I’m getting older.
And I’m old enough now that when I think of the phrase “with age comes wisdom,” I can’t help but wonder — when exactly was I supposed to get wise?
When I was young I was certain about the things I knew.
And I assumed that with age would come more certainty, and when I reached a point of supreme certainty I would officially become wise.
Like my teachers, who declaimed things with great confidence.
But it didn’t happen, and now that I’m older I see total confidence in opinions as a sign of a closed mind.
I lost sight of my benchmark for wisdom.
If wisdom was a garden, I feel I’ve been toiling away for years but whenever I look up, instead of flowering blossoms of knowledge, I see endless bare fields of newly discovered ignorance which would surely take many lifetimes to plant and cultivate.
So why is that, and what can we do about it?
The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.”
—L.P Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953
We’re all from the past.
It’s where we learned about the world.
The older we get, the less resemblance the world bears to where we find ourselves now.
We can never go back.
And it can be frightening and lonely to know we can never go back.
I find it comforting to meet up with people from the same time as me, and talk about how things used to be better.
Summers were longer, ice cream cones were bigger, books were written in a more legible font.
People worry about different things in the present.
In my past, I was worried about oil running out, the cold war turning hot, an invasion of aliens from outer space, and my music cassettes getting chewed up by the player.
The need for wisdom for the problems of today.
Now I live somewhere where climate change, race, and pandemic disease are the concerns of the age.
It’s not a world I feel equipped for.
All our old worlds just disappeared, so gradually we didn’t even notice it happening.
Our values were learned from a world that no longer exists and we don’t know how to apply them to the big problems of the age.
“The popular expression ‘with it’ meaning abreast of the times, is probably ephemeral, like all juvenile slang.
—The Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Sir Henry Fowler, 1926
Even language evolves into something unrecognizable.
The unfairness of the fast-paced world
I hear young people speaking to each other and I realize I don’t know what they mean anymore.
And it feels so unfair, I’ll think I’m keeping up with the kids and one day I’ll notice they’re texting in hieroglyphics and they’ll laugh at me when I ask if ‘eggplant peach’ is some sort of recipe.
It feels so unfair.
Finding it difficult to keep up? Laughed at when you try? Feeling stupid?
Many aging people have been tempted by the appealing alternative —decide that new trends that don’t immediately make sense to your worldview are stupid and pointless.
“Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong.”
—Principal Skinner, The Simpsons, Episode 20 Season 5, 1994
The resist for the change.
We all know older people who seem completely out of touch and are unwilling to change.
In fact, they act proud of it.
It’s exactly like someone who moved to a different country and refused to learn the language of their new home because their way is “better”.
Getting older and feeling you don’t belong is exactly the same except you didn’t even choose to move to this odd new place, it all just happened out the window like an ever-accelerating blur.
I find these people often turn hard and cold and sharp.
They wear their age like a Sheriff’s badge of pride and judge the young for their silly new ways.
As we wither away.
They don’t seem to enjoy it very much, but it’s better than feeling that they were wrong to never change.
As their relevance withers, they hold what remains in their control in a death grip.
“Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.”
—Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003
The above Dumbledore quote may have made you roll your eyes because it’s from a book for children.
And I think that attitude is exactly the problem.
We get so cynical and crotchety and gate-keep our own ability to absorb new knowledge, we even lose the ability to be inspired or enthusiastic by something new.
The need to understand.
In any case, I feel I have a duty to understand young people that they do not have to reciprocate.
We’ve been them, and they are yet to discover what it’s like to grow old and still not know what life is all about.
We old people think that young people are gullible and change their minds as easily as the wind changes direction.
But we old people say that without introspection about how we got to believe all the things we learned as children that we consider to be incontrovertible truths and we’d rather walk into a storm than change with the wind.
It’s hard to get right.
Luckily there are people from the present: Young people.
The way to gain wisdom as we age.
Listen to young people, ask them questions.
And if you don’t understand, say you don’t understand, not “that’s dumb.”
Listening also means trying to overcome the urge to tell them how things should be and how they used to be better.
“Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
—Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Address, 2005
I might not be able to become wise simply by aging and letting our wisdom blossom all by itself, but I can cultivate my field of ignorance — I can keep learning, stay open-minded, embrace change as inevitable and challenge myself with new ideas.
If not wisdom, age has at least given me an appreciation of my own mortality and how fragile we all are. We don’t have all the time in the world so all we can do is make the best of things and spend time with the people who matter to us.
In fact, since I started cultivating my ignorant old mind by deciding to plant new thoughts in it, I’ve been enjoying myself far too much to worry about getting wise.
Christopher L Brooks, he is a writer, journalist, and producer. Read more of his writing by clicking here.