One advantage of getting old (besides senior discounts) is that we are supposed to be wise, at least wiser than in our younger years.
After all the experiences, ups and downs, accomplishments and failures, we have to be a bit more seasoned to life and more able to handle it than perhaps our younger counterparts.
What is wisdom though? Markers of wisdom include patience, equanimity, foresight, compassion and an ability to be with uncertainty. It comes from experience, the result of many years of testing our beliefs against reality. The different paths we take through our lives shift our goals and values to shape us. At some point, we (hopefully) attain some wisdom.
It is not intelligence, or cleverness, or even ethics. It seems more to be a time-tested means of choosing how to live, a guide through the unknown, a certain acceptance of how life is and how we best deal with it. Erik Erikson’s last stage of development involves wisdom: either we arrive at a sense of integrity that leads to wisdom if we see our lives as successful, or despair if we don’t.
Our culture of valuing information, accomplishment and dissemination of facts seems more important than wisdom. Wisdom involves the emptying and quieting of the mind, using the heart and applying reason and feeling. It is standing back and viewing the whole, discerning what matters and what does not, weighing the meaning and depth of things. This quality of wisdom is rare in our culture.
Sometimes, I don’t feel so wise. I easily get sidetracked into disappointment, fear, judgment and criticism in looking at the world today. My wisdom and equanimity seem to get lost when I listen to the news or run into difficulties in my life. The more I rely on facts, knowledge or concepts, the more closed my mind is, and the less I’m able to recognize how things really are. I know I’m slower to process something, yet if I take some time and sit with it, the issue finally becomes clear.
These are the times when we must recognize the unique things each of us has and consider that we are capable of opening to the very ideas that our endangered culture and planet need if they are to survive. Our sustainability, patience, reflection, appreciation for justice and humor from many years of living are in short supply these days.
There is also a certain wisdom in nature; all very old things attain a certain kind of wisdom. Consider the wisdom of trees and mountains and rivers, planets and stars. Does this mean wisdom is a means by which one gains power, or creates beauty, or helps others?
Traditional societies revere elders for their wisdom. Wisdom is one of the few things in human life that doesn’t diminish with age. Many of us have not even considered that we may be wise in some way.
It’s futile to try to change the outside world without beginning with ourselves, without understanding others in our culture and without separating the mental busyness with what is really happening in the moment. Perhaps this means that we should continue standing up for what we believe is right, be more open to compassion and take the longer view too. Trusting the forces of good more than bad may be the wise thing to do now.
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written a book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.