Beyond “knowing best,” wisdom is a process one must tap into.
Will I be wise when I get old? I remember asking myself this question many years ago. The question may have been triggered by stories or sayings about older people being the wise ones in a group. Now that I am old (almost eighty), I wonder what it means to be wise. I also wonder what role wisdom plays in successful aging.
[Read our Collections page on Healthy Aging.]
I’ve been aging for quite some time now and realize that aging is a process. Becoming wise must be a process as well, because I know that wisdom isn’t a product on a shelf. You can’t just reach out and grab it. How do I know? Maybe it’s wisdom itself that tells me you can’t grasp it, pin it down, own it, or build it according to a preset diagram. Wisdom, like truth, needs to be tapped into.
We often think of wisdom as knowing a lot or “knowing best.” I remember my mother saying, “Stop teasing your brother! You know better than that.” My mother was not only reprimanding me for annoying my sibling, she was also reminding me of something that happened when my brother was teased. He screamed and cried. My mother was telling me to use what I learned from past experience to guide my actions and decisions. That’s a fairly common way to tap into wisdom. But there are other ways, as well. Here are a few ways I find helpful.
1. Practice hummingbird wisdom.
Of the many thousands of bird species, hummingbirds are my favorite. They demonstrate a lightness of being that can only be described as amazing. They know how to suck out the sweet nectar of life without destroying the source. They also know how to simply fly away when disturbed. I practice hummingbird wisdom when I stay near my sources of strength and don’t let myself get embroiled in unnecessary disputes.
2. Focus more on intentions and less on plans.
When I was young, making plans was an integral part of my life. I invested a lot of time and energy in planning a career, in planning a family, and planning for retirement. But once I got older, intentions became more important than plans. Yes, I did some end-of-life planning, but planning generally takes second place to setting intentions. Plans tend to be specific; intentions give me more wiggle room. I find that plans are susceptible to disruptions, while intentions can be carried through a storm.
3. Know what to hold onto and what to let go of.
When I was younger, I wanted it all—a family, a career, a meaningful life, a circle of friends, a nice place to live, stimulating activities, a vacation now and then, and a healthy body and mind. Not only did I want it all, I actively pursued it all. Now that I’m older, I find balance more important than quantity. I still want a stimulating life; I want to be engaged with the world around me. But wisdom tells me to let go of some things. Wisdom tells me to prioritize and simplify, to focus on what really matters. Wisdom tells me to not invest in, or waste time on, anger, stress, and worry; to accept who I am and where I am in life. At times, this means letting go and knowing what to overlook.
4. Be guided by goodness, not dictates.
As a younger person, many of my actions were governed by dictates or social norms: Be on time for meetings; wear the “right” clothes; don’t laugh too loud or cry too often. And then there were certain expectations handed down through generations of well-meaning ancestors: work before play; vegetables before dessert; keep a stiff upper lip.
I found that as I got older, the dictates don’t always work. Mobility issues slow me down—I may not always get to meetings or appointments on time. Technology moves faster than I can, leaving me unaware of the latest trends. This isn’t all bad. I’ve learned to free myself of certain dictates and try to live by different rules. I try replacing dictates with goodness or rightness, which—as I see it—means acting according to my own inner standards and values.
Successful aging may mean different things to different people. For me, it means tapping into the well of wisdom throughout the process. This involves looking at and into life from a different perspective. It’s more about accepting life as it is versus trying to shape it into a version of what I think it should be. I like thinking about wisdom and what it means as I get older. I’ve discovered that doing so helps me be a wiser person.
Tap into your own words of wisdom with a journaling practice.