What does it mean to be wise?
We move closer to wisdom if we can promote well-being in ourselves and others by carefully estimating the risks and balances of any situation and, having done so, we use that estimation to act for the greatest good.
It is a wise person who behaves this way. A wise person is able to make use of knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. He or she possesses knowledge that he can then apply it to any given circumstance. To achieve this balance, it is important to be able to control one’s emotions. Those who have these qualities or can develop them are considered wise.
Ronald tells Dan, his father, that he’s decided to quit his job in order to go into business with Eric, a good friend of his. The idea: bringing lobsters from Maine to Iowa, where they will open a string of roadside lobster huts of the type seen along the coast of Maine. “It’s a sure-fire idea, and the beauty part is that Eric’s putting up all of the money. All I have to invest is sweat-equity.” Dan points out: “If the business fails, you’ll have to start all over at another job. If it succeeds, Eric might decide that, since you didn’t invest money, you’re not really a partner, and you could wind up losing not only your “sweat equity”, but your good friend.”
There is a time-honored belief that wisdom comes with age and an acceptance of death. But there are many foolish old people around, and their lack of development dispels the notion that age always leads to wisdom. Happily there are also many judicious and thoughtful people in public and private life whom we can gladly call wise. They are perceptive and effective. They show good judgment and act after carefully reviewing the consequences of various courses of action. Wisdom is a large word. A solemn concept, but it is often shown in small, everyday ways.
If we are able to maintain a sense of well-being in the face of physical decline and death, we are on the path to successful aging and wisdom.
Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neurophysiologist, developed a definition of the components of wisdom in the 1970s, and these three seem to be paramount to achieving it:
Cognition (access to one’s acquired knowledge)
Bill and Donna want to build a house at the top of a mountain in Estes Park, Colorado because of the fabulous view. Eddie, a pensioner who has lived there all his life, points out that his father told him about a catastrophic mudslide that occurred there when he was a young man. Bill: “But that was ages ago.” Eddie: “Not to the mountain.”
Unfortunately, cognition slows as people age, but speed in cognition may not be essential to the elderly anyway. Older people have much more information in their brains than younger ones, so retrieving it inevitably takes longer. On the other hand, the quality of the information in the older brain is more varied and nuanced, owing to the length and variety of experience in a long life.
Younger people are indeed faster in tests of cognitive performance, but older people demonstrate a “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences,” as shown by a study in Topics in Cognitive Science.
According to Dr. Clayton, to be wise, one must take time to gain insights and perspectives from one’s cognitive knowledge (the reflective dimension). Then one can use those insights to understand and help others (the compassionate dimension).
Tamara’s children are not doing well at a public school in the city. She blames it on the school. The other students are unruly and a bad influence. She tells Rose, her mother, that she and her husband have decided to move to an affluent suburb that has a top-rated school. Rose, who has had a lot of experience with how children influence one another, points out that the new classmates might be so advanced that they may discourage rather than encourage her children. Better to find a middle ground.
Working from Dr. Clayton’s framework, Monika Ardelt, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Florida, expanded on studies of old age because research shows that satisfaction in old age that Dr. Clayton emphasizes of major qualities like retaining mental and physical health, volunteering and socializing with others.
But mental and physical health in the aged is often not optimum because the body may break down. Social roles for the elderly are diminished owing to death, loss, and deterioration in oneself, family and friends. These people are handicapped by their losses, Professor Ardelt noted, but questioned whether that meant that they have to give up all hope of successful aging.
Not if they are wise. Wisdom, she noted, is”the ace in the hole” that can help even severely impaired people find meaning, contentment and acceptance in later life.