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The Wisdom of Seeking Wisdom

The Wisdom of Seeking Wisdom

This article originally appeared May 7, 2009

One of the many sad consequences of our preoccupation with youth is that we don’t pay much attention to wisdom. That’s like worrying about what color to paint the garage and ignoring the Ferrari that’s housed inside.

Wisdom, per Merriam Webster’s is “accumulated philosophic or scientific learning: KNOWLEDGE” or “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships:INSIGHT” or “good sense: JUDGMENT.”Roll it all together and you get “a wise attitude, belief, or course of action.” Wisdom is a key to living well. But aspiring to it is not typically on our lists of New Year’s resolutions or personal goal statements.

That’s probably because to acquire it, you have to accept you’re getting older.  We don’t like to go there.

First, let’s face one unavoidable fact. Every single day of our lives, we get older. It’s the normal course of events. The only alternative is to die—and I’m not voting for that option. So if we’re going to get older anyway, why not do it gracefully? Why not do it in a way that makes the reality more compelling? Why not work on becoming wise?

Going back to the definition I started with, there are three pieces to this—and then the decision to live that way (which is the attitude part).

Knowledge

Jokes about hiring a teenager because they know it all have been around forever. And we’ve all met precocious ten-year-olds who could go on for an hour on a topic they found interesting. But the knowledge that serves as a basis for wisdom has to be more comprehensive than the knowledge of youth. Becoming wise requires an accurate picture of the real world. And that means you need to have lived there a while. And paid attention.

Too often, we live in the realm of what we assume to be true instead confirming what is. Buying a car—or house—that you can’t afford is an example of that. But so is staying in a dead-end job because you’re telling yourself you’re not good enough for anything better. Not believing in ourselves is the stingiest approach of all to life. But it takes wisdom to see that–and to stop doing it.

Gaining knowledge hinges on paying attention to what’s going on around you. People who have learned “what comes  next” again and again are more serene about life situations. A wise person knows the bad times will end and can work patiently toward that day. She also savors the good times because they, too, are temporary. What we learn of the ebb and flow of life—by living it consciously—gives us a more solid foundation.

Insight

Knowing about life is important, but you need to find the patterns in it, too–even when they’re hidden in the shadows. Insight is combining information from the disparate sources you’ve observed and drawing astute conclusions about what’s going on.

One of my dearest family members reacts intensely to overwork. Until I understood that pattern, I found myself in the middle of emotional upheavals that left me baffled and hurt. Without a conscious assessment of previous episodes and an effort to extract what was common to them, I believed—as she was prone to insisting in those moments—that I was inadequate as a person and a loved one. Now, I just find the quickest route to the sidelines. Getting out of the way for a bit is a much better solution for both of us. This is wisdom. It’s practical. It’s loving. And it’s not going to show up unless you’re getting older. You have to watch things for a while to see patterns.

Judgment

Judgment is not about deciding you’re better than someone else. The judgment that comes with wisdom is about choosing an effective course of action.

Sometimes, it’s obvious. If the house is on fire, you get out and call 911. But if you’ve been worrying for weeks about whether to go on vacation in June or August, maybe you need to let go of it for a while. Wise judgment is knowing when NOT to decide sometimes. Ever spend months feeling awful that you weren’t getting to something that “had” to be done only to discover it didn’t need to be done at all?

Wisdom includes intuition when employing judgment. Knowledge and insight are essential, but so is “gut feel” if you want to get it right. As we get older, we become more willing to hear—and honor—that “little voice.” We make wiser choices as a result.

Wise as an attitude

We don’t become wise instantaneously. Wisdom comes in small increments. To get all the way to unflappable, ongoing serenity, we need to decide we want to become wiser. Every day. For a lot of days…weeks…months…years.

To Age Well, Be Kind

To Age Well, Be Kind

photo by Guy Basabose on Unsplash

We have an epidemic of nastiness going in the country that’s going to kill us. Not just because politics have become so ugly. No just because Thanksgiving dinner has become a minefield. Because all this nastiness is literally bad for our health–individually and collectively.

Three bits of information that I chanced upon today draw the picture well.

A friend forwarded me a post from a blog he subscribes to and asked what I thought of it. It was a rant about “the Bolsheviks” (liberal Americans) and how awful it was that they were happy David Koch had died. I agree that jubilation over anyone’s death is wrong. But I also disagree with the label the blogger was repeatedly applying. We are never going to get anywhere by belittling other people’s point of view. (Turns out we will get somewhere –the hospital after a heart attack–but more on that later.)

The second snippet was off the internet and was about two second grade boys on their first day of school. The one noticed the other was in distress, walked over and took his hand, and walked into school with him. The boy who helped was black. The boy in distress was white and autistic. None of that made any difference to the kids. Kindness was what was called for and kindness was what was given. (Who do you think is the more mature male, the blogger or the black kid in second grade?)

The third bit of information came from the PBS News Hour this evening (my chosen source of news when I can stand hearing about it at all). They interviewed Dr.Kelli Hansen, an MD whose book, The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness, came out today. Her premise is that the most important resources for maintaining our biomedical health come from our social environment not the healthcare system. Yep. Kindness keeps you healthy. I haven’t had the chance to read her book yet, but I’ve read enough other research on the subject to know she’s on target.

To age well, you need to be kind and to put yourself in situations where you are treated with kindness.

Is this not cool? Instead of worrying about how many reps you did at the gym, you get to play with your kids or your sister’s kids. Or run to the store for milk for your sick neighbor. Instead of worrying about whether you are eating the exact right things to avoid a heart attack, you get to do the things you like to do that someone else needs done. There are a gazillion ways to be kind. They are never boring. They don’t “all taste the same after a while.” Kindness is always a kick.

Perhaps we needed this massive dose of the bitter medicine of conflict to help us embrace the better way. I don’t really think so, but it’s where we are and what we need to start with. When someone is calling names or making fun of people, turn away. When someone wants to fan the “we/they” flames, ignore it. This is simple stuff, but it’s crucial. BE KIND AND HANG AROUND WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE KIND. Not just for the greater good. For your own health.

And for heaven’s sake don’t think you can wait until you are “old” to make the change! Heart attacks don’t wait for you to get old.

“Well aged” or “old”?

“Well aged” or “old”?

photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

We live in a culture that lionizes youth. The logic of that is simply not there. What does “looking young” have to do with anything important?

A big reason for our continued obsession with this silliness has nothing to do with beautiful people. It’s easier to sell to young people–for whom fitting in is highly valued. Getting what everyone else is getting, wearing what everyone else is wearing is important.

It is a whole lot easier to sell stuff if everyone wants the same thing. So we have an entire advertising industry and the retailers it serves furthering this perception that “Looking young is essential.”

But looking young is nothing. It doesn’t get you a good job–because you don’t have experience. It doesn’t find you the perfect mate–because you don’t yet understand what you really need. It doesn’t even guarantee you freedom from bad hair days.

As we age, we become more unique. This is not a bad thing. But it’s inconvenient for commerce. Instead of convincing the masses they all want that one special thing you are selling, a seller has to figure out what each person wants and offer that. It’s a lot easier to accomodate individual differences with online retailing. So no surprise that as a culture, we’ve been moving in that direction. But the big emphasis on youth remains the driver in advertising and fashion articles.

Which brings us back to “aging well” versus “getting old.” The value of a life increases as it proceeds. You know more. You have more experience with how to handle problems. You’ve been through tough times that make you more resilient. At least if you are aging well. If you are just trudging along, resigned to the idea of getting old and not putting effort into becoming ever more of yourself, none of that may be true.

This is a choice. We all make it, either intentionally or by default. It’s the height of folly to think we can be something other than human–that we can remain young by buying the right creams, getting the right procedures done, taking the right supplements, and wearing the right clothes. No one is going to stay young! (This in itself should be a strong argument for not relegating “older adults” to some unacceptable, invisible trash pile. We are all going there–if we are lucky enough to live that long.)

How you age is your call. Are you going to make yourself a masterpiece with what you learn and the refinements you make to who you are? Or are you going to go into the dumpster of “old” with both arms full of potions and lotions, receipts for spa treatments and youth hormones falling from your pockets, and a crotchety curse on your lips?

Becoming well aged is just that–becoming. That means you are still growing. And that is how to stay young.