As we age, what can we fall back on that contributes to a sense of well-being? That’s what two Chicago psychologists aimed to find out when they tested 300 people, ages 60 to 89. The researchers discovered that those who savoured life lessons had greater satisfaction and were more likely to see this stage of life as a time of growth. With positive perceptions, these people tended “to view older adulthood as a period of continued learning and engagement,” the authors wrote in the study, published in 2019 in the journal Aging & Mental Health.
Life lessons shape and comfort us. We can trace their impact looking backward and lean on them going forward. We talked to three RTOERO members who reflect on the lessons they’ve learned along the way, which have guided them and now help them plan the next steps on their life journeys.
Life lesson: When there’s no path, build one
Christine Bretherick (District 31 Wellington)
Christine Bretherick comes from a small town in Wales called Burry Port. Its claim to fame is being the landing spot, in June 1928, of the plane carrying Amelia Earhart from Newfoundland — the first transatlantic flight by a woman.
The town has a monument to Earhart, and Bretherick loves a quote from the legendary aviator: “Some of us have great runways already built for us. If you have one, take off. But if you don’t, it is your responsibility to grab a shovel and build one for yourself and for those who will follow after you.”
Bretherick had taught in London, England, for a year, but back in Wales there were no jobs. So she and her husband decided to try Canada for three years. She arrived at 23, on a frigid day in January 1976. At the Toronto airport, “the entrance to the baggage halls was frozen,” she recalls.
She taught for the next five years, stopping when she had the first of her three daughters. Bretherick returned to university when her eldest was nine months old, studying English one course at a time. She graduated in 1989 and went back to teaching in Guelph, where the family was now living.
On several occasions Bretherick had to build her own runway. The day she received her university degree, she learned her husband was having an affair with a neighbour. She promptly found a house to rent with the kids. A year later, Bretherick placed an ad in the newspaper seeking a companion. She met someone and has been with him ever since.
A far greater challenge came when her middle daughter, Andrea, passed out in a pool on a class trip at age 10 and had to be resuscitated. The cause, not known at the time, was congenital cardiac arrhythmia. At first, a neurologist told Bretherick that she was just an overanxious mother. It took 18 months to properly diagnose Andrea and correct her issue with a pacemaker.
“I had to become an advocate for Andrea, because I wasn’t getting the answers. The whole thing with her gave me confidence that I can knock on any door.”
Recently, Bretherick knocked on more when she started fresh again, moving from Guelph to Callander, Ont., to be near her children. She created an opportunity by volunteering at the Callander Bay Heritage Museum and helping students to create a series of paintings that the museum displayed. Now she volunteers with The Village at Canadore College, a facility for seniors, to promote the arts.
Our paths can take twists and turns. Sometimes the path isn’t even there. In those cases, Bretherick remains ready. “Here comes the shovel,” she says.
“For me, art is an endless opportunity to explore, discover, experiment and create something that hasn’t existed before.”
— Brian Middleton
Life lesson: Seek progress and empower others
Brice Balmer (District 11 Waterloo Region)
When he graduated in 1966 from Bluffton College, a Mennonite school in his hometown of Bluffton, Ohio, Brice Balmer knew his next big step. He had a teaching job waiting in Columbus, the state capital, 100 miles away. But first, the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief service and peace agency, sent Balmer to Atlanta for the summer.
There, he worked in a community centre and a high school, the only white person in a Black community. Returning to Ohio, he taught at an all-white school. “It felt like two different countries and caused so much chaos in my mind,” he says.
Balmer had many questions about segregation, prejudice and what it meant to be an American. He moved to Cincinnati, working for a poverty program and teaching young women who had previously dropped out. Yearning to do more, he entered the seminary to follow his lifetime pursuit — “the search for justice and equity.”
For the next seven years, Balmer worked in an urban ministry in Denver. He moved to Kitchener in 1979 to be closer to his family in Ohio and his wife’s family in Ontario. Balmer was the long-time co-pastor of the First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. For 24 years, he was also the chaplaincy director of the House of Friendship, which supports Waterloo Region residents in need of food, housing, community resources or addiction treatment.
Balmer has also served on the faculties of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (in Indiana), Renison University College (affiliated with the University of Waterloo) and Wilfrid Laurier University’s Faculty of Social Work.
Over his career, he has been drawn to the marginalized. He has worked extensively in addictions treatment and taken a keen interest in social welfare and housing, especially the effects of long-term homelessness on mental health, addiction and recovery. As well, he has worked with people with physical disabilities (helping to form an independent living centre), refugees and those living in poverty.
Balmer was formerly also executive director of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition. Now in retirement, he volunteers with Muslim Social Services Waterloo Region.
When the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the summer of 2020, Balmer wrote an opinion piece for the Waterloo Region Record. In it, he recalled his experiences in Atlanta and Cincinnati observing inequities, saying he was grateful that they pushed what he called a “privileged white man” to be on a quest for progress.
What ties together his life’s efforts is a desire to empower those who can face all sorts of struggles. “I work hard to help people, to walk with people, so that they can have a life of contentment and be as much a part of society as they want to,” says Balmer.
Life lesson: Never stop exploring
Brian Middleton (District 47 Vancouver Island)
Whether he’s working on traditional canvases or, most recently, his digital paintings, art has fascinated Brian Middleton for 50 years. “For me, art is an endless opportunity to explore, discover, experiment and create something that hasn’t existed before,” he says.
While that has been his pastime, the joy of investigating and learning is also what any teacher tries to foster in their students. Middleton did so while teaching French, art and ESL in Toronto, Brantford and Guelph.
His journey to teaching and to art wasn’t planned. In 1972, he was studying history and French at York University, thinking of maybe joining the civil service, when he decided to do an exchange in France. Art was everywhere. During his time abroad, Middleton visited the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Prado Museum in Madrid, and Paul Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, the city where he was studying.
Something clicked. Until then, Middleton was highly academically focused. “I was an A+ student. Everything was poured into achieving in school. This was my first opportunity to think of what else I wanted to do in life. At one point, I said, ‘I think I can paint.’ I had no background but an enormous desire. It was crazy, a complete change of direction, and I couldn’t let it go.”
He began drawing and found that he actually had some talent. When Middleton returned to Toronto, he started studying art at night. After York, he was accepted to the Ontario College of Art and Design.
Following his graduation, Middleton worked as an apprentice for a wood engraver, took on odd jobs and also did some supply teaching. Through his future husband, a teacher, he learned of an opportunity to teach calligraphy to adults at night school. Finding teaching rewarding, Middleton went back to university at age 32 to study education. He ended up working as a full-time teacher for 25 years.
When he was in his 20s, Middleton asked himself what his purpose was. It couldn’t just be to earn money. He realized that he needed to connect with people and share his passions. Whether as an artist or a teacher, he’s expressing himself. “Something authentic is happening when we interact,” he says.
As a retiree, he works on his own art and does workshops for teens and adults on digital painting. Learning and creativity have much in common. To Middleton, it’s about the chance to grow, and how you get from here to there. That’s the excitement of exploration. “For me, art is more about the process. And life is about process. If you work at it enough, you can create something that’s identifiably yours.”