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Now and then, you’ll hear someone lament the grim future that awaits today’s youth, the first generation that will not be wealthier than their parents. I’m all for progress, but sometimes I wonder. Would it really be so bad if we struggled a little more?

I have been privileged to know many people born in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of them grew up poor, neglected, abused or some combination of all three. When the adults in their lives were absent, sick, or otherwise ineffective, this generation relied on themselves. When they were mere children themselves, they were sometimes forced to leave school to support younger siblings. And yet, they have led such admirable lives armed with little more than their own intellect, charm, and determination. My second cousin Joan Levy is a perfect example.

Now in her mid-70s, Joan is what you would call a fully self-actualized person despite her rocky start. When she was 14, she overheard her parents arguing about their imminent divorce. The main dispute concerned which of them would assume responsibility for Joan and her brother after the divorce. “Well, you won’t have to worry about who takes care of me,” she announced. “I’ll take care of myself.” She found a small apartment and worked two jobs to support herself before marrying her husband Earl just a few years later.

In the years that followed, Joan’s life was a succession of hard work and parenting with little time to contemplate her self or the mysteries of life. But all of that changed after the loss of a beloved son and her husband. She has spent the past 19 years as a seeker. What do I mean by that? All I can say is that she has a radiance that can only come from blessing her own grief and hardships. Rather than cursing and resisting her trials, Joan found meaning in them. Where bitterness may have been, she found joy and purpose. It’s easy to see that she has a well-grooved habit of dismissing negative ideas and replacing them with better thoughts.

With an unfettered mind, Joan has been free to pursue her many interests. That’s how she came to be an accomplished jazz singer, painter, dancer and writer. Listening to her latest CD, Love Songs, on the way home from our visit, I could not help but marvel at her resourcefulness, generosity, compassion, curiosity and love. (Be sure to visit the link above for a look and a listen.)

She acquired these traits not by living a life of ease, but through purposeful hardship. How lucky would we be if we allowed life’s tough spots to transform us this way? And yet when we are suffering, all we can think of is relief. We can’t remember that it isn’t what happens to us in life that matters; it’s what we decide to make of it.

When you consider what these Great Depression babies have accomplished without the many advantages they gave their own children, what right have we to doubt ourselves? As part of a more fortunate generation, what traits will we leave the next generation to admire? What do you think the legacy of the Baby Boomers will be?

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.