The other day, a woman and I were talking about a health care practitioner we both know. The woman we were talking about is incredibly studied in her field, full of wisdom, knowledge, and experience. The woman I was speaking with looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, when you get older, you’ll be wise too.” On another occasion, I was speaking with someone older than I am who said in passing, “Wisdom only comes with age.”
At both of these comments, I winced, cringed, and eye-twitched, but smiled and nodded because we’re conditioned to be polite.
This is a topic I have long been OBSESSED with and think about almost everyday:
*** Getting older, and being old, does NOT automatically make you wise. ***
The two are NOT synonymous, and combining these two things is very detrimental to how we think about older age.
When we expect older people to be wise, we are setting ourselves up for a very narrow exchange with an older adult; one that follows trickle-down economics, as opposed to conversational reciprocity.
So what does that mean? It means that when we sit down with someone who is 87, we expect them to drop knowledge. We seek to unearth their hidden gems of parables, telling us monumental philosophies that get labeled as ‘wisdom.’
Not every Elder in their 80s and beyond is wise and that’s OKAY.
Let me break it down like this: you know that really abhorrently annoying coworker that makes you wonder how they survive because they are so, dare I say it, stupid?... in kinder words, lacking in common sense? Or that friend of yours who just really isn’t the brightest crayon in the box? Well here’s the thing: chances are, they are going to get old. And they’re probably not going to be wise. Now, are they going to be experienced? YES.
This is the subtle distinction I want to focus on. To be EXPERIENCED is different than to be WISE. So what creates wisdom? What makes someone ‘wise’?
Wisdom means building insight through critical perception. Merriam-Webster defines wisdom not only as not “accumulated philosophical or scientific learning,” BUT ALSO, and perhaps most importantly, the “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships [and] good sense.”
Erik Erikson, famous for his research in eight psychosocial developmental stages is described by Harvard University as a researcher who “believed that the development of personality depended directly on the resolution of existential crises like trust, autonomy, intimacy, individuality, integrity, and identity.” Through his research, Erikson found that at around age 65, people grappled with ego integrity versus despair.
Writing for SimplyPsychology, Saul McLeod says, “It is during this time that we contemplate our accomplishments and can develop integrity if we see ourselves as leading a successful life.
Erik Erikson believed if we see our lives as unproductive, feel guilt about our past, or feel that we did not accomplish our life goals, we become dissatisfied with life and develop despair, often leading to depression and hopelessness. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom enables a person to look back on their life with a sense of closure and completeness, and also accept death without fear.”
SO here’s the thing:
WISDOM means you actually grew from your experiences and used them as rungs on your ladder of life.
To be EXPERIENCED means you went through your life and couldn't figure out how to climb up the ladder.
Not everyone has the same ability to climb their ladder, and that’s okay. Not everyone develops a sense of empathy towards themselves and the experiences within their life.
Getting older just means you’ve lived a lot longer, and by trial and error, you experimented, messed up, learned, and recorrected.
When we sit down with someone who is 40, 50, 60, or even 70 years our senior, the conversation is a two-way street. You’re there to create a connection with them and THAT becomes wisdom. It’s what you BOTH create together through conversation that becomes something we can learn from.