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Posted on Thu, Aug 15, 2013 : 12:30 p.m.

Weighing the complexities of wisdom and intelligence in old age

By Robert Faber

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



Sat, Aug 17, 2013 : 3:11 p.m.

Essence and Existence: Man may describe his essence in terms of his physical, and intellectual work and yet it must be noted that at all stages of human life, the fact of existence precedes the essence of that life. The intelligence with which man establishes his existence is innate, and is not acquired by learned experience. At a fundamental level, the existence of man in the world is not dependent upon his physical, or mental work, and hence is not related to learning, or experience. The act, the state, or the condition called living is the manifestation of intelligent action; the intelligence that gives the ability to exploit an external source of matter, and energy to maintain, and to sustain one's own existence. To that extent, a virus particle that is not visible to human eye, can perform intelligent action and terminate the existence of a highly learned human being. In other words, I would share the wisdom of Apostle Paul; if belief in God is Foolishness, a penny of Foolishness is better than a Pound of human Wisdom.


Fri, Aug 16, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

Thank you Mr. Faber, always enjoy your wisdom!


Fri, Aug 16, 2013 : 12:12 p.m.

Speak for yourself. I think older people ARE wiser. And I was sent into school a year early too as a child-my parents had me skip kindergarten, as our new parochial school did not have that option the first year. I know the feeling of being a year behind everyone. It finally started feeling good in college and medical school.

Tim Hornton

Fri, Aug 16, 2013 : 1:06 a.m.

This is the wisest fool I've ever heard, lol Wisdom is taking instruction and dicipline with a good attitude of getting smarter, having good discretion and understanding, being diligent, and having morals respecting justice and hating evil and violence. Take that advice young man whether rich or poor and you will find riches, peace, and success, refuse it and find yourself in poverty telling yourself when you are old "oh how I hated learning and hard work" "now I'm living in a van down by the river getting only social security and Obamacare, boo hoo"!


Fri, Aug 16, 2013 : 10:58 a.m.

Very very strange: the thumbs-up vote I gave your post was negated by a thumbs-down vote. Just so you know: others see the validity in your statement. :-) Those who don't - are the poorer for it. And they can most easily be recognized by their superior attitude. ;-)


Thu, Aug 15, 2013 : 11:05 p.m.

Slow news day and need filler??? Older and sensitive only ones that are wiser??? Would love to see some support for these statements other than fluff.


Fri, Aug 16, 2013 : 10:42 a.m.

Would you say the same thing if Faber was your father or grandfather? Something leads me to suspect that you would. ;-)

Linda Peck

Thu, Aug 15, 2013 : 8:47 p.m.

Thank you, Robert Faber, for this wise perspective. May I add to the source code of wisdom the source of all life, love, as its best teacher.


Thu, Aug 15, 2013 : 5:58 p.m.

Well written and insightful prose. Thank you for your perspective Robert; I certainly enjoyed reading it and hope to live long enough to be able to revel in a similar level of experience and wisdom.