An Old Professor’s Advice to His Younger Self … and Us

By Bobby Neal Winters Published on April 30, 2023

I am now an old professor. I’ve come a long way from the backwoods of Oklahoma to my life here among the shimmering spires of southeast Kansas. Life’s been good to me so far. But have I learned anything?

Not from a book. I’ve learned a lot from books. But from life. What advice would I give to a younger self?  What would I tell my kids and grandkids if they actually listened to me?

One thing: Take up a discipline. I don’t mean a career.  I mean take up a practice that you do regularly — every day, every week — and keep at it. Take it seriously.  By that, I mean to keep at it. It doesn’t have to be something that is hard. Start with something easy. If it’s too hard, you won’t keep it up. 

Like going to church.

It’s Easy to Go to Church

You get up on Sunday morning; you put on some nice clothes; you go and sit for an hour; you come home. Easy.

Go even if you don’t believe in God; even if you don’t listen to the music; even if you don’t listen to the Scripture being read; even if you don’t pray. The discipline of this will organize your week. It will mark your time.

And, while I am at it, another discipline you can practice is prayer. Set a time to pray every day and then do it. Maybe just five minutes if that’s all you think you can manage.

No one has to know about it. In fact, it’s better if they don’t. In particular, pray for the people who annoy you. Praying for people is an act of kindness to them, and treating people kindly usually makes you like them better. Or at least understand them better, and if not that, at least tolerate them better.

Again, you don’t even have to believe in God. If you don’t, think about the people in your life and think about the good things you would like to happen to them. Think about the annoying people and why they annoy you, and try to feel some sympathy for them.

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Here’s a third discipline. It’s one of those people often take up but not keep at. You could exercise. This should be a daily discipline, like prayer. And as I said already, take it seriously but begin with something easy.

I love walking. Every day that weather permits. Mostly around my neighborhood, but lately I’ve been doing an orbit around the Kansas Technology Center. The weather has just been so nice that at lunchtime, I throw a sandwich down my throat and then walk to the KTC and back. No dogs and very little traffic to dodge. You don’t know where it is, but you probably have something similar: A place 

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Here’s the thing: Once you’ve instituted one discipline in your life, it is easier to institute another. You get the hang of it and you find out that when you keep at it for a while, the discipline feels natural and becomes part of your day. It can become something you miss doing when you can’t do it, not something you have to do.

If you go to church every week, you can piggyback something else on that: calling your mother or a sick friend; mowing the lawn for an elderly neighbor; having people to dinner. If you pray every day, you can tack on reading a chapter from the Bible or the Torah or something else thought-provoking. If you exercise, you can practice really looking at the world or listen to a podcast to learn more about a subject you’ve always wanted to know about.

Once you learn to institute a discipline, you can try out different things. Learn a language. Learn woodworking (be careful!). Join groups of people who are interested in the same thing, like history, or bird-watching, even math. Join groups of people who do the same good work, like a regular night at a soup kitchen or cleaning up a park.

Change Yourself

With a discipline, you can change yourself. And you can connect with others.

It’s best to learn this when you are young so that you can benefit from it your whole life. Here is the tragedy.  I am pretty sure no young person — or at least so few as to be statistically insignificant — ever started a disciple because they were told it would be a good idea. Those who do do so because they see others doing it.

Those who are interested in sports in school have a leg up, as it were.  But because of structural constraints, there is a bottleneck there.

So this is to you people (most of you old, I bet) who read this. If you want a young person who is near and dear to you to take up a discipline, take up one yourself.

Go to church; pray; exercise; do something else; do something with others.  And try not to be a bore about it. (Because, let’s be honest, that’s very easy to do.) Provide a pattern, a pattern that’s worked for you and made you a better person, for the young ones to see and have in their minds. Maybe they’ll start now. And even if they don’t, they might remember it and follow it when you are gone, and they’re old enough to see the wisdom of it.

 

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