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Friday, November 13, 2009

Wisdom and Age

Does wisdom really increase with age, or is it something we bestow to elders because we can't think of anything else nice to say?

Dr. George Vaillant inquires about this question in his book, Aging Well. He ask if perhaps we as a culture give too much credibility to the wisdom of oldsters. He poses the question "Do we endow the elderly with wisdom only as a good-hearted effort to jolly them along...or is wisdom a special boon that life bestows upon the elderly? Or were the wise always that way and in old age we finally notice it? Or perhaps the reason that we associate wisdom with age is simply that, unlike motor skills, sexual prowess, and memory, wisdom does not usually decline with the passing years?"

I don't claim to know the answer to this paradox and any or all could be true. And, according to Vaillant, there have been many scholarly attempts to quantify 'wisdom' with no real definitive answer. However, I do have a personal sense that wisdom is somehow associated with the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. I also have a belief that older people have the potential to be much wiser than their younger counterparts just because they have more experiences to draw on. At least I want to believe that.

I also wonder if there are a few qualities that are reflected in a wise person. These may include being empathetic, showing tolerance, being self-aware, having a sense of wonder about the world around them, displaying moral discernment, seeing the irony and humor in life, a well developed common sense, and a discernment of when to speak their minds at the appropriate time.

As I write this I am particularly drawn to the last item. A discernment of when to speak their minds when it will have the most impact. Wisdom is the opposite of being self-absorbed. I don't have scientific data to back this up but I have found this quality in 20 somethings and 80 somethings in about the same percentages. So what is it that we see in elders that we associate as wisdom?

How many of us have felt "trapped" in a conversation with and oldster who wants to tell us "the way it should be"? I have, and I admit that, at times, I have been the one doing the telling and have noticed the glazed eyes and the uncomfortable distracted stares as I tell "the truth according to DR". Somehow, I just know or feel in my body that this is not a quality of being wise!

Then maybe wisdom has something to do with knowing the right time to speak up? When to ask questions and when to pull out an example from the past that adds perspective to a discussion or maybe solve a problem in the present. I wonder if this is the quality that is most affected by maturity, knowledge and intelligence and as such is what we see in oldsters that we think of as "wisdom" that maybe is not as developed in younger "wise" individuals? Perhaps it is this quality that has the best chance to be on display in the second half of life.

I'm really curious about this topic. What do you think? What is it to be a wise person?

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