Older and wiser?
It’s one of those paradigms that age brings wisdom but is it always true?
Since I turned 50 a couple of years back I’ve reflected a lot on what it means to grow older. I have also reflected on what the value is of that half a century of experience.
Experience very clearly does bring benefits in both my professional and personal life. First, and quite straightforwardly, I know a lot more than when I was young. That gives me a competence in doing things which I might have previously struggled with but just as importantly it lowers the anxiety of handling a wide range of situations. I am more confident in dealing with people, in meeting deadlines and in solving problems. Experience and practice has helped me refine the psychological skills of managing these situations and has helped me to calibrate my understanding of situations and to distinguish those which are routine and those which are particularly challenging. Such experience doesn’t always make me wiser or better at doing things but it helps.
Experience also makes me better at understanding the context of situations. There are many more things I have experienced myself or seen other people experience or read about other people experiencing than when I was 20. As a historian I put a lot of emphasis on the repeating patterns of human history. Our own age, with its globalised networks, instant communications and rapidly evolving technology, can appear distinctive but it is not unique. There are historical precedents to the challenges we face today and while history and experience do not necessarily provide the answers to contemporary problems they do help in asking the right questions. They also provide salutary warnings about the perennial nature of human folly but also about our resilience and adaptability. At times there is a danger that such experience can make one overly cynical but, in general, it is a salutary feeling.
Age has also made me more of sure my loves in life. Youthful enthusiasms can be powerful but they are not the same as the affections which come with experience. Whether it is the music of Beethoven and Bach, the novels of Trollope, the sight of the hills or the sea, the poetry of Shakespeare and Homer or a Welsh victory against the old enemy there is something deeper in my sense of satisfaction in the things which I have grown to love over a lifetime. For a long time I would avoiding rereading anything I had read before on the basis that it might distract me from new discoveries. Nowadays there is a special pleasure in returning to books or poetry I have read before knowing that they will yield up a new level of pleasure not because they have changed but because I have. The eyes of an older person see things invisible to their younger self.
The same is true in relationships. However important their roles were in my first decades of life I have got to know my parents and my siblings much better as an adult. My relationship with my children is richer and closer in many ways now they have grown up and are beginning to make their own way in the world. The same is true is the closest and most important relationship of my life. Falling in love is a fantastic and intoxicating experience but it does not beat the more profound joy which comes from having shared 26 years or more of life together.
So age brings many consolations but it also brings challenges and previous experience is not necessarily a guarantor of wisdom in dealing with these. Foremost of these challenges is that of accepting loss.
First there can be the loss of health. Here I have been very lucky and many ways feel as fit and healthy as 53 year old as I did at 20 but I can begin to see the first signs of decline, some loss of my hearing, the increasing incidence of frustrating moments when my memory fails in ways it would have never have done in the past. It has been sad to see others, my parents included, struggling with poorer health and diminished physical and mental capability. Adjustment to weakness and frailty is never easy.
Second there is the question of when to give up activities which one no longer has the capability, in its fullest sense to undertake. For my generation work will no longer be bounded by established norms for retirement set by the state and economic realities will keep many working who might have previously looked to retire. Work can be good for many older people in keeping them active and engaged with society and their experience, for all the reasons I have described above, is to be valued. There is a time, though, when it is right to finish and to do so with grace.
Most importantly in growing older there is the need to reconcile oneself to the ultimate loss. Mortality is a condition we all share. It can be postponed but never avoided. The greatest wisdom is how we can adapt ourselves to accepting that inevitable fate. For once I do not agree with Dylan Thomas: we should go gently into that good night.
In all things the most important knowledge in growing older is the knowledge of ourselves. Without that our greater experience of life can become meaningless, making us prone to making the same mistakes we have always made and leaving us unprepared to deal with the ultimate challenges of life.
Older and wiser? We’ll have to see.