THE BLOG
03/15/2012 12:48 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2012

The Red-Hot 100: Reflections Approaching My 89th Birthday

"The Red-Hot 100: One Hundred of the Most Important Young Men and Women in the U.S." was published by Life magazine in 1962. No one on the list was older than 40. Author John Updike was 30; playwright Edward Albee, 34; soprano Leontyne Price, 35; theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, 38; the White House's Theodore Sorenson, 34. At 39, I was identified as an activist Episcopal priest who was a civil rights Freedom Rider and an upcoming author.

Criteria for being on the list included dedication to more than individual success and hopefulness about humanity. Now my 89th birthday is around the corner. What advice would I give someone under 40 who faced a similar list today that invoked tough standards, courage and zest for hard work?

Whether 39 or approaching 89, I've needed other people in my life. I can't make it alone, period. Actually I don't want to. Other people tell me the truth about myself, even when I don't welcome it. They give me a clear glimpse of reality, especially when I busily obscure it in favor of fantasy or self-delusion or sheer selfishness. Maybe the finest gift I've received from other people is their unexpected expectation of my best. This pushes me forward. It gives me renewed strength by sharing a vision of possibility within myself.

The most important thing I've learned is to engage life. Take it seriously. Live in the present moment. Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's classic play "Death of a Salesman" is a portrait of someone rooted in an unpromising past. Yet the present is here. Help it to come in. Seek to be a part of it.

Is there something you've always wanted to do -- but didn't? Maybe you could try to do it now. Will you take the risk? The biggest thing to fear is not trying. You may need to embrace fresh goals and shift expectations. Going on 89, I can scarcely remember myself at 39. Life has changed me immeasurably. In other words, forces and changes quite outside myself held the power of an avalanche when they swept over my being. For one thing I had to make instant and huge changes.

But how? This required wisdom, which is found in community and with other people. I've had some wonderful teachers in my life, people willing to share and be involved.

I remember in middle school in Colorado there was Elsie B. Essex, a teacher who stayed at school many an afternoon so that we could talk. Her wisdom was gold. More important, she was not a phony. She cared. Later, in high school, Mary E. Lowe guided me through the vagaries and wonderful possibilities of a teacher-student relationship. There was an essay writing competition I wanted desperately to win. But when I handed it in -- dangerously close to deadline -- she informed me it could not do so. Why? Because it wasn't good enough.

Somehow I got my act together, rewrote the essay by working through the night, and typed it on an old-fashioned typewriter. I won first prize. She chose not to be sentimental about the occasion. She wouldn't let it go to my head. There was no gamesmanship with instant celebrity. I sincerely meant my "thank you" to her. However, the next day we didn't dwell on yesterday which had become the past. Now, there was new work to be done. I got to work. I would not be a writer today if she hadn't patiently and expertly stood with me through a youthful test of fire.

Do you sometimes see other people as standing in your way or merely objects to be used? Try to see them as people who are struggling with their own stumbling blocks. Can you try getting to know them? Laugh with them? Invite them in?

Don't accept stereotypes including one's own. Stay free. Be an individual. Perceive others as individuals. Welcome them. Something to look forward to is becoming a sage, a mentor, even an elder. Since you've already "been there, done that" now you can share it with younger people. But always use your sense of humor and try for a lighter touch.

Learn how to handle nuts-and-bolts issues. Read the small print. Neither take unfair advantage of others nor let others do it either. Don't become a doormat. Discard doormats.

Let the child within you play. Walk on a dirt road or in a park or by an ocean or a lake or a waterfall. Plant a rose bush. Listen to a bird sing or a symphony. Read or write a poem. Have a belly laugh or an ice cream cone.

Forgive. Wow, this seems the toughest thing of all. Yet it's really fairly uncomplicated. Don't hang onto old resentments and memories that corrode both mind and soul. This also means not allowing ego to run our lives. What a relief!

Poet Marianne Moore said the cure for loneliness is solitude. Let faith deepen. Don't be afraid of quiet, but seek it out. Anyone can meditate or pray at any time. Try it.