S1E11. The Wisdom Paradox

“There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult.” 

— from Plato’s The Republic

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The notion that we may achieve wisdom as we age is comforting. Throughout history, many cultures have revered the elderly for this very quality: wisdom born of experience. It’s nice work, if you can get it!

In the 1940’s, psychologist Erik Erikson described the period from about age 65 to death as the time we negotiate our path through the conflict between integrity and despair. We reflect back on our lives and begin to confront our mortality. He defined success as reaching the conclusion that your life was meaningful, and then facing death with wisdom and integrity.

But there has also been recognition through the ages of the other path we might follow.

In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras posited that the decay of the mind and body began in one’s 60s and in one’s 80s the tendency was to revert to the mental capacity of a child.

The physician Galen, in the 2nd century, attributed dementia to the presence of too much black bile.

Quite the choice: being revered vs. being diapered; wisdom vs. black bile.

It’s quite the paradox: just as our lifetime of experiences grants us wisdom, aging can rob us of the memories and faculties upon which it is built.

When I was in my 20s (long before I learned about Erikson’s work), I set a standard for myself that was similar to his criterion. I decided that when I was on my deathbed, I wanted to be able to look back on my life and say, “I dug what I did while I was doing it.”

I’m not yet on my deathbed, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I’m pleased with my performance so far. I have very few regrets.

Have my various careers elevated me to the ranks of those with wisdom? I don’t know. By virtue of having lived this long, I have a lot of stuff stored in my head. Am I able to integrate it, manipulate it, and present polished pearls of wisdom on demand? That’s a pretty tall order. I’d like to think, though, that I have a unique and helpful perspective to offer. If that passes for wisdom, then so be it.

When Erikson penned his theory, we retired at 65 and our life expectancy was in the early 70s. Today, many of us are working well past 65, and even if we have retired, our lives are full and enriched by our volunteer engagements, travel, family and community involvements. Life expectancy in the United States is now 79. It’s becoming more common to read obituaries of centenarians. When I read about someone who passed while in their 70s, I hear myself lamenting, “So young!”

So now I’m 70 and not yet focusing on end-of-life issues. Instead, I’m embarking on a new career as a blogger. I can still express myself pretty well…and people still laugh at most of my jokes!

But how long will I occupy this state of grace? With aging–whether normal or pathological–I’m losing access to my database. My abilities to think things through and connect previously unconnected dots are slowing down. How long before listeners stop listening with interest and start finishing my sentences for me? How long before the black bile makes its presence felt? How long before Plato would not consider me a worthy traveller?

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8 Comments

  1. Douglas M Spencer says:

    A most encouraging posting. Thank you, from an 88 year old.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Doug, for being such a great role model and worthy traveller!

      Like

  2. Carol Catanese says:

    Another engaging essay! I hope you keep blogging, even after overcome with black bile, who knows it may resonate well with all of us aged! After all, we are indeed the same species and more or less going through similar stages of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kzhop52 says:

    As a geriatric care manager, I once had a client who was 100 yrs old. She told me, “I’m going to tell you something…..your best decade of life will be your 60s. You will still have your health (if you are lucky), the kids are grown and gone, you may be retired, and you can enjoy grandkids, travel, and you should still have your mind. So be sure to do whatever you want in that decade, because after that…..all bets are off.” This is the same woman who could get down on all fours and extend her arm under her bed to retrieve a lost slipper and get back up with no assistance! I often think of her advice, as my late 60s are flying by, while I cope with a pandemic, and cannot follow her advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Zella Felzenberg says:

    I decided in my 50’s that I had reached the age of a “wise” woman and could share my wisdom (my perspective on life) with others. I am glad I didn’t wait until I was 60 to recognize the value of my life experiences. Now in my 70’s, though I am free to do what I want—travel, read, visit museums, etc and no pressures related to my livelihood— I also interact with few people with whom I can share my wisdom! I like your idea of sharing wisdom on a blog! Hopefully those youngsters who would benefit from the quality if your experiences, thinking, and judgment will find you on the virtual highway of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are correct. Wisdom is not the sole province of those advanced in age. It arrives early for some while never visiting others.

      Like

  5. fredstrath says:

    Great thought piece, Wayne. As a fellow seventyite, I’m so surprised by how young I feel, even while struggling with my aging body and mind. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s my siblings and I used to figure out how old we would be in the year 2000, which seemed impossibly far away. Usually around New Year, I often laugh at that thought and wonder how we got this far, and then I muse on how much longer we have to go. It gives me a lot of hope that I still have ambition and feel I’m still learning and growing. Thanks so much for your writing!

    Like

    1. Your comment reminds me of something Forrest Gump never said: ‘Life is like a hard-shell taco.’ Even though our outer shells are brittle, all that good stuff inside is wonderfully complex and delicious!

      Liked by 1 person

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