Weighing the complexities of wisdom and intelligence in old age
Survival skills during the early days of the Great Depression depended on a lot more than economic insights and good luck. It demanded a continuing effort to use all available assets for productive purposes, leaving nothing to be wasted — not even free time.
It made sense, then, that in order to have more time to work and earn a living, my parents tried to get me out from underfoot, so my mother lied about my age and got me into school a year early. I suddenly found myself a 4-year-old innocent in a class of experienced 5-year-olds, a novice forever struggling to catch up to my elders.
Then came World War II when all my classmates were being drafted, but my turn wouldn’t come until the next year, so I remained the under-aged observer, envious of my more senior friends in uniform.
And so it went for the next seven decades, younger than everybody my age, until reaching my 80s, when a new reality set in — the innocence of youth was replaced by the maturity of Old Age. Nothing had changed (aside from the reduced cost of movies and ski-lift tickets), but last long enough and survive the downsides well enough and there is a balance to be found.
Now in my late 80s, I have been granted the attribute of “wisdom” by those kids still only in their sixties, even though most of my intellectual ingredients remain unchanged. I have suddenly been promoted from “young fool” to “wise old man,” endowed with the advantages of my long life’s experiences that claim to have made me thoughtful and wise.
And therein lies one of the great treasures — and deceptions — of old age: the veneer of wisdom. Whatever the reality, one of the more satisfying misconceptions of aging is the assumption that the foolish comments of gray-haired old men are gems of wisdom decades in the making.
This is not to dismiss the lessons of life learned along the way, but simply to put them in perspective. We are who we had always been, but with a bit more experience under our belts and perhaps providing a bit more material for our memoirs. What we may have learned from those experiences is uncertain, but the important conclusion is that we should be judged, not by labels or years, but by the essence of who we are — and that starts long before old age.
Wisdom is a much more complex characteristic than merely being smart. It includes a fair understanding of the rules and needs of the world around us and the will and skill to adjust much of it to the requirements of those who depend upon that assistance. And that is an application unrelated to age.
Experience may well be the best teacher, but even with multiple decades under their belts, aged students insensitive to the needs of their fellows are unlikely to have learned much. Without that sensitivity, whatever designation we attach to the fact of “age” is unlikely to have much impact on ourselves or our society.
Finding and distributing the requirements of life to that segment of our population who have not the skills or the good fortune to provide adequately for themselves or their dependents is one of the great measurements of “wisdom” and that can be exercised long before the “wisdom of the aged” ever comes into play.
And that is also one of the great advantages of Old Age — having all that extra time to keep on learning — and trying — and doing.
Robert Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He previously owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. His wife of more than 60 years, Eunice, died March 20. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.