The panel that piqued my greatest interest last year, near the end of my three-year stint in Boulder, was titled “Wisdom,” and though I didn’t have unreasonably high expectations, I think I had the same expectations that the organizers had: that anyone who’s living a meaningful life should be able to say something meaningful about wisdom. But now I’m not so sure. Because while the four presenters were competent enough, there is a difference between having (at least some) wisdom and knowing what wisdom is, and I’m not sure they had given the subject enough thought to really illuminate it.
The first presenter, Willow Wilson, made the greatest impression on me, because she unwittingly hit the problem on its head. She spoke about her long search for a spiritual teacher as a young Muslim convert, seeking out sheikhs first in Egypt, where she worked as a journalist, then back home in America. Then she had her daughter, and she learned that the teacher she sought was right in front of her, because her baby girl had an innate wisdom that she herself had lost in the process of growing up. Because Wilson talked mostly about her quest, and her epiphany was more like a punch-line, she didn’t say much about what her daughter’s wisdom specifically entailed, but the gist was familiar: freshness, openness, innocence, and an uninhibited engagement with the world.
Now there’s a lot to be said for what what children have that adults do not, and therefore a lot to be said about what adults can learn from children. Clearly they engage life more openly and spontaneously than we do; the older we become, the more habit-bound we become, and in that sense what we lose with age is significant. So although I’m not a parent, I have no doubts that parenthood can be a profound learning experience, and that parents can get something like an existential contact-high from their children’s native mode of being. But I do not think that children are born with wisdom. On the contrary, I think they are born with a complete absence of it.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]Wisdom is a matter of reconciling the contrary aspects of that experience, and it can only grow in the wake of being foiled.[/gn_pullquote]
I am an age-ist when it comes to wisdom. Not because I think that people necessarily get wiser as they get older—some people seem determined to learn very little from life—but because I think wisdom is a matter of making sense of experience, and to do that, first you’ve got to have some. More to the point: Wisdom is a matter of reconciling the contrary aspects of that experience, and it can only grow in the wake of being foiled. In other words, you have to learn that the world doesn’t work the way you’d like it to, and make sense of that. It is something the newborn is utterly unable to do, and the child only barely.
A few years ago I stumbled across the book Middle Age by Christopher Hamilton, a philosopher at Kings College in London. It is an excellent meditation on the insights midlife can bring, but it is clearly not a popular subject: As I write this, the book sits at 1,105,868 on Amazon’s best-seller list, way behind The Vaccum Cleaner: A History at 268,388, Sewing in a Straight Line at 20,976, and Watching Paint Dry at 227,043. (I am not making those up.) Unfortunately, that is not surprising. Middle age is not a celebrated time of life in our society. It’s disparaged as a time of terminal unhipness, when the vigor of youth yields to the sag of time and people’s tastes become as frumpy as as their bodies. Americans are so eager to avoid it that its parameters are constantly being pushed back, so that “40 is the new 30” and “50 is the new 40” and you’re not really “middle-aged” until you’re 60, which is a total crock unless you happen to live to be 120, which no one does. In this culture, “middle age” is such an unappealing subject that the Eat-a-Bug Cookbook: 33 Ways to Cook Grasshoppers, Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes and Their Kin logs in at 387,923 on Amazon, which suggests that we are three times more interested in eating bugs than we are in hearing what someone has to say about the point in life when we finally get some perspective on our own experience.
Youth-worship is only half the reason we avert our eyes from our own aging. We are not just an age-averse society, we are also pathologically optimistic, believing that all things are possible for all people at all times, and if there’s anything that aging brings, it’s contraction of possibility. You can no longer be anything and everything, do anything and everything, or have anything and everything. At best, you can be this or that, do this or that, have this or that, and by the time you’re middle aged, many of those decisions have already been made. So midlife is invariably tinged with the disappointment of all the roads not chosen, and all the potholes in the ones that were, and any honest account of it will make at least subtle nods to the virtues of pessimism. Yes, pessimism. It’s a dirty word in our culture, representing something with no apparent redeeming qualities (like racism or homicide or bullshit), but philosophical pessimism is essential, because it entertains the possibility that perhaps everything is not well with the world, and that things won’t necessarily turn out the way we want them to. Without pessimism counterbalancing our native optimism, we are woefully unequipped for reality. As woefully unequipped as an infant, as a matter of fact.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]Youth takes trouble as a temporary aberration, and confusion as a personal flaw, and always hopes for that Eden in the near or distant future when everything will finally turn out fine and life will be lived happily ever after.[/gn_pullquote]
Hamilton recognizes this. Midlife, he says, brings people to the realization that their life is “shot through with compromises and consequences that they simply could not foresee,” and has at least the potential to bring us to “an honesty about the longing for plentitude that haunts all of us throughout life” and the “hopelesslessness of the thought that it will ever be satisfied.” Because we are finite creatures in a virtually infinite world, with minds that are “fragmented, conflict-ridden, messy, recalcitrant and awkward,” we are destined for trouble and frustration. This is true for humans of every age, but the vast hope of youth conceals the inescapable nature of our condition. Youth takes trouble as a temporary aberration, and confusion as a personal flaw, and always hopes for that Eden in the near or distant future when everything will finally turn out fine and life will be lived happily ever after. It’s only in midlife, because we’ve crested that ridge of our lifespan, and see so much imperfection in the rearview and so little time remaining, that we learn that this will not—can not, in fact—happen.
This is a pessimistic conclusion, but it is also a warranted one, and, more important, it has profoundly redemptive possibilities. When you’ve accepted the inability of the world to satisfy you, you’ve freed yourself from the expectation that it will, and this can produce a lightness of being that is otherwise elusive. Some Buddhist practitioners have a practice of saying “of course” to the inevitable hassles and disappointments of life, as a way of training them not to expect the world to be something it’s not (I wish I could claim I’m one of them, but I still get red-faced every time I’m trapped in an interminable phone-tree). The whole practice of Buddhism, in fact, is geared towards learning to see and accept reality as it is, instead of resisting reality in favor of illusory ideas of what it should be. It is sometimes derided as a pessimistic religion, but really it is training in practical wisdom, and we must train because that wisdom is not innate. We are born expecting and hoping for everything, and that’s why we flail with fury as infants when we don’t immediately get what we want.
I don’t blame Willow Wilson for confusing wisdom with vitality. Who doesn’t prefer the smile of the baby to a deathbed grimace? Who wouldn’t rather play blocks with a toddler than listen to an old man’s repetitive stories? It’s not just time that ages us, but life itself, and the grimaces and stories of the aged are earned with travails we’d rather not see. But if we want to understand life in its fullness—if we want to be wise—we’ve got to face death as well as life, and corruption as well as innocence, and constraint as well as freedom. Can we do that before mid-life? Perhaps, if we’re unlucky enough. But for most of us, including Willow Wilson, who I must note was just 30 years old when she spoke on that panel, we’re fortunate not to be wise until we’re older.
Conference on World Affairs: http://www.colorado.edu/cwa/
Willow Wilson: http://gwillowwilson.com/