News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Shining Light on Humanity

Lessons on Purpose from a Joyfully Ornery Octogenarian

by | Sep 5, 2021

“Purposes are deduced from behaviour, not from rhetoric or stated goals.”
– Donella Meadows

What’s the point of “Shining Light on Humanity”? For whom do I write? And why?

I write for you. Whether you are wealthy or impoverished, incarcerated or free, encouraged or downtrodden, it is my aim to reach your heart so you will want to open your mind to see people differently. To see people more clearly. More compassionately.

My stated purpose, I wrote last summer, is “to show you that humanity still breathes in prison. Every ‘criminal’ with whom I speak, locked in chains, behind heavy steel doors, encircled by chain-link and razor-wire fences, is also a father, a son, a brother, an uncle, or a nephew. And each is worthy of notice and appreciation for his struggles” [“The Awesome Power of Forgiveness,” June 2020]. I stand by this purpose and reaffirm it here through my continued action.

As part of my faith practice, I remain in a near-constant state of self-examination. After writing this column for over a year, I wanted to share with you this side of me. It is so easy to become complacent in life. We take for granted that we are still doing what we set out to do, that we are remaining faithful to our purpose.

Some of us have yet to discover what that purpose is. If you have yet to achieve your clarity of purpose, I encourage you to start spending some time with yourself. Ask yourself, or if you have a relationship with God, ask Him in prayer to show you: Who am I? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What is the meaning of my existence each day?

A beautiful thing I learned from a then 85-year-young man is that it is never too late to begin seeking meaning in your life. Dennis was one of the most joyously mischievous people I have ever met. Like a really old child, he would constantly test the boundaries of everyone he met to see what he could get away with. How much could he get the person to pamper him? How elaborate a lie could he tell someone before they would call him out on it? A former hospice patient of mine, I grew to love that man. Through sharing joys and regrets in his last years, Dennis taught me a great deal about life.

During his recovery from multiple heart attacks, when he was still unsure whether he would have another year of life left, Dennis shared with me that he was finally ready to start counseling younger people. He commended me for the clear sincerity I bring to my work in this area, and said he hoped he’d have a chance to do the same someday. Sadly, he has since passed, but I know he had a positive impact on at least one younger person: me.

When Dennis allowed me to write a paper about his life for my Human Development college class, I had the privilege of interviewing him several times. At one point, I revisited our earlier conversation about his desire to be a mentor. “What advice would you give to a young person you were counseling?” I asked.

After a slight pause as he gazed beyond me, Dennis locked eyes with me and said, “Respect everybody. Befriend lonely people — you could change someone’s life, you know — and give to those in need.” With a chuckle, he then said his “number one” piece of advice would be “to become a Christian … but not everybody wants to be one.”

This joyfully ornery octogenarian had spent most of his life in the foster-care and prison systems. He had every reason to call it quits, give up the ghost, and check out of life. And there were times he said he wanted to. But, in the end, Dennis wouldn’t quit. He had a lifetime of regrets he wanted to atone for, and he finally decided to do something about it. He didn’t make his goal of reaching his 101st birthday, but he succeeded in providing counsel at a key point in someone else’s life.

I now ask you to do the same. Don’t be complacent about where you are in life. You still have work to do. Your life can still have meaning, more meaning, different meaning. Even if you’re struggling with a litany of health problems, carrying a lifetime of traumas, or feel like you have nothing to offer, you do. Even if you don’t believe it right now, God has gifted you with breath today so you could read these words.


Leo Hylton is a hospice volunteer, mentor, peer facilitator, K-9 Corrections dog handler, Master’s student, and Executive Secretary of the NAACP in Maine State Prison, Warren. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Road, Warren, ME, 04864, or

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