that is too complicated. How do you play music on that tiny thing called an iPod?" "The same way generations went from vinyl discs to 8-Track tapes to cassette tapes to compact discs." Change is good!

And how many of those people who fret over change deny themselves of a long life? A helluva lot more than the one who lived to be 114 years old.

On Death:
"We're going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you're born to die."

Here was a man who seemingly cheated the Grim Reaper for a long, long time, albeit in an unspectacular fashion . . . just going day-to-day, putting one pants leg on at a time, putting one step in front of the other. But he did it for 114 years.

Years ago when my Mother turned 40 I overheard her tell a cousin that it was "the darkest day of my life." I was 13, and remember thinking, "And the alternative to turning 40 is . . .?"

Mom, who for years has followed my Dad around like a lap dog, is now a mindless soul of 77. She has not excercised her brain for quite a few years and depends on my Dad to tell her what she cannot do, implying she is not smart, or capable, enough.

She is a Christian woman whose eternal destiny is secured by her faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, if asked about death, she would probably cringe and begin to harbor thoughts about dying as if she were one of only a few persons who will ever die.

On a Healthy Diet:
Eat two meals a day. Mr. Breuning said his good health was due to this strict diet.

"That's all you need. How many people in this country say that they can't take the weight off? I tell these people, . . . 'Get on a diet and stay on it. You'll find that you're in much better shape, feel good.'"

But here in America, especially in Beans-and-Cornbread Country, we shovel more food down our throats at one meal than Mr. Bruening did in two meals . . . then we add one more meal and usually a midnight snack.

How in the hell are we supposed to maintain a healthy weight and high energy for many years with that extreme gluttony--a characteristic that is highly frowned upon in the Bible.

And how many shortened life spans result from the grandiose gorging? One man lived to be a lucid, lively 114 years old by avoiding that demon. That man was Walter Breuning.

Work as long as you can:
"That money's going to come in handy. Don't retire until you're darn sure that you can't work anymore. Keep on working as long as you can work and you'll find that it's good for you."

With this nugget I take a half exception . . . but only one-half. I believe work is the life force that keeps the American ideals going strong. It pushes people to do their part, and a wee bit more. Then someone else picks up the baton and does the same.

But that doesn't mean we should, at some point, not consider backing off and exploring more options. I am not talking about quitting a career, retiring to a couch, and wait for the drooling to start.

Nothing says you have to slave 40 hours a week until the day you cannot slave any more. But you should continue meaningful living until the day you die.

There were two more ideals that he did not leave the interviewers with a quote: One was to maintain a simple life. Another was to eschew the myth that owning a home is part of the American Dream.

The two actually go together in a way, although I imagine for most of Mr. Breuning's working life the idea of home ownership was more palpable than the travesty created by the current financial products industry.

Still, considering that Mr. Breuning owned only a small parcel of land briefly around the onset of the Great Depression, being a renter did not stop him from a long and healthy life.

How many strokes or heart attacks or aneurysms are caused when people get too involved in keeping up with the Jones to keep up with their health? How many suicides can also be attributed to such fallacy. Let's not begin with the slow-death diseases that eat away at people silently for too many years until it is too late.

I'm not suggesting that Mr. Breuning had all of the answers, only 93.5 percent of them. And even if someone can live such a life on the fringes of austerity, there is no guarantee that Mr. Reaper won't push them out if front of a bus before they turn 40.

But what a great beacon Mr. Breuning gave us to use.

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