Chicago magazine

Peter Sagal Learns From His Elders

I am staring into the face of my newborn son and praying that I don’t screw this up. Again.

Looking back on the mistakes of my youth, I realize it would have been really nice to know what catastrophes awaited me before, in the blind ignorance of inexperience, I blithely conjured them into being. But since there will never be such a thing as a time machine, the wrongs of the past can’t be corrected — otherwise an army of spandex-suited travelers from the future would have appeared in 2003 to keep us from watching the Matrix sequels. Instead of an intervention, we get regrets.

Ever since I turned 50 — five years ago! — I’ve been ruminating on everything I wish I had understood as a younger man. The good news is that over time I’ve become more forgiving of that man. I didn’t know! I didn’t know that relationships weren’t supposed to work that way. I didn’t know that what I thought of as strength and resolve presented as cruelty and anger. I didn’t know it was more important to think about what you might leave with a person than what you might take from them. But of course, if I hadn’t made those mistakes, I wouldn’t have gone through the crucibles that forged me, however painfully, into what I am now. It’s not the years that signify wisdom, it’s the scars.

In any case, I was convinced that I was beyond the stage in my life when such life lessons would be of value to me personally. As a middle-aged man with an established career and grown children, I had already made the major choices of my life, correctly or not. Then, earlier this year, my wife and I found out she was pregnant. I had already been applying the lessons I had learned from my failed first marriage to my final one (the numbering stops now), but suddenly I had even more to lose by getting it wrong … again. And what if I hadn’t made all the mistakes requisite to know what I should do this time? I needed more wisdom, from more people, different people.

So, last fall, I put out a call to friends and acquaintances: Who do you know in Chicago who is over 65 and might have some hard-earned wisdom to share? I deliberately sought out people who were outside my social circle and represented a wide range of life experiences.

“A kid needs three things: a home, three square meals a day, and an education. If we miss any one of those three things, that kid is going the wrong way.”
Chris, 74

In the end, I spoke to 10 people from across the city, most of them Chicagoans by birth, some by choice. Due to the pandemic, none of our interviews were in person, so I won’t be offering descriptions of their wise eyes or lined faces. In addition to the relative anonymity of the telephone, I also told them I wouldn’t use their real names. (Some later gave permission to do so; pseudonyms are indicated with an asterisk.) Perhaps this led to deeper and more honest conversations, ones in which my elders shared with me not just their life lessons but also the losses and joys they experienced in the course of learning them.

Chris,* 74, retired police sergeant

“SOCIETY HAS TO TAKE CARE OF ITS CHILDREN.”

If hard experience translates into wisdom, then I expected Chris to be a goddamn King Solomon. Everybody I spoke to carried an inheritance from their parents, either as a wound or when I landed at O’Hare Field,” he told me.

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