In today's reading, Sister Joan writes, "Older people have what this world needs most: the kind of experience that can save the next generation from the errors of the one before them...The older generation knows that the only thing that is good for any of us in the long run is what is good for all of us right now. That's wisdom. Wisdom is not insisting on the old ways of doing things. It is the ability to make ancient truth the living memory of today." Further on she writes of our elders, "They are meant to be the prophets of a society, its compass, its truthtellers...It is the older generation that must turn the spotlight back on our best ideals when the lights of the soul go dim. Before it is too late."
To be honest (as one who likes to think of himself as too young to be "old" and yet has to face the fact that he is too old to be called "young" anymore) the equation of wisdom with the passing of years is not a given. Actually, I think it is rare...
Aristotle thought that it is the lived experience of the elderly that more often than not makes them into people who are "small of soul." He writes of the aged, "And they are small of soul because they have been humbled by life: for they desire nothing great or excellent, but only what is commensurate with life. And they are ungenerous. For property is one of the necessary things; and in, and through, their experience they know how hard it is to get it and how easy it is to lose it." The old, he claims, are prone to fear, cowardice, excessive self love, inappropriate self pity, and are "given to grieving, and are neither charming nor fond of laughter." Yikes. That's a grim view of what happens as get "old." So much for the identification of wisdom with aging.
Let me hasten to add that I am not convinced by Aristotle nor am I dismissive of Sister Joan. What I am convinced of (and I think Sister Joan would agree) is that the cumulative experience of life can narrow, harden, and shrink one's soul just as it can deepen, enlarge, and ripen one's soul. The question I have is: what makes the difference?
It's not life experience. It is how we experience our lives.
How do we gain wisdom through the experience of our lives? How do we integrate what happens in the course of our days into a way of being that is hopeful (not cynical), generous (not miserly), forgiving (not resentful), engaged (not withdrawn), courageous (not cowardly), trusting (not instinctively suspicious)? This question, of course, is not simply for the old...it is relevant to ALL of us who are aging. That's a question worth living with. Ask someone you consider "wise" how they have answered it.
Wisdom must be pursued if it is to be gained. "Finally, beloved," the Apostle Paul writes, "whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things." (Philippians 4:8).