Rev. Lydia Sohn,

Rev. Lydia Sohn, "What 90-Somethings Regret Most"

I’m thrilled to be here today with the Reverend Lydia Sohn. Lydia Sohn is a minister, writer, and teacher, but as she says in one of her articles, she’s “not that kind of minister.” A graduate of Scripps and the Yale Divinity School, she is a currently a minister at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in San Diego. For fun, she loves watching The Bachelor, going to or hosting dinner parties, and writing in cute coffee shops, but mostly goes to them for the pastries. Welcome, Lydia.

Lydia Sohn: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.

Zibby: I read Lydia’s article on Medium. It was the featured article in my newsletter one day last week or the week before. The title, “What 90-Somethings Regret Most,” really stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t wait to read the article. Afterwards, I reached out to Lydia. So here we are.

Lydia, tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up? How did you end up becoming a minister? How did you get to this place? Then we’ll delve into the article.

Lydia: I was raised in a Christian family. Faith and Christianity was always a part of my life and upbringing. The thought of a minister never really occurred to me because I always saw ministers as older, boring men. I never saw myself like that. I was exposed to very few female ministers in my younger childhood. That was never a possibility for me until college. I decided to major in religion because I’ve always loved talking about these deeper religious and spiritual and philosophical questions. I saw a scholarship application for any students who were interested in studying religion in graduate school. It said something like, “And being a leader in your church.”

I saw the scholarship sign and I thought, “Oh, extra money for school. I’ll definitely apply.” Little did I know that it was a program to nurture younger people to go into the ministry. They encouraged those to consider the ministry. I was accepted for this fellowship. They flew all of the fellows out to Candler School of Theology, which is a United Methodist Seminary in Georgia, which is attached to Emory University. There I met for the first time, female ministers, progressive ministers, a whole new set of people whose characteristics I really identified with doing this vocation. That’s when it first occurred to me I can actually see myself doing this for the rest of my life because I have a set of skills and interests that really align with this profession.

Zibby: What skills and interests aligned particularly well? Obviously an interest in spirituality and religion, but for someone else wandering the halls of their university, what do you think makes a great minister?

Lydia: A passion for making the world a better place, for connecting with other people at really deep heart-to-heart levels, helping people to become the best versions of themselves. I love writing sermons and creating these weekly, ten-minute thought pieces for people to reflect upon for their weeks. I love teaching about these sacred texts and delving into them further with congregants. We always say that the ministry is much more about breadth rather than depth. We have to have a whole set of skills like teaching and research, preaching, pastoral care and interrelational skills. I have all of those. All of those things make me really happy to do.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I wonder if there had been a sign up for some random other profession like psychology if you would’ve ended up being a psychologist. It’s how life works, timing and things that take you in a different direction.

Lydia: There are a lot of things that I considered doing with my life. Even when I was in seminary, I resisted this path a lot in my life. I definitely considered psychology, definitely considered academia, and all of those related fields for sure.

Zibby: Your choice seems to have paid off, at least in many respects that I can see from my limited vantage point here. I really want to talk to you about this essay that you wrote, “What 90-Somethings Regret Most.” In the essay you talk about how you interviewed your elderly congregants, many in their nineties, about their most personal feelings from sex to marriage to death and dying.

I want to hear how did you come up with this idea for the study?

Lydia: I interact with people who are much older than me a lot ever since I entered into full-time ministry. One thing that I started to notice in relating with them and becoming friends with them is that they were very similar to me in a way that I did not expect. We laugh at similar jokes. We would talk about what we did on the weekends, and enjoy similar TV shows and movies, and connect at these levels in a way that I would connect with my other peers, but I didn’t think I could ever connect with people much older than me.

Part of this is because as a Korean person — Korean culture is very hierarchical. There’s this idea that I can’t relate to people who are older than me or younger than me because there’s this very hierarchical way of interacting with people in those different demographics. This assumption of mine that I wouldn’t be able to connect with them was completely broken during my time in ministry with all of these people who are so much older than me. It was a kernel of an idea that became bigger as I had these conversations. All of my questions to them would come out into the greater conversations about their lives, and what they have regretted, and what they have loved so far, and what they’re looking forward to. That’s when I decided I wanted to actually put this all together into an essay.

Zibby: I’m going to read part of what you said. I have a lot of sections that are super interesting, but let me start with this one. I guess you asked them what they regretted the most and what times in their lives were the happiest. You said, “Most of their regrets revolved around their family and how they wish relationships, usually either with their children or between their children, turned out differently. These relational fractures I could see on their faces still caused them much pain and sorrow. One of my interviewees has two children who have not seen or spoken to one another for over two decades. She lamented that this, among all the mistakes and regrets she could bring to mind, was the singular thing that kept her up at night.”

Were you surprised to hear that about the regrets?

Lydia: Yes, I was.

Zibby: Relationships between kids sometimes feel out of my control a little bit. When you look back on a whole life, I’m not sure what I would expect a room of ninety-year-olds to say or what I would think that I would say when I was ninety. What were you expecting?

Lydia: I was expecting something more — I don’t know. It’s really hard to say. I knew this about this person’s life because I had heard her mention it before. She’s mentioned a lot of things about her life before. I wasn’t expecting this to be the one thing that she would share when I asked this question about regrets, which went to show me that of all the things that could come to mind in her life in regards to her career and her romantic partner and where she was living and all the things that she’s accomplished, that this was the most important thing to her. I’m just like you in that I also would think that the relationship between my children would be beyond my control. It was interesting to me and also something that I wouldn’t expect myself to answer in the same way.

Zibby: Then you moved on to the happiest times of their lives. This is the part that really has resonated with me the most and that I haven’t stopped thinking about through the ins and outs of my stressful daily life with kids. You said, “I then moved on to the topic of the happiest times of their lives. Every single one of these ninety-something-year-olds — all of them are widowed — recalled a time when their spouses were still alive and when their children were younger and living at home. As a busy, young mom and working professional who frequently fantasizes about the far away imagined pleasures of retirement, I quickly responded, ‘But weren’t those the most stressful times of your lives?’ to which they all agreed. There was no hesitation, though, that those days were also the happiest.”

It makes me so sad. I’m deep in the trenches myself, as I know you are with your baby. I feel like there’s this pressure to enjoy every minute, but the in and outs of the days are tricky. Then you realize is this the happiest my life is going to get? How did you feel when you heard this?

Lydia: I feel the same exact way as a busy mom. Like I said in my piece, I frequently fantasize about when he’s older and I get more time to myself or when he’s even out of the house. For them to say that to me was a big reality check. It goes to what a lot of philosophers and sages have mentioned throughout their works all of time, which is that human beings are either focused on the future or we’re always looking back upon the past, but rarely do we treasure and value the present moment. Oftentimes when we think about our lives the most, the happiest moments are the times when we were with people that we loved. It does make sense that this would be the answer to this question of the happiest times in their lives. Certainly like you’re saying, in the moment it feels very exhausting and tiresome.

Zibby: I don’t mean to complain. It’s also amazing. It can be tricky. It can be hard. I’m doing a podcast interview later this month with the former editor and writer from the Motherlode blog of The New York Times who has written for many other places. Her name’s KJ Dell’Antonia. She just wrote a book called How to be a Happier Parent. I was thinking of you the whole time. I’ve only read the first two chapters. I was like, “I have to get this to Lydia Sohn right away.” She basically is saying we’re all in it. We’re in it. It’s not always fun. There are all these obstacles to the fun. This is the life we chose. We decided to have kids. We want this. It’s, frankly, going to be the bulk of our lives is having kids at home. We’ve got to find a way for ourselves to be happier parents. She gives very specific tips. Just a preview of that to come. As soon as the book comes out, I’m going to send you a copy.

Lydia: I would love to read that.

Zibby: Everybody should be reading this. It’s just the little things. Even since I read her ten mantras yesterday, little ways to make yourself just a little bit happier each day, helping your kids be a little more independent — not for you. Your son’s still too young. We haven’t chosen this as a path of misery. We’re very blessed. I’m rambling. I think you know what I mean.

Lydia: I do. One little thing that I do that helps me a lot is when I am spending time with him and I’d rather be doing other stuff or spending time by myself or working on stuff for work or being with my husband, I ask myself, “What will I miss about this moment when I’m older? What will I miss about this time of my life when it’s all gone?” All of a sudden, that question helps me to recenter myself and brings me back to treasuring this very unique, particular moment in time. Then all of it becomes wonderful again, not easy, but wonderful. Do you know what I mean?

Zibby: Yeah. To switch gears a little bit, the interviewees’ thoughts on beauty and aging, which I also thought was super interesting, you wrote, “My interviewees’ thoughts on beauty and their aging bodies were also varied in that their changing physical appearances only mattered in so far as it mattered to them when they were younger. Those who were valued for their good looks or athleticism experienced much more grief in regards to their current bodies than those who derived confidence from admirable qualities that were much less time-fixed.” Can you tell me more about that?

Lydia: This part isn’t really surprising to me, that those who derived a lot of value from what they looked like or the capabilities of their bodies would experience a lot more sadness about those changing as we age, as opposed to those who derive value from something else that doesn’t really change for the most part until the very end or some kind of sickness takes you over. That makes perfect sense. At the same time, if there are people who have a lot of joy from what they look like or what their body can do, I don’t think that they should not be happy with those things. One of the things that I learned in postcolonial studies is that we’re embodied beings. Part of our reality is to live in these physical bodies that we’ve been given and to make sure that everybody in these physical bodies are happy and healthy. This is the path of life, that as we get older, that our bodies become weaker, and that we have to deal with the results, the consequences of that. Part of that is grief, which is a very natural process of dealing with aging.

Zibby: I did a similar, tiny study compared to the in-depth interviews you did. I was interested in how my grandmother, who’s now almost ninety-five — she is still interested in her weight and her body image and always sayings things like, “What do you think about her? Am I as fat as she is?” It’s tongue-in-cheek at this point. I was so surprised when you were saying you’re surprised with the hierarchy of aging in your culture. Even culture here in America, you don’t think that elderly people have the same — I know this sounds bizarre because obviously they do — but they must not have the same thoughts and feelings as we do at age forty or how old you are because it obviously is so much different, when in fact they’re just us a little bit later in life. Why would all the issues magically just disappear? I’m sorry. Go ahead. Interject.

Lydia: I’m just agreeing with you. Yes.

Zibby: I did a research little study that I put in all the mailboxes of both my grandmothers’ nursing homes. An overwhelming amount of the women still cared a lot about what they ate and how their bodies looked. A lot of them weighed themselves every day. It never really went away, similar to what we were just saying about your athleticism and looks in your aging. Obviously, the women who had more eating disorders and issues with body image when they were younger have more issues with them later. Go figure. Still, it helps us in the stressful moments of our days to know that things don’t just disappear when you’re older. To get a handle on things now is so critical in a way. We have to embrace some of the things about life, not to be too philosophical. You’re the minister here. Maybe you should be talking instead of me.

Lydia: No, you’re saying exactly what I’m thinking. Yes. There is this two-part assumption that, one, I won’t care about this when I’m older. It’ll just magically disappear and therefore I don’t need to deal with it now. Exactly what you’re saying is that we never stop being us. At the same time, if we deal with these issues right now, it’s actually going to affect our lives later instead of not dealing with it now and then expecting that they’ll resolve themselves because they don’t, clearly from these people that I’ve talked to.

Zibby: Another element that you had touched on in your article was that no matter how old they were, your congregants were still falling in love and becoming attracted to other people, even those who they weren’t necessarily married to. That doesn’t stop either apparently.

Lydia: It came as good news to people. It came as good news to me. It does make me really happy to think that people still fall in love to the end of their lives. It’s such a great feeling to be in love with somebody. That part of you doesn’t really go away with age. I was very happy to discover that.

Zibby: It’s actually really beautiful when you think about it. It’s really nice. It’s kind of sounding like not much is changing as people are getting older.

Lydia: I know.

Zibby: The last finding was you found that most congregants were less afraid of death and more afraid of dying, which also makes sense. Can you tell me more about what people were saying about that?

Lydia: The people that I interviewed, most of them are church members. They have this assurance that they’re going to be taken care of after their lives on Earth are over. It’s really that last leg of the journey towards death that frightens them, especially for those who are still pretty healthy right now. Having watched their own family and friends go through some really difficult times throughout that last leg, they can’t help but think about that for themselves.

A lot of the times when you’re really sick, you can’t express what you want to happen to your body. That’s the debate that’s going on right now in healthcare about the right to die and a dignified way to die. There’s so many debates about that. It’s a problem because as you get older and you get more and more sick, you can’t really express your desires and opinions in the way that you can when you’re healthy. I know that there’s a lot of work being done right now of expressing those desires before you get to that state of not being able to express your preferences, which I think is a great thing.

Zibby: This question’s making me depressed. I’m going to move on. I don’t want to have a panic attack while I’m interviewing you here.

Lydia: I will say one thing that comes up a lot as a minister of a congregation with older folks, I’m doing memorial services all the time. One thing that comes up a lot when somebody passes away but it was unexpected is, “Wow. That’s amazing. What a great death, short and quick.” That’s what everybody wants for themselves. Just take me out, even if it’s unexpected. It’s Alzheimer’s or those crippling, chronic illnesses that are really what people are afraid of most and that we should try to avoid. Yes, now we can move on.

Zibby: This article was just one of the many articles on your blog, which it looks like you started at your son’s baptism with this absolutely beautiful letter that you wrote to him and read out loud during the baptism.

How did you decide to start a blog in the middle of all the other sermons and things you’re doing and writing? How did that come about?

Lydia: This whole writing for a broader audience came about because I was starting a new program at my church that was geared towards millennials and older people between the ages of twenty and forty who are not going to church these days. I had this mission to let them know, “I know that you guys don’t go to church because the church has created a bad name for itself. It’s completely understandable. I want you to know that there’s a different kind of faith out there. I didn’t know it myself.”

I wrote this piece about being a minister and not that kind of judgmental fire and brimstone type of minister. I wrote another piece about an instruction to progressive Christianity. I pitched it to HuffPost, which they posted. Very quickly after I did that, their blogger contributor program ended. Here I was getting on a roll writing these pieces to get this message about progressive Christianity out to a broader audience, then they ended that program. That’s when I decided I’m going to make my own blog. I discovered that I really like writing these creative pieces that are on my mind of thoughts. Then my friend introduced to the Medium platform. I’ve been using that. I’ve been having a ton of fun with that. That’s how that blog got started.

Zibby: You should also look into — The TODAY Show has a TODAY Parenting Team where you can also post as a contributor. They have a very wide reach as well. You just sign up. They’ll promote your articles if you have more likes or whatever. It has a lot of perks. You should look into that. It has great articles. I’m with you. I started posting on HuffPost. They posted one of my articles. I had all these followers. Then all of a sudden I was like, “Okay, well…”

Lydia: Now I actually like this, so what am I going to do now?

Zibby: Exactly. Look into that. It’s another good outlet in addition to Medium, although they do own the rights. They own the rights to your stuff. We can talk about this later. Medium, you still own your rights. TODAY can do whatever they want with it. It’s a good platform.

In one of the articles that you wrote you talked about two marriage hacks to helping marriage, which also dovetails nicely with this, the parenting piece. You said make a list of the moments that made you want to be with your spouse, and let go of your victim story, and how those are super helpful. Tell me more about that please.

Lydia: We humans are very creative people. Storytelling is one of our greatest gifts. It is also one of our greatest practices that can lead to our demise and our suffering. We so easily create narratives about, “Why me? Why is this happening to me? Why is that person doing that to me?” not just about our spouses, although that happens most frequently with the people closest to us, but with job opportunities or not getting certain things in your life. One of the strongest teachings in mindfulness practices and also in Buddhism is accepting things as they are neutrally. Then from there, not creating a story, but creating the story that you want to live and being in line with your values. That’s where that’s coming from.

We so easily make stories. My spouse, he doesn’t do something that I want him to do. I have this constant common narrative of “He’s not a good husband. I should be with somebody else. I would be happier with somebody else.” Anything that he can do can feed that narrative. That’s my own victim story. In talking with my friends who are also married, also have a tendency to do this. The first thing is to notice this tendency and then to let go of that story. Not to say that that story won’t go away completely. Even noticing that we’re telling that story is a really first, powerful step.

Zibby: Tell me about the list. Do you keep your list of words at the ready? Are they laminated on the fridge?

Lydia: I do it on my phone. It’s more private.

Zibby: I was just kidding. I didn’t think they were really on the fridge.

Lydia: This was the second part of that story. As we let go of our victim stories, we start creating a different story that actually serves us and serves our relationship and is in line with our values of treating one and another well and empathy and always considering another person’s perspective before their own. When we are prone to going into our own stories, that’s when I pull out my Notes app on my iPhone where I have a list of all the wonderful things that my husband has done for me and with me and the beautiful memories that we’ve created. I’m reminded that we’re doing something else. There’s another story than the story that I create when he doesn’t do something I want him to do.

Zibby: Good idea. I’m going to whip my phone out right now and get started.

Lydia: Do it. Create a long list. Make it a running list, that you are always adding to it.

Zibby: I know we’re almost out of time for this interview. I want to hear about the class that you teach online called Spiritual Decision Making, which you teach through a site called Skillshare, which I hadn’t heard of but sounds amazing. I want to go figure out something I could teach and do it too. In your class you help student make decisions, small and large, in a more spiritually aware manner. As someone who can’t even select which nail polish to wear, let alone vacation ideas, I’d love to hear your top tips on how to make decisions.

Lydia: Decision-making is one of my biggest passions. It’s a subject I love talking about because I’ve struggled with making decisions for so much of my life. Should I marry this person? Should I go into this profession? It can be really energy and time consuming. That’s when I started seeking out and finding a lot of resources within the Christian contemplative religious tradition that moves away from the dominant method of decision-making that we’re taught in our school system and in the western intellectual world, which is very rational and reason-based, calculating, and also very fear-based.

We make a lot of decisions based on our fears of what are we afraid will come out of this path versus this path, as opposed to making decisions that are based on confidence and courage and dreaming. That is much more a part of ourselves that’s very repressed because we’re afraid to risk and be vulnerable for so many reasons. There are so many reasons why we are afraid to dream. I discovered these practices that get access to that other more courageous, confident, peaceful part of ourselves through imagination and prayer. Those give insight into what path you should take.

I give specifics. For all of these exercises you have to get into a mood of calm and breathing and a quiet room where you are not distracted by anything else. That’s the very first step. One of the four methods is imagining yourself much older than you are, and then having a conversation with that self about the decision that you’re trying to make, and then listening in on what she tells you. Incredibly creative and imaginative, very different from the pro/con, reason-based, calculating method that we are often taught.

Zibby: That’s so great. I have so many tips from this conversation I can apply to my life. This is fantastic. I’m going to have a whole different kind of day. As I told you in my email, by the way, I’m convinced that you should be writing a book. You have such a unique point of view. For any listeners out there who agree with me, contact Reverend Lydia Sohn and get her to write a book. Do you have any interest in doing that? I feel like it’s such a natural extension of what you’ve been doing.

Lydia: Thank you so much. I would love to write a book one day. I don’t have any plans to do it anytime soon. Part of the reason is because I really don’t know what I would write about. I have these brief moments of inspiration for essays. They’re very short things that are driven by a little kernel of a thought. I haven’t had anything that can last about two hundred pages quite yet. Maybe the inspiration will strike eventually, and then I’ll let you all know.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so, so much for your time. I’m sorry we couldn’t meet in person. I’m so thrilled that we got a chance to chat. Thank you for these really actionable tips and also for giving me, and I’m sure listeners, the perspective of what you gleaned from your elderly congregants and how that helps us live life in a better, more meaningful, fulfilling way today. I can’t thank you enough.

Lydia: You’re welcome. Thank you so much. I enjoyed this very much.

Zibby: Oh, good. I’m so glad. Thank you so much. Take care.

Lydia: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Rev. Lydia Sohn, "What 90-Somethings Regret Most"