The Wisdom of Age?

I was thinking, the other day, about a couple of old women who lived near me when I was a child. One was always crabby; if we kids ran into her yard, she would come out and scold. The other one seemed always to be smiling and to enjoy seeing us play. 

It is hard to say exactly what wisdom is, but I would say that the difference between those two old women was partly one of wisdom. Wisdom says, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” It says, “let it be.” It cultivates love and kindness. A lifetime of such cultivation, I believe, leaves one more inclined to smile, less inclined to scowl.  

I am not a wise person. I am dismayed when I think of the many foolish things I’ve done in my life, and more so by the simple folly I am still inclined towards. Yet, I have long pursued wisdom, and put the highest value upon it. Amidst all my failures to achieve wisdom, I can at least say that I have become an “old man” with a smile.

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Nearly ten years ago, I published an article on this site titled “Wisdom Hides in Plain Sight.” The theme of this article is that words of wisdom are rather commonplace. As an example, I use the saying “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Of this I adage I say: 

It is about as stale and trite as it comes. Yet for all that, some of the most basic aspects of wisdom resides there: i.e. we need not be passive to our fate; we have the ability to reinterpret our existence; we have the power to turn negatives into positives; we have inner resources and the use of these resources can make all the difference between living a sour or a sweet life.

The problem with wisdom isn’t its obscurity, but its commonness. The difference between knowledge and wisdom is this: we only have to know the words to have knowledge, but we have to go beyond the words to gain wisdom. We have to experience in life what the words are saying; we have to embody the meaning of the words in our experience.

Another example from this article:

 “persistence in a righteous course brings reward.”  This saying, which appears frequently in the Chinese classic I Ching, reminds us of the power of intentionality. But it also asks us to consider how much we really care. That for which we deeply care is that toward which we will steadfastly persist. This saying suggests we ponder carefully how much we really care before we start a venture. To be willing to ponder carefully already requires that we care deeply about the quality of our life and the quality of the lives around us. Caring is at the foundation of inner resources and of wisdom.

To be caring and mindful, I’m pretty sure there is wisdom in that.

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I am now nearly 70. There are many unpleasant things about getting old. New aches and pains arise, seemingly out of nowhere; things that were once easy are suddenly hard; and you can no longer hide from the simple truth of mortality.  

But there is also something wonderful about it, and in many ways I feel this is the best time of my life. I am retired and have abundant time each day to give to that which I love. And there is much that I love. And what small measure of wisdom I possess is entwined in that love. 

It is the simple things I love most. The progression of the seasons – the novelty of spring, the abundance of summer, the somber colorfulness of fall, the stark beauty of winter trees silhouetted against the evening sky. I have yet to tire of these simple beauties of nature. And of course there are people I love, most of all my wife and family. And there are works of art, particularly music, that I return to over and over. And so much more.

Again, I am not sure what wisdom is, but I think it most likely to appear in the simple and the quiet. The world has become very noisy and complicated, and it seems to me, there is something rather unwise about the way we now live. We are undoubtedly very clever with our ever-expanding technical know-how, but it seems that cleverness and wisdom are seldom found together.

We can’t escape the modern world. Trying to do so is itself a bit of folly. But we can attend to the simple things and cultivate inner quietness. We can strive toward wisdom and open ourselves toward love and compassion. That which we cultivate through the more youthful years of our life will be that which we reap as we ripen in the so-called golden years. Do you have an image of the kind of person you’d like to be at 70?

There are words of wisdom I’d like to pass on to the young. But as I said earlier, words of wisdom are common. I doubt my words can make much difference. We each have to live through our folly and gain our wisdom through experience. 

But every once in a while, our experience forcefully connects with words, and we really understand their deeper meaning. I hope that at least some of the things that I have written for SNS over the years will connect with at least some people in this way. It’s what keeps me writing.

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3 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Age?”

  1. To my heart, your comments are most welcome and appreciated.

    I find the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead’s observations of interest:

    “In a sense, knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows: for details are swallowed up in principles. . . .The habit of the activeutilization of well-understood princples is the final possession of wisdom.”
    —The Aims of Education and Other Essays, 3, 1929.

    Again thank you for the spiritual uplift. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Beautuful, Thomas. I’m now 72 and totally share your thoughts and feelings. Thank you for this thoughtful, perceptive essay!

    Reply
  3. Someone said, “Realizing a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable, is knowledge. Never putting a tomato in a fruit salad is wisdom.” Thank you, Thomas.

    Reply

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