At every stage of life, it is useful to step back and tote up the “important things,” the life lessons we think we’ve learned.

Even young people. Kids know a lot of true things about the world. My 11-year-old grandson knows a great deal; indeed, way more than I do in certain areas, such as video games and social media.

But as the world changes, so does one’s world view. A 40-year-old knows more than a 30-year-old, hopefully, and knowledge accumulates from experience (the famous college of hard knocks) and added insight as the decades advance.

Of course, no one knows even the tiniest sliver of all there is to know, even Faust, despite his devilish bargain. But if we are blessed with a long and sapient life, we come to know a good deal.

That’s why old people should be debriefed about their lives. They’ve made it through fires and storms, and their knowledge and resilience could school and inspire multitudes.

I have written before in this column about the value of kids interviewing their parents and grandparents, even though they may not, at the time, have the slightest interest. Hey kids, listen up: that will change! I can almost certainly guarantee that as you become more interested in and aware of the world around you, that interest will extend to your forbears. What were they like? Where did they come from? How did their childhood and early adulthood shape the person(s) they became, which, in turn, shaped you? There are websites devoted to helping people interview their elders. So get to it!

As for my own knowledge, here are a few things I have picked up over the decades:

  • The things that mattered to me most in my youth and middle age—advancement, ego, success—are less important to me now. Age strips away their veneer.
  • Family and friends, especially the ones from my youth, remain uppermost. Also, the wonders of travel. Simple moments of joy and contentment. Listening to (or better yet, playing) great music. Reading great books. Good health, of course.
  • Humor is the great healer. Without it, life can be insupportable. With it and we can endure the inevitable hardships of loss, evil and tragedy. Laugher makes and keeps us young.
  • Passion helps drive life forward. Everyone should have a quest, a hobby, a campaign, be it for fun, profit or the greater good.
  • Don’t regret the things you can’t change, but strive to change the things you don’t want to regret.
  • When you’re down, remember to look around—at art, nature and people.
  • Lead a vigorously moderate and balanced lifestyle.
  • Help others. Isn’t that why we’re here? I can’t think of a better reason.

Of course, in another decade, if I’m lucky enough to still be around, I may feel different. I’ll get back to you on that.

But in the meantime, know this: to keep learning is to keep growing. And learning should never stop. The universe is filled with amazing mysteries—some of which may yet reveal their secrets to us, from the origins of life to the meaning of death—enough to keep us occupied for a lifetime.

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...