At memorial services I sometimes refer to Psalm 90:
For all our days pass away, our years come to an end, like a sigh. The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet they are soon gone and we fly away… So teach us to number our days that we might get a heart of wisdom.
Long though our lives might be, they will end. We will die, but will we have lived well? Will we have grown a heart of wisdom? Five thousand years ago the Sumerians etched in stone this bit of advice: “We are doomed to die; let us spend.” No doubt, the marketers would favor this, but I think they meant something else by “spend.” It is in this precious life that we have the chance to learn, live, and love well. Rumi says, “Break the chains of ignorance while your are alive; do you think ghosts will break them for you when you are dead?”
Life is for living fully and well, as committed, compassionate, creative, and contented as we can, earning a heart of wisdom. But what is wisdom? Being old doesn’t mean being wise. Some old people are still stuck in the same patterns they developed as children. Some children display wisdom from an early age. Some stall in life, stuck in trauma long since past. Some earn their wisdom by facing life’s challenges with bravery and lightness.
We live longer now but maybe not better. In the last century, the average age of death went from forty-seven to seventy-seven, an increase of nearly two thirds. We used to rely on forty year olds for our wisdom. There were eighty year olds, but not many. Our maximum life span hasn’t increased much. Because infant mortality and death in childbirth are both way down, we have lots more old people. But that doesn’t mean we have lots of wise people. Consider that the elderly elected our current administration – twice.
Wisdom is elusive to define, and it is easier said than done. Stephen Hall, writing for the New York Times, says wisdom is hard to define and measure, and it takes some effort in life to attain. He reviewed some historical and recent efforts of science to understand wisdom. I’ll summarize some of the main points of his research and show how it meshes with some very ancient Indian philosophies.
“Wisdom,” the dean of Tufts once said, “is big, important, and messy.” Getting old doesn’t necessarily mean getting wise. Even thinking oneself wise isn’t. Gandhi said, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.” Wisdom isn’t arrogant and imposing. Certainty may not always be wise, for judicious inaction sometimes fits, as does detachment sometimes.
Hall tries to gather the definition taken from the studies:
Certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: a clear-eyed view of human nature and the human predicament; emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity; an openness to other possibilities; forgiveness; humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences. . . As difficult as it is to define, the mere contemplation of a definition is an irresistible exercise that says a lot about who we aspire to become over the course of a lifetime and what we value as a society.
Vivian Clayton was one of the early researchers to take on the elusive topic. Studying Job and Solomon she concluded that, “wisdom . . . was always associated with knowledge, frequently applied to human social situations, involved judgment and reflection and was almost always embedded in a component of compassion.” Head and heart had to be used.
The Germans took up the task, defining wisdom as “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.” They believed wisdom peaks out at about age sixty and diminishes by eighty. Some of them believed wisdom is utopian and that is virtually unattainable by individuals except as more or less “weak carriers” of a collective ideal.
German-born Monika Ardelt picked up on Vivian Clayton’s work and developed the resilience factor as essential in wisdom: “…some older people are able to deal with adversity and bounce back emotionally while others cannot.” Ardelt developed Clayton’s work, concentrating on the three-dimensional aspect of dealing with the world:
The cognitive aspect, for example, included the ability to understand human nature, perceive a situation clearly and make decisions despite ambiguity and uncertainty. The reflective sphere dealt with a person’s ability to examine an event from multiple perspectives — to step outside oneself and understand another point of view. And the emotional aspect primarily involved feeling compassion toward others as well as an ability to remain positive in the face of adversity.
She developed a test for wisdom, and not surprisingly, it was often simple people who scored highest. One was J, an eighty-six year old African American. J faced the horrors of war in WW II, depression, and a failed marriage. Yet he rose to become a school administrator and managed a graceful calm that helped him in times of adversity. “I’ve never allowed any outside force to take possession of my being,” he explained. “That means, whenever I had a problem, I went to something wholesome to solve it.” His aid was bowling; it exercised and relaxed him.
Ardelt noticed this about those scoring high on the wisdom scale:
They learn from previous negative experiences. They are able to step outside themselves and assess a troubling situation with calm reflection. They recast a crisis as a problem to be addressed, a puzzle to be solved. They take action in situations they can control and accept the inability to do so when matters are outside their control.
This reminds me of the Serenity Prayer of AA, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Hall reports that Laura Carstensen of Stanford University has shown that
“… despite the well-documented cognitive declines associated with advancing age, older people seem to have figured out how to manage their emotions in a profoundly important way. Compared with younger people, they experience negative emotions less frequently, exercise better control over their emotions and rely on a complex and nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to bounce back quickly from adverse moments. Indeed, they typically strive for emotional balance, which in turn seems to affect the ways their brains process information from their environment.”
Mixed emotions help moderate and manage emotions better than strong ones do. This reminds me of the typical humor at memorial services. A stinging joke about the deceased helps balance grief. I am reminded also of those wise ones who have an edge to them. Rather than constant positivism, a curmudgeon’s perspective cuts through the Pollyannaish defense. A positive attitude is part of wisdom but not all of it. We shouldn’t exercise idiot compassion or chump gullibility. Older people inclined to tune out the negative are too vulnerable to cons and scams.
It takes head and heart. Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin, looked at PET scans of elders good at moderating their emotions. He found those who were better at this used their prefrontal cortex to tamp down the activity of the amygdala. We’ve run into this psychophysiology before. For both young and old, it is important to have the ability to use our higher mind to exert control over fear, anger, anxiety and the old patterns based on them. We don’t let reactions rule, whether during a trial or after it. We don’t get bogged down in life. Wisdom accrues as we meet adversity and its residue with intelligence, heart, and detachment.
(Here I’d like to put in a plug for the practice of sitting meditation. In such deliberate practice we learn how to watch the mind and moods without being overwhelmed by them. This detachment allows peace. The ability learned in sitting then carries forth with our ability to deal with the rest of life.)
Some cling to negative emotions; others learn to shrug them off and place their attention on the positive. We learn to “dis-attend” negative thoughts and moods. In 1890 William James said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Vasavada would have me learn from a mistake or situation only long enough to get the point, and then he’d say, “Forget it.”
Two other wise ones chime in on shaking off the debilitating binds of imposed religion, Gautama the Buddha and Thomas Jefferson. Buddha once said:
Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations; do not believe in anything because it is rumored or spoken of by many; do not believe merely because the written statement of some old sage is produced; do not believe conjectures; do not believe merely in the authority of your teachers and elders. After observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
And Jefferson later advised something very similar about tradition (but which also apply in our thinking and moods), something we of the liberal religious perspective would appreciate for its liberating rationality and resolve:
Shake off all fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind faith.
Finally, it was noted by some researchers that a bit of real trouble often helped some to get wise. While trouble can wound and ruin a person, it can also challenge them to develop the inner strength to learn how to master it during the event or manage it later. I was the class wimp during the sixth grade. The weaker I got the more bullies would appear. I somehow knew this pattern would haunt me all my life if I didn’t master it. By the seventh grade I knew what I had to do. When the schoolyard bully got to me and started his intimidation game I shocked him by smacking him in the face. We scuffled some. But he never bothered me again, nor do other bullies, for I developed the strength I needed. Bullies don’t respect the weak. Nor can the weak respect themselves. Our challenges are our opportunities.
Wisdom is not a new thing, yet it is only pertinent in us as it is new. We need to know we have it or work to get rid of what keeps us from it. Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. . . When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way. . . What we love we have; but by desire we bereave ourselves of the love.”
The modern research into wisdom that I have shared confirms what the ancient aphorisms of Patanjali also conveyed. Written some four hundred years before Christ, Patanjali notes we might live in sattwa (inspiration, detached affection, quiet joy, and meditative calm) but we get caught up in rajas (rage or desire) or tamas (the mental bog of sloth, stupidity, obstinacy, or helpless despair). In his classic, How to Know God, he writes:
Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference towards the wicked.
To him, sin was in offending our own true nature, which is initially and ultimately divine. Sin is not exaggerated self-loathing or impotent despair, as some religionists posture. “You don’t lie down under obstacles and pity yourself,” writes the translator Isherwood, “You go to work to remove them.” In the East, sin is not an offence to God. God is beyond offense and is infinitely patient. Sin is an offense against your own nature; it keeps you from enlightenment. Instead of desire, fear, or regret, we learn to dwell in our own contentedness and happiness. We cease to be anxious and worried. “The days that make us happy,” said John Masefield, “make us wise.”
Returning to modern researchers, I note the writings of Dr. Joe Dispenza, a biochemist especially interested in neurophysiology. The new understanding neural formation and neural connections parallels both Patanjali and the Blind Saint of Vrindivan, who I met in India. Essentially, we create mind momentum by practicing our thoughts and moods. These create the structure and functioning of our brains. By intervening with our conscious intention, we can renounce and weaken old unwanted patterns, and we can allow and establish new better ones. We go from the troubled past to the easier future by not doing what doesn’t work and isn’t us and by doing what is genuine and helpful. Practicing these two steps creates new brain cells and connections.
We need wise ones to emulate and wisdom in us to be emulated. For too many years lately our leaders have led us with fear and misplaced hate. Our entire society has descended into alienating suspicion and injurious projection. We see the scripted applause for trite rationalizations and we see cheering for greediness as the needy scrap in the strife of scarcity. The rest of the world is aghast while we succumb to cynicism or denial. We need wise ones, be they elders or young, as never before.
For our own sense of self-worth, for those around us who need us to be wise, for our society lost in lies and glamorously shallow idols, we need to work on our wisdom. It is as the Psalmist reminded: “Teach us to number our days that we might get a heart of wisdom.”
Reverend Brad Carrier
for the UU’s of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
©June 3, 2007