There was a heart-warming story on the news last week about an 89-year old World War II veteran who was learning to read for the first time. Ed Bray lives alone in a single-wide in Cookson, Oklahoma. He was at Normandy and earned not one, but two purple hearts plus more than a dozen other medals. But he says the most difficult challenge in his life has been illiteracy. He talked about how he covered up and compensated over the years. Until last week, only a few knew the secret shame he carried.
Ed’s goal was to read one book before he died. He had tried many times to learn over the years, and finally became resigned. But the soldier who survived Normandy would never completely give up. Recently, at a friend’s suggestion, he began working with a reading specialist at Northeastern State University and this time it clicked. Last week he read his very first book.
To me the inspiring part of Ed’s story is his sense of an incomplete task and the need to complete it. It was something he just had to do. One of my most probing questions to ask my psychotherapy clients is, “What would you regret never having done?” Is there something you always wanted to do, meant to do, but now you fear you are too old to do or that you simply can’t do? Don’t tell that to Ed.
One of my favorite theories in psychology is Erikson’s Stages of Development. Erikson postulated that we go through eight stages from birth to death, and each stage has a task and an outcome associated with it. In middle adulthood (ages 40-65) life is all about work and productivity. We are challenged with living a life of generativity versus stagnation. In order to complete this task, we need to create or nurture things that will outlast us. This might include parenting children, having meaningful work, or volunteering at something that makes the world a better place. We want to make a contribution. By the time we get to Ed’s stage (65 and above), we need to be able to look back on life with a sense of fulfillment. We need to know we completed our mission on earth. If we fail at this task, we may have a sense of regret or despair.
That was a very wordy paragraph that basically means we don’t want to get to the end of life with regrets. Ed’s story challenges me to keep on growing, to keep becoming. Ed had a lifetime of evidence that said he just couldn’t be taught to read. Ed could have surrendered to the belief, “I can’t do it.” But Ed believed and lived the words of another World War II hero, Winston Churchill. “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never…never give in.”