The Chaplain's Notebook


Reverend Lydia Sohn interviewed the oldest people she knew. Their answers surprised her.

“We all have joys, hopes, fears and longings that never go away no matter how old we get. I associated deep yearnings and ambitions with the energy and idealism of youth. My assumption was that the elderly transcend these desires because they become more stoic and sage-like. Or the opposite: They become disillusioned by life and gradually shed their vibrancy and vitality. When I realized that my assumptions might be wrong, I set out to research the internal lives of older people. Who really were they, and what had they learned in life?

“I began each conversation by asking if they had any regrets. Most revolved around their families. They wished relationships, either with children or between their children, turned out differently. These relational fractures, I could see on their faces, still caused them much pain and sorrow. I then moved on to the happiest moments of their lives. Every single one of these 90-something-year-olds recalled a time when their spouses were still alive, and their children were younger. As a busy young mom [Reverend Sohn wrote] and working professional who frequently fantasizes about the faraway, imagined pleasures of retirement, I responded, ‘But weren’t those the most stressful times of your lives?’ Yes of course, they all agreed. But there was no doubt that those days were also the happiest.

“Their responses intrigued me. They contradicted a well-known article on happiness in The Economist, ‘The U-bend of Life.’ Researchers there concluded that happiness, pleasure and enjoyment are most tenuous during middle age, starting in our 20s with depression peaking at 46 — which the author described as ‘middle-age-misery’ due to the overwhelming number of familial, professional and financial demands during these years. But my interviewees’ responses contradicted this theory. Why?

“The radical relationship-based orientation of all my subjects caught me by surprise. As someone entering the height of my career, I expend much more energy on work than on relationships. And when I imagine my future, I envision what I will have accomplished rather than the quality of my interactions with those who are most important to me.”

These conversations challenge us all. Time to give up working? Unlikely. Fulfilling career and financial stability are great satisfactions, of course — which, in turn, positively impact our families. But these older folks teach us to find a balance and moderation in life between competing responsibilities and priorities. Do I have to be the best deputy in the world when my kid is starving for attention? Does my spouse really need to get the highest-paying job if that means we spend less time together?

Reverend Sohn concludes, “These 90-something-year-olds emphasized the opposite when they look back on their lives. Their joys and regrets have nothing to do with their careers, but with their parents, children, spouses and friends. Put simply, when I asked one person, ‘Do you wish you accomplished more?’ He responded, ‘No, I wished I loved more.’” (Credit: Reverend Lydia Sohn;; July 12, 2018.)

How can I contact a chaplain? Chaplains are available at their units of assignment, or by calling the Psychological Services Bureau (PSB) at (213) 738-3500.