Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.


The Privilege of Getting Older:

Published on Monday, February 5, 2018

The Privilege of Getting Older:

And Along Comes Wisdom

A couple of blogs ago I talked a bit about Joe Biden’s memoir, Promise Me, Dad. It was not only a review of his Obama years, but also of course about the terrible struggle and final death of his beloved son, Beau. Beau died in midlife after being diagnosed with glioblastoma – an intractable and almost always fatal form of brain cancer.

Shortly after I posted that blog, I was having dinner one evening with friends and I mentioned the thought that had occurred to me post-blog: that in fact it is a great privilege to get to grow older and even grow old (a horror to us Boomers who prefer to see ourselves as “middle-ageless”)! But Beau died at around age 52 or so, and we all know others who didn’t even make it that far.

In my last book, I mused about aging ... and if we’re lucky, it does happen to all of us. I say:

We work out (I also have a personal trainer), lift weights, stay in shape. But nevertheless, we age. And things happen. Grandparents die, parents die, good friends die, sickness happens. [Anna] Quindlen says then one day, something bad also befalls us and we join the ranks of those who suffer loss, who drop through that trap door that has swallowed those before us. She says we then become amazed, “not by our own strength but by that indomitable ability to slog through adversity ... [And] the older we get, the better we get at this.” (Lots of Candles. Plenty of Cake, 2012, p. 110)
Yes, from where I sit as clergy and friend – aware of the incredible resilience of even the very old and sick – we get better at this. Some might call that wisdom.

So let’s think about all that. From an evolutionary perspective, survival of our species depends on viable offspring; mutations are preserved in the gene pool if they contribute to survival advantage to our kind. So why should those who have lived beyond childbearing years – what evolutionary survival advantage to our species could possibly be passed on to contribute to our species’ survival? What good could come of that? Why survive if one can’t add to the tribe’s viability?

Well now that you ask, I’ll give you my answer. Or rather, an answer given by a psychiatrist named Dilip V. Jeste and cited in an article by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic. (See lead photo.) See, maybe it is true that along the way – some or maybe most of us – develop a bit of wisdom drawn from life’s experience. Maybe such wisdom develops even despite ... or even perhaps because of life’s challenges, including  infirmities and other losses along the way. We learn to cope; we learn strategies to survive and even thrive despite the dark times. Jeste says, “All across the world, we have an implicit notion of what a wise person is.” And then Rauch adds:

The traits of the wise tend to include compassion and empathy, good social reasoning and decision making, equanimity, tolerance of divergent values, comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. And the whole package is more than the sum of the parts, because these traits work together to improve life not only for the wise but also for their communities. Wisdom is pro-social. ... Humans ... live for an unusually long time after their fertile years; perhaps wisdom provides benefit to our children or our social groups that make older people worth keeping around, from an evolutionary perspective. (Rauch, The Atlantic, December 2014, p. 94)
My breakfast table reading at the moment is a collection of essays by the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue titled Anan Cara (translated “Soul Friend”). (See second photo below.) Near the end of the book he has a series of reflections on aging. He talks about how, in the Celtic tradition, when folks were worried about their lives or futures, when they were confused by life’s occurrences, they would visit the region’s elder wise person. They would thus receive counseling and live more deeply into their lives. He says, “Wisdom, then, is the art of balancing the known with the unknown, the suffering with the joy; it is a way of linking the whole of life together in a new and deeper unity.” O’Donohue concludes,

ultimately, wisdom and vision are sisters; the creativity, critique, and prophecy of vision issue from the fount of wisdom Older people are great treasure-houses of wisdom. ... Wisdom is the art of living in rhythm with your soul, your life, and the divine. Wisdom is the way that you learn to decipher the unknown, and the unknown is our closest companion. So wisdom is the art of being courageous and generous with the unknown, of being able to decipher and recognize its treasures.” (O’Donohue, Anna Cara, pp. 194-5)
Well, back to my dinner conversation with my friends after the Biden blog and my musing about the privilege of getting older – that privilege sadly unshared by some. Maybe on further thought,  the next time you complain about an extra pound or two, or complain that you need a wee bit stronger lens in your prescription bifocals, maybe you should stop and give thanks that you’ve been blessed and given the opportunity to develop a bit of wisdom also along the way. And then share that wisdom in stories around the coffee or dinner table, chats with kids and grandkids, emails or Facebook messages to friends and others. You just might have something to say, something worth sharing, gleaned from a lifetime’s worth of living.

As I have said before, every day is a miracle. Be glad and count your blessings for the privilege of your days that you are given. And embrace the wisdom that does often come with the years.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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