Is the Wisdom of Age Overrated?

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Is the wisdom of age a function of learning something during your decades on the planet? There is, in fact, one other possibility: older people are just older and view the world from a different vantage point.

Let me explain.

Take the hormone-driven life of a sixteen-year-old boy. The sexual urge is like having a wild animal inside you. Erections, as noted in my post about the nude swimming classes of yesteryear, happen at the most inopportune moments and with astonishing frequency. They cannot be willed away any more than nocturnal emissions (a.k.a. wet dreams).

No 60-year-old man is subject to the same preoccupying, indomitable force. Therefore, he and the 16-year-old version of himself perceive the world differently, think about the sexual aspect of life with different degrees of obsession, and are enslaved by lust in proportion to spontaneous changes of the body.

Strenuous thought over those 44 years didn’t accomplish this. Age alone is the reason, a major physical and chemical change. You are not the same man you used to be. We do tend to think of the 60-year-old as wiser in controlling sexual urges, but he didn’t work or study with this aim. A reduced libido gradually developed in the normal course of life.

Now let’s switch things a bit. If the 60-year-old is wiser about mating, shouldn’t we advise our 16-year-old boy to be like his sage future self? I think not.

Our biological imperative is to reproduce. Intercourse is required and only a magician could impregnate someone without it, assuming no artificial insemination. Were a young man’s ravenous view of sex the same as his more distracted aged self, the human race might never have survived.

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OK, enough of bedroom activities. Let’s talk about ambition. Jean Améry said that a young person “is not only who he is, but also who he will be.” In other words, one’s self concept is informed by his or her expectations for the future. A youngster might envision herself becoming a physician, for example. Her imagined career defines how she looks at life and how she behaves; by dedicated study, among other behaviors.

For most men and women in their 60s, however, “who he will be” is not promising. The older person can still be serene and productive, but few bets are placed on his achieving higher status in business, sports, scientific discovery, or art. Seniors are disinclined to want more children of their own, even were their bodies to cooperate. If a person has not made his mark, he isn’t expected to as an oldie, at least in the ways described.

Happily, however, by the 60s most of us are less ambitious and are looking forward to retirement. Again, the question is: do those with less drive “learn” something by experience or might their bodies and diminished capabilities simply change their perspective?

I believe we do learn some things from life experience and a portion of a senior citizen’s wisdom is “earned.” Yet, with an energy boost, the intellectual sharpness, and the pulchritude of someone younger, the ambition might return. When science makes 60 into the new 40 or 30 or 16, I’m guessing ambition will also be revived and older people will trade the twilight for another round in the daylight of a more youthful competition to “make something” of oneself.

Now to a practical and personal example. My father became a wiser man as he aged. Dad was born in 1911. I videotaped a four-hour conversation we had about his life when he was in his mid-70s. His youth, like so many others living at the time, was dominated by the Great Depression. Imagine being 21, ambitious, and smart in late 1932, with no path to a lasting career. Where would jobs come from? How could he support a family? Might an appealing woman want him if he were impoverished? It is, unfortunately, still a problem today in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

The imperative to “make a living” explained most of his major choices even post-retirement. For my first 20 years, he worked one full-time job and two part-time jobs, plus a small business repairing cigarette lighters on our dining room table after dinner. My father was careful with money and took few financial risks. The shadow of the Great Depression, that ended with the ramp-up to World War II, was still present over 20 years after he returned from the European portion of that conflict.

The dominant problem of his life was financial security and paying the expenses for my mom and their three little boys. Sidestepping the cost to the entire family of his work-induced absences, Dad paid an emotional toll in the lurking fear of another economic crisis derailing his life and ours. In part, he labored because it defined him as a “man,” but finances were in the back of his mind. I don’t think it was an easy way to live, at least not from my observations growing up.

Gradually something changed. In the last 15 or more years of his long life, he seemed more at ease with himself, less worried and stressed. He continued to work part-time jobs for a while, but a peacefulness had come over him. He finally triumphed over the stalking shadow of 1932 and the rest of the Depression. The doubts receded.

Somehow dad accomplished a psychological distance from the monetary concerns that unsettled him long past the time they were realistic. Because he wasn’t an introspective guy, I attributed the change to the aging process rather than any kind of “aha!” moment triggered by a self-reflection he rarely practiced. He was an older man with an older body for whom things had worked themselves out.

In the same video interview, I asked him what he’d learned in his 75 years on the planet. He paused a moment, and then said something touching: “I’ve learned to appreciate some things.” He named my mom — still the love of his life — my brothers Eddie and Jack and myself; expressing pride his three good boys were independent and successful. What this 75-year-old version of my dad said was wise, but hardly unique.

Older people simply own a special perspective. If they have learned anything important from aging, it is to look at the part of the glass that is half-full, not half-empty. The oldies view their existence from closer to the end than the beginning, looking back through the lens of experience. And they see with different eyes — a changed body and brain, too. The fading of the ambition necessary in youth (if the older person has been lucky enough) has a positive influence on happiness. You would not think a settled, hormonally tamed teenager to be wise if he had this view of his world, but you might say it of a 75-year-old man.

In summary, many, but not all of the aged are wise. No, they didn’t take philosophy classes and spend hours thinking about their past in order to achieve it. I dare say, for most, it just happened to them.

To me, at least, I’m comforted that nature sometimes works to perfection. A flower blooms all by itself. Even as we are robbed of our youthful vigor, an unsigned but precious gift is silently slipped under the door unnoticed. Yet the fragrance is quite beautiful.

The wooden hourglass is the work of S Sepp and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

6 thoughts on “Is the Wisdom of Age Overrated?

  1. Great post, as usual. I was just reading from your essay on grief just yesterday and said you always give wonderful food for though. Truly, Dr. S., when I read your essays it’s this wonderful 5-10 minutes of just stopping and thinking — and learning — about a topic. Thank you, as always.

    P.S. You failed to mention that as you get older “Judge Judy” is a must-see every afternoon. 🙂 I think it’s required viewing once you pass 50. 🙂

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  2. P.S. I meant to write I was reading from your grief essay to my therapist just yesterday afternoon! 🙂

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    • drgeraldstein

      Your devoted attention to my writing is appreciated, Harry. I’m too far behind on daily TV to put “Judge Judy” on the “Must See TV” list, but you made me smile!

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  3. I tell you, all work and living stops in our household at 4 p.m. 🙂

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  4. “In summary, many, but not all of the aged are wise. ”

    I agree with your conclusion. Wisdom doesn’t come automatically with age. It’s a path we must choose to pursue.

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  5. drgeraldstein

    I agree that it is best to pursue it, but some lucky folks seem to acquire it without much effort. That said, it is surely best to increase one’s chances by seeking knowledge.

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