Being Older Doesn’t Mean You’re Wiser
How we grow in wisdom at any age
My friend sold her house and moved into an expensive retirement community. She likes it okay because she doesn’t have to do yard work or cook her own food, but the things that annoy her most are the petty grievances of other residents.
“People complain about the most trivial things,” she said. “They have all kinds of entertainment provided for them, but they fuss about the TV in the lounge being too loud or about not having enough to do.”
My sister runs into much the same thing. She directs senior beauty pageants, which are pageants for contestants over sixty. She recruits contestants, arranges a venue, choreographs a program, and sells sponsorships.
One year she talked me into working backstage. For three hours I fastened necklaces, fetched water, and helped squeeze sixty-plus-year-olds into tight evening gowns, with the ever-present dread that I was going to break a zipper.
The women were as serious and nervous about this pageant as if they were going on a first date.
Even though pageants weren’t my thing, I thought it was a positive experience. Contestants worked toward a goal, met other people and stretched beyond their comfort zone. They didn’t let age stop them from entering a rigorous competition. A lot of them were talented and gracious.
But I wasn’t prepared for what my sister told me later. One of the runner ups got upset because she didn’t win. The winner went on to lose a national competition and blamed my sister for not accompanying her to the nationals as an unpaid personal coach and mentor (not the pageant director’s job!)
Another contestant wrote my sister a scathing letter threatening a lawsuit. She complained about performing in the group’s opening number without accommodation for her disability. This contestant never mentioned a disability when she signed up for the pageant. She never once objected to the opening number. She smiled and participated like everybody else. It was only when she didn’t place in the top five that she became disgruntled.
What it means to grow in wisdom
We hear that age confers wisdom, but my first thought on hearing these stories was, have these people learned nothing in their 60-plus years about gratitude, losing with grace, or supporting others? Was life, after decades of living, still “all about me?”
I couldn’t help comparing the “plight” of people who don’t have enough to do in a retirement home or don’t win a pageant to the plight of people who don’t have food, proper medical care, or even a shelter over their heads.
We grow in wisdom as we age only if we can learn from our experiences and apply what we’ve learned to the details of daily life. Wisdom should help us differentiate the trivial from the significant. It should make us graceful losers and humble winners, and it should increase our compassion and insight.
Wisdom is only wisdom if it enlightens or enlarges the lives of others.
Zat Rana writing on Medium said, “Wisdom not only knows, but it understands.”
Older people should be wiser because they’ve had an opportunity to acquire knowledge and experience, and many older people are wiser. When we dismiss people solely because of age, we risk dismissing the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of decades.
But sadly, some people continue a small life defined by small thinking. Love, compassion and understanding, virtues that stem from wisdom, tend to shrivel. In their place is an increasing tendency toward cynicism, bitterness and self-centeredness.
Starting when we’re young
Wisdom is something we should start acquiring when we’re young. Then, when the natural losses that come with age threaten to diminish our spirit and resolve, we have a reservoir of accumulated wisdom to draw upon. Aches and pains that have a tendency to make us petulant and self-absorbed take a back seat to our determination to live wisely and well.
But how can we acquire wisdom? Why do some people continue to grow and live fully while others become more and more self-focused? Cultivating self-awareness, continuing to learn, practicing unselfishness and staying close to nature can help.
“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” Albert Einstein.
A friend told me, “I know I complain a lot, but at least I’m aware of it and working on it.”
Being aware of something is necessary before we can deal with it. In reading over old journal entries, I discovered I had a tendency to criticize and complain about the same things over and over. Realizing this, I resolved to change.
Appraising our strengths, weaknesses and motivations through an unfettered lens of honesty is necessary if we want to grow wiser.
Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” We need to examine our motives, delving into the reasons we say and do things that sabotage progress. If something is keeping us from being all we can be, we have to acknowledge it before we can overcome it.
Do we drink too much? Criticize too much? Allow our thoughts to fall into negative grooves? Do we care too much what people think? Are we too afraid of failure to try new things? Do we really want to change or is it too easy to remain where we are?
Honest journaling, prayer and meditation, listening to feedback from friends and paying close attention to our thoughts and feelings help us grow in self-awareness.
We gain wisdom by continuing to learn throughout our lives. Listening to others, reading extensively and keeping an open mind prevent us from stagnating.
Growing in wisdom isn’t the same as growing intellectually. To grow intellectually, we acquire knowledge and information. To grow in wisdom, we acquire insight and understanding. Reading helps us gain knowledge, and reading broadly and deeply helps us grow in wisdom.
As a teenager, I read the Bhagavad Gita and was enthralled because it ignited in me a yearning for spiritual growth. The wisdom books of the Bible, especially Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Psalms, provide new insights every time I read them.
“Blessed is the one who finds wisdom and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit is better than gold.” Proverbs 3:18
Learning history and applying the lessons of the past; reading what others have discovered in their search for truth; listening to stories of those who have lived through hardship but retained their joy, are all paths to wisdom.
Growing wiser also gives us a healthy dose of humility. The more we read and learn, the more we realize how little we know.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates
We are inherently selfish, so it goes against our natural inclinations to act unselfishly. But by helping to relieve the suffering of others, we are looking at something beyond our own needs and desires. Rather than turning inward as we age, we become outwardly-focused.
“My advice is that if you must be selfish, be wisely selfish. Wise people serve others sincerely, putting the needs of others above their own. Ultimately you will be happier.” Dalai Lama
Bitterness is a stumbling block to wisdom, and acts of kindness and compassion keep bitterness at bay.
Nature is another facilitator of wisdom. When life closes in and my focus narrows, I throw off my blinders by hiking, kayaking, or just watching birds flutter round the bird feeder. Seeing myself as part of this vast, majestic whole leads me to view my petty woes and concerns from a different perspective. Problems pale in comparison to the joy and spiritual strength I gain from the rest of creation.
No age has a corner on wisdom. It’s characterized by the ability to turn experience and learning into joyful and worthwhile living.
Somebody described middle age as the years between 45 and 64, so from that perspective, at 66 I’m old. But I hope I’ve grown in wisdom. I’m more joyful than I was at 36 or 46 because there isn’t as much time left for pettiness and worry.
Ambition doesn’t consume me because I’ve discovered that my joy is in the journey.
I’ve done some foolish things and expect I’ll do some more, but time passes so quickly that foolish things soon become a distant memory.
And I’m old enough to know I don’t know much at all.