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Decoding “Wisdom”

Wise Deborah, judge of the Israelites (Book of Judges, chs. 4 and 5).

Wise Deborah, judge of the Israelites (Book of Judges, chs. 4 and 5).

I was reading an old Robert Parker mystery, Early Autumn, when I hit a line I would have normally just gulped without chewing if my brain had not been on unconscious alert for it. It was in a bit of dialogue between Spenser, the indomitable private investigator, and his beloved, Susan Silverman, child psychologist:

“Perhaps what you want to talk about isn’t terribly important,” she said.

“Yes it is.  What we have to say to each other is always important, because we love each other and we belong to each other.  And will forever.”

“Yes.”

She was silent.

“Don’t be ordinary, Suze,” I said.  “We’re not ordinary.  No one else is like us.”

That’s it, that last line:  “Don’t be ordinary, Suze.”

That line jumped out because of a dinner conversation with five other post-middle-aged women. As a tributary of a larger women’s group, we were having our first Word Night, and that first word was wisdom.  The New York Times served us an appetizer for that dinner with an article in the March 14 “Science Times,” “The Science of Older and Wiser.”

The article quotes a Columbia professor, Dr. Ursula M. Staudinger, who says, “True personal wisdom involves five elements . . .

  • self insight;
  • the ability to demonstrate personal growth;
  • self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history;
  • understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute;
  • and an awareness of life’s ambiguities.”

We liked the article, but it didn’t make us feel we really understood what helps one arrive at wisdom. There are people in my own family who do seem to have self-awareness and an understanding of their history. They have, in fact, grown over the years and they appreciate that everyone doesn’t see the world as they do (although I suspect they are really not convinced these others are truly thoughtful). I am sure they are aware of life’s ambiguities as well—yet somehow, my perfectly nice relatives don’t seem so wise to me. (Perhaps the reverse is also true?) Maybe they are wiser than they were decades ago, and I salute their growth . . . but they are not icons of wisdom.

In our dinner discussion, when we couldn’t get a good fix on a definition for wisdom that we all liked, we tried to pinpoint its opposite.  We checked online suggestions, but were even less successful with antonyms than definitions.  We were left with that old pornography explanation: I know it when I see it. While we all immodestly felt we have become wiser and that wisdom did become more evident as we aged, we knew some people were wise long before they were old. How could we explain what wisdom is?

There is such a powerful cultural pull toward ordinary. My mother told me, when I was in high school, to avoid big words on dates. Men, she advised, don’t like women who use big words. This from a Phi Beta Kappa business school graduate. She thought I would find happiness using a more ordinary vocabulary. I went off to college with a trunk full of lovely, ordinary clothes. I also had a brain packed with ordinary slogans.

When I began in the workplace, I paid attention to what was acceptable and, mostly, tried to fit. I hid my vulnerabilities and fears, even my needs, so I didn’t scare others. I’m still careful about discussing important things like public policy, faith, and sexual satisfaction —those topics we are told polite people don’t discuss.  Not being uncomfortable discussing them make one seem weird.  It’s easier to discuss ordinarily acceptable subjects like restaurants and grandchildren, travel and books.  Ordinary, by the way, doesn’t preclude excellence. In my circles, striving for excellence is ordinary. To settle for average is mostly unacceptable. We admire children who are exceptional—but in ordinary ways.  It’s better if they get 800s on the SATs than if they ignore all their classes to build something no one has yet heard of.  It’s good if they are extraordinary at tennis, but often tougher to tout if they are extraordinary in origami.  We admire people who make lots of money, even if their industries engage in questionable ethics.

I can already imagine being chided about the dangers of exhibitionism. Not the point. The danger, at least for me, is letting the culture’s common standards inhibit my most passionate emotions (assuming they are not meant to hurt others).  It’s not a good idea to do things simply so we’ll stand out, nor should we avoid good choices just because they feel mundane. If we want to knit or play golf, why not? We can read Proust or chic lit and spy thrillers. We can watch TV even if it’s not public television, but we can also ditch the TV, ditch the expectations our friends and family have for us that have never fitted very well.  Too often, I let my mind drift into those ordinary tracks when they don’t merit my fealty. They are culturally rooted prejudices, feelings so expected that they have become junk-food emotions.

There are lots of less than desirable things about aging, one of which is that we come closer and closer to death. But, it seems, one of the lovely things is that we get released from the grip of ordinary. (With luck and great effort, I might even stop caring about restaurants.)  Yes, we want to cultivate the qualities Dr. Staudinger spotlights, but we ought to go beyond. Then we have a shot, I think, at being wise. Is it enough to understand life’s ambiguities?  Sometimes we have to wade in and hang around. Are we wise if we own up to our faults and see their roots in our history, but are not patient with the narrative of others?

My takeaway from our conversation and my subsequent mulling is that real wisdom is not ordinary, and paying attention to finding balance between the commonly acceptable and a fresher insight nudges us in the direction of wisdom. Wondering about what we are sure is right—which, in fact, might actually be wrong—is a leap toward wisdom. One of the great astonishments of becoming old, for me, has been that while I’m not cuter or smarter or technologically very adept, I am, damn, actually wiser. I can hold the world as it is with less judgment and more curiosity.  But saying older is wiser is ordinary. The challenge: to grow into a deeper kind of wisdom still.

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