On the Virtues of Wisdom (or Age)

Posted on July 2, 2012


Getting old is not a choice. I suspect all of us past a certain age would chose to do so, rather than the obvious alternative.

Youngsters (those under fifty) really don’t think about it very much. Those in their nineties are grateful they can move. Some, like Pablo Picasso I once read, stayed active until the end, in his nineties, painting away his crazy doodles that passed for art several generations ago

I want to be like Picasso. Not a painter. I gave that up a few years ago when I showed a good friend of mine, now gone, Richard Brough, a professor and painter in the Deparment of Art at UA, some sketches.

“Ah, Larry, we are good friends right?” Dick said, by way of prelude. I think I knew what was coming.

“Yeah, Dick, so what do you think of my sketches?”

“Keep on drawing Larry. You love to do it. Want some more coffee?” he offered, “or maybe a glass of wine?”

Dick was a wise person. He didn’t acquire wisdom from his paint brushes. He acquired it from traveling to many parts of the world, painting, listening, taking it all in, experiencing the world, with its many blessings and its many hurts. His paintings I suspect grew in feeling and depth over time.

I don’t know much about paintings, but wisdom is something I am learning about. It is celebrated in the Bible. For those of you who like statistics–like political pollsters who tell you what you are thinking– wisdom occurs 219 times in the Bible.

The wisest man in all times, at least in Scripture, is in the Old Testament, Solomon the king of the Israelites.

Of all the many passages, I have certain favorites. When I chaired an academic department at the University of Alabama I kind of liked:

“How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” (1 Kings: 10:8)

And since I’m a dad, I always welcome certain passages extoling my virtues as a father:

“Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction;
pay attention and gain understanding.
 I give you sound learning,
so do not forsake my teaching.” (Proverbs 4:1-3)

When people are selfish and self-serving, I sometimes think of:

“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.” (Proverbs 29:18)

If I’m thinking of my retirement package and benefits, and poring over where all the money has gone, this helps:

“Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it.” (Ecclesiastes 7:12)

And if I’m feeling particularly judgmental or self-righteous, I need to read:

“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:16-18).

Every one of importance and fame in history, from Aristotle to Einstein, has a take on wisdom, some dollop of, well, wisdom, to pass on for living.

Where are we going with this? Wisdom comes with age. A society that celebrates youth has lost its balance. Wisdom has been cast aside in favor of the agility and rush of youth.

We are constantly bombarded by the media with clichés “to be young” or work hard to be “young looking” or “young at heart.” The eternal verity of happiness (not be confused with joy) are wrapped up in appearances and youth.

I have noticed that many of my cohort (I will be 70 years young next birthday) are not retiring these days, exchanging work for shuffleboard. Some reasons may be economic and I can understand that pressure. Some of it may be the increasing life span of us mortals. Some of it may be cultural. Why stop “working” when my life is defined by my work?

In a time of economic hardship, however, there is increasing pressure from the younger generations on oldsters to get up and out, give us a chance to work and live.

Let’s see if I can be even more explicit. If we believe in a general system of freedom and enterprise, assisted by government occasionally in such matters as defense and internal improvements (highways and things like that), then I think we must give the oldsters the same opportunities as the youngsters, without yielding to any discrimination based on race, color, gender, sexual preferences, favorite ice cream, or age.

Youth, let’s also be clear, brings strength and vitality and creativity to the equation of life. Mozart and Alexander the Great are two good examples of this paradigm. They blew through in a paroxysm of genius and military/political power that transformed the world. There are many examples, especially in our contemporary world. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc.

On the other hand, probably the most successful American president in the second half of the twentieth century was an old codger, an ex-Hollywood actor, who was elected president at the age of sixty nine.

Ronald Reagan brought to the presidency not youth or vitality, or even political genius, but experience and wisdom which endowed him with the ability to make good judgments, not driven by polls and what others may be thinking, but by what he had experienced. And he possessed a rock solid set of values that he could draw upon and depend upon for informing his decisions.

He called the old Soviet Union an “evil empire,” a phrase which made many cringe. How simple-minded! How crass! How uncouth and provincial! But if one took a close look at the Soviet Union, at what a monster like Stalin did to secure his power and extend the power of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, slaughtering millions of his people, I don’t know that even the most pointy headed intellectual could classify that world as anything less than evil.

So, you young guys and old guys, don’t remonstrate with each other. Sure, there are generational differences. There always will be. I read books. My son reads his iPad. Sometimes gulfs seemed to have developed in value systems.

But if you are curious about the foundations of happiness and success, wealth and power, joy and peace, fulfillment and gratification, then let me assure you they are not the province of one generation or the other.

Instead of looking for an app you twenty and thirty years old to answer your questions, turn to those who possess experience and wisdom. I can’t guarantee that all are gurus and fountains of great advice. All generations have monumental screw ups.

But wisdom, as the old book of Proverbs (4:6-7) explains it is not to be despised, but will protect you and watch over you. That is wisdom.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 8, 2012

Posted in: Journal