By Christina Maxwell
Distinguished Young Woman of America for 2012
George Bernard Shaw once said, “youth is wasted on the young”. As a young person, this can be a somewhat discouraging thing to hear. I think it would be quite a tragedy to waste the golden years of opportunity in our youth. Yet, in some ways, it is hard not to. Although our bodies are young, we don’t have the wisdom that can come only through experiencing the years of life’s mountaintops and valleys. In our youth, we sometimes can’t fully understand the depth of the decisions we’re making, the words we’re saying and the challenges we’re facing. In effect, we sometimes end up squandering our youth and wasting the precious moments of health and vitality we are blessed to have.
Yet, all around us, there are people who have the wisdom we are lacking. The older generations of people in our lives have lived through the triumphant celebrations and heartbreaking tragedies that life brings. Many of them have faced war, sickness, political strife, death of loved ones, hunger, disappointment and heartbreak that we have not yet experienced. They are experts at things that we are only beginning to understand. Every day, we are surrounded by this remarkable source of knowledge. Imagine how remarkable it would be if we took the time to stop, sit down and ask questions. What would happen if we invited these people to share with us their years of memories and if we truly listened?
I’m blessed to have all four of my grandparents still living. I’m amazed at all that they have lived through with such grace: breast cancer, painful deaths of loved ones, surgeries, military service, raising children and grandchildren and seeing the world around them change completely.
I think of how my dad’s father, “Pa”, left college on weekends to go home to take care of his mother, who was in excruciating pain and dying of cancer in a time before modern treatments and pain control. Wanting to give his dad a break, he selflessly endured the heartbreak of trying to comfort his suffering mother, something that reminds me to be a faithful caretaker of those I love.
How my dad’s mother, “Mamma Ginny”, one of seven children, had the courage to leave home and get a college education in a time when that wasn’t the norm for women. She was the first in her family to get a college education, helping give me the bravery to go so far away to Michigan.
How my mom’s dad, “Papa”, can always find the perfect way to put things in perspective for me. He lightens my load whether taking my hands and dancing with me in the kitchen (with or without music), or telling me to “just let it go” with his newly coined phrase, “Oh, hashtag”, that he created after hearing my brother and I talking about Twitter.
How my mom’s mother, “Grandma”, has made her whole life about serving other people and God. She gives fully of all she has, whether a fresh-baked pie or hours of time, and does so with a true joy and an invitation for me to learn how to truly give and do the same.
Although not everyone still has grandparents living, everyone has older people in their lives who have so much wisdom to share. Many of the elderly people in my church or community have impacted who I am.
I think of Dr. Roberta Rice, who served overseas as a missionary surgeon in a time when women simply didn’t do that. A few years ago, I interviewed her about her experiences and was shocked by the beauty, intensity and boldness of the stories she had to tell, of the memories she shared.
Reverand Thorton Hawkins, who sends me a card every year on my birthday, reminding me to remember to thank my mom on my birthday, without whom I wouldn’t have this day to celebrate. He sends beautiful poetry and thoughtful letters to me regularly and even gave me a very special guardian angel that I carry with me, reminding me how he is, in a lot of ways, my own guardian angel.
Mary Louise Spain, who even though I moved away from her seven or eight years ago, traveled to Asheville to see me perform in many shows and concerts and continues to travel on go on the kind of adventures I dream of one day having.
Charlie David, a celebrated veteran of the stage in his eighties who made a return performance, playing grandfather Arvide to my Sarah Brown character in GUYS AND DOLLS last year. He reduced me to tears as he sang to me every night onstage about all of the happiness he wished for me in my life and is a dear friend of mine to this day.
Virginia Byers, who sends me letters written in beautiful, swirling cursive print reminding me of how precious I am to her and to God. She sends me lists of quotes and scriptures that always end up hanging over my desk where I can be reminded of what’s really important.
These are only a few of so many incredible older people who have touched my life in a way that I will never forget. I have been blessed by those who have embraced me and taken the time to love, encourage and teach me.
It is remarkable and humbling to think of all the wisdom the older generations around us have to impart. I believe that if we take the initiative to ask and the patience to listen, we will find that they are more than happy to share their own life adventures with us. It is a gift to us to be able to sit in their presence and gather wisdom and to let them know that their stories matter to us while we’re blessed enough to still have them here.
Who in your life has stories and lessons to share? How will you find the time and space in a busy world to listen while there is still time?
Christina Maxwell is a college freshman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan majoring in Musical Theatre. Originally from Asheville , North Carolina, Christina was a participant in the Distinguished Young Women program and was selected as the Distinguished Young Woman of North Carolina for 2012 and the Distinguished Young Woman of America for 2012. Learn more about Christina here!