Goethe’s Maxim and My Graduation

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Prior to my 9th-grade graduation, my English teacher assembled eight classmates and me to tell us we’d each been chosen to prepare and deliver a three-minute graduation speech about one of Johann Von Goethe’s nine requisites for contented living.

None of us let on that we had never heard of the German writer or his musings.

The class athlete was assigned “strength enough to battle with difficulties.” Saintly Patricia Gilles received “love enough to be helpful to others,” and plodding Thomas Dunlap would deliver “patience enough to toil until good is accomplished.” Sounded like typecasting to me.

Finally, my topic: “health enough to make work a pleasure.” Good grief. I had to extol the virtues of working? I imagined Goethe pondering at his window while peasants, all of whom looked like me, dragged bags of potatoes here and there.

On graduation night, I gathered with my classmates and paraded around the gymnasium floor filled with folding chairs and family members, most of whom wished they were home watching Bonanza.

Seated on the stage, I nervously rehearsed my opening lines: “As teenagers, most of us avoid work. We’re reluctant to stick our hands in greasy dishwater and protest that it’s not our turn when asked to mow the lawn.”

Re-reading my hand-written speech today, I realize I spoke cleverly, but with little understanding: At fourteen, I considered health an everlasting guarantee and work a necessary evil. When I babysat unruly children, sneezed inside a musty chicken coop, or teetered on a ladder picking cherries, I was motivated by money, not enjoyment. My health didn’t impede me, so I gave it no thought.

As an adult, I taught school. While I enjoyed doing so, I didn’t set off each morning chirping happily: “What a blessing it is to be driving to work with my healthy body.”

I didn’t understand the co-dependent blessings of health and work until I retired and floundered like a baby calf learning to walk, trying to find a balance between meaningful pursuits and leisurely recreation with an older body and chronic complaints.

I believe Goethe, too, was a senior citizen when he realized the intertwined nature of health and work and the necessity of both for a contented life. I don’t think a young person could have seen with such clarity. I know I didn’t.

When my Mom’s health failed during her last years, she kept working. She sat in a wheeled office chair and scooted around the kitchen to cook for Dad and visiting family members. She never stopped sewing, painting, writing, teaching.

My dad did hard physical labor his entire life and depended on a strong body that never needed medication beyond an occasional aspirin. In his final, bedridden months, he missed the rewards of work. During one of his rare bleak moments, he told my brother, “I’m useless. Just a damn useless old man.”

Both my parents recognized the wisdom of Goethe’s words: words I spoke glibly about in my youth.

But I’m learning.


Have any thoughts on today’s post?
Please comment below.







15 thoughts on “Goethe’s Maxim and My Graduation

  1. I wish I had been smart enough to pay attention to all you’ve given voice to in your post today! While it’s never too late to care for the old body, it certainly isn’t easy once a part begins to cause problems! Thanks for your thoughtful reminder, Janet!


  2. Just like Goethe, I’m a big believer in contented living. And just like you, Janet, I took my health for granted when young, never really equating feeling good with enjoying my work, or with contented living.
    These days, one of my favorite quotes—I believe Mark Twain said it—is this one: “Health is the ONLY Wealth.” How true.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.


  3. I want to live to be at least 100, but not if I can’t do it in health and meaningful work. I know that at some point my body is going to start falling apart, but at 72, I still feel like I can go another 30 years. Thanks for the thought provoking post.


  4. Hi there Aunt Beulah, thanks for another lovely and thought provoking post. I always worked to save money to travel, was never interested in marriage or family. Sixteen hour days were normal, I could, being single chose work that was fun. It was Oscar Wilde, I believe who said “Youth is Wasted On the Young” I chuckle at my young co-workers with there aches and pains. And also support them in their dreams…Thanks as always for your fondness for Godfrey, see you next time, Sheila


  5. What a wonderful piece of writing and definitely a very special first encounter with Goethe. Some authors we carry with us through a whole lifetime and can find new sense in it every time we read it again . I am sure if Goethe have had the chance to meet your mother, he would have dedicated this poem to her.


    • What a lovely thought about Goethe and my mother, Read on. I’m going to hold onto it for a while. It is interesting that a German philosopher was forced into my attention when I was young and haphazard, but has remained with me to this day. I’m giving some thought to writing a post about each of his other ideas for contented living; he was so wise.


  6. I found being with useless old people buoyed me up, gaving me rest from the weary world, their words gave me strength, the feeling in their homes renewed me sending me back into the fray re-energized. I miss sitting down with Myrl, my Grandma and my mother relating life’s experiences to someone who loved to hear about it. Old age has a unique quality to it, I am sorry to see these senior housing projects taking seniors out of our communities and separating them from neighborhoods. Our best neighbors were the seniors.


  7. You just explained why I will never go willingly into a senior home or retirement community. I think at all ages we benefit from being surrounded by all ages. I’m so glad you found your way to my blog, Vickie. I appreciate your comments.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s