If it’s true that we achieve greater wisdom as we grow older, how can we enhance and use our ‘elder’ wisdom?
It’s commonly understood that wisdom increases with age. The storehouses of experience, knowledge, insight and capacity to see life as a ‘big picture’ are said to improve as we grow older.
How can we be sure to develop and use the wisdom of aging to guide decisions, to make life easier, to reduce stress, and to live a happier life?
Not all older people are smart or wise. Aging alone won’t guarantee wisdom. When faced with choices in life, older people are as likely as their younger counterparts to do foolish things or to make decisions that will cause regret and guilt.
However, elder wisdom can belong to the postworksavvy — if we take the time to get in touch with natural or innate wisdom to understand ourselves and gain perspective.
What is Wisdom?
Wikipedia defines wisdom as “a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgements and actions in keeping with this understanding.”
Webster’s dictionary defines wisdom as “accumulated philosophic or scientific learning, ability to discern inner qualities and relationships, exercise judgement, and good sense.”
These two definitions challenge popular portrayals of older people as cranky, childish and generally incompetent. Too often, the media discounts hard-earned ‘elder’ wisdom that took years to develop.
The definitions of wisdom refer to increased knowledge that comes from many different experiences, accumulating as we raise families and have careers.
The experiences of love, success, loss, and failure bring joy, hope, despair, exhilaration, excitement, discouragement and fear.
From these emotions we learn how to live in an imperfect world and how to deal with situations over which there is little or no control.
The Wisdom of Elders
When I observe older people I see components of wisdom. In both word and deed, they demonstrate self-knowledge and experience by their life choices, balanced judgements, and capacity to see the big picture.
They apply a contextual understanding to life situations.
They are slow to react in anger and are able to regulate emotions taking into account many possible solutions.
They see life’s problems with a level of optimism. Their glass is half full and not half-empty.
Aboriginal communities give high respect to elders. They occupy positions of authority. Aboriginal communities honour their elders for their knowledge of the natural world. their cultural teachings, their guidance for ‘right’ living, and their leadership in spiritual practices.
Grandmothers, in Africa often provide subsistence for children when adult children/parents die or suffer from HIV related illness.
In North America, the Elder Wisdom Circle, a non-profit organization, provides free online advice through volunteer cyber-grand parents through its popular website elderwisdomcircle.org/
How to use ‘elder’ wisdom
Wisdom belongs to everyone — but especially to the postworksavvy who have lived full lives and are moving into later stages.
The challenge is to take the time to get in touch with the intuitive and natural perspectives of the mind that we call wisdom.
Start by trusting yourself. Your inner voice can guide the course of action you take as it knows right from wrong and truth from falsehood. When making a decision or solving a problem use your self-knowledge and experience as a guide. Trust your intuition.
Take time to quiet your mind. Your brain works best when not operating under stress or at high-speed. Allowing thoughts to flow naturally, instead of thinking too hard and struggling, clears the brain. This makes space for new ways of looking at the decision or problem you face. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, prayer, or taking a walk help with the process of tuning in to the inner voice of wisdom.
Understand the impact of attitude and emotion. Over many years and with countless mistakes, I’ve learned that a balanced and reasonable outlook of life is based only 10% on what happens to me but 90% on how I react to it. When I consciously change my response to a difficult situation, I am more sensible and measured. Emotional regulation requires attention and seems to come more easily as one grows older.
Keep perspective. Wisdom comes from how we process life experiences. Negative life experiences involving tragedy, mistakes, and loss usually teach the hardest lessons. However, making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person. Self-knowledge involves gaining a sense of proportion and balancing regret with confidence that life also has positive experiences.
Let go of pre-judgements. It’s difficult to live in an imperfect world and deal with situations over which we have little or no control when ruled by unfounded beliefs. Most of us form opinions of people and situations based on limited knowledge. Investigation and reflection take time but result in knowing important facts on which to make wiser judgements.
While wisdom is never perfect, it is another type of intelligence. It involves applying our hard-earned knowledge. Some call it common-sense.
I’ve called it ‘elder’ wisdom in this post. Those who have the benefit of many rich life experiences, a degree of optimism, some level of self-knowledge, and the capacity for kindness in word and deed have a head start on achieving ‘elder’ wisdom — and the retirement happiness that comes with it.