As a boy I knew old Lonnie Chase, who clammed for a living in the waters of Cape Cod. Not known for his erudition, his words were short and pithy. I remember his response to my question regarding the weather. After gazing skyward, seeming to be pondering the clouds, he would always answer, “Might rain, then ‘gin, might not.”
Was Lonnie being a wise man or a fool? I choose the first. From sitting hours in his dingy in the bay, he had learned to trust ambiguity. For him, there was something controlling the weather that was unpredictable, something his Indian blood told him was beyond our understanding.
Lonnie had never gone to school, and he couldn’t even write his name, yet he was a superb craftsman of small boats. I marveled at his obese frame as he’d sit by the stove chewing tobacco, a spittoon beside him, as he and his friend Long John discussed things beyond the ability of a ten-year-old boy to grasp. A few adults sensed his worth as a member of the local community, but thanks to his unkempt ways, most characterized him as a local one-man blight on the neighborhood.
There are others who are more famously hard to characterize when it comes to wisdom. Take Einstein, whose often peculiar and errant behavior also included a strong display of wisdom. I had once thought of writing that knowledge and wisdom were mutually exclusive, the one being occluded by the other, but Einstein gives the lie to such an assertion.
In his case we have the element of genius, of course. But van Gogh, also a genius, demonstrates that genius and wisdom don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
How about wisdom and age, then, which is really the subject of this article? Qualifying for the latter, I may not be an objective observer. I will however offer some observations, from both a subjective and an objective standpoint.
Based upon my experience, I’d say our culture is clearly lacking in wisdom. There is a dominance of digital gadgets in our lives, promoted by both the users as well as (or because of) the purveyors. The ease of procuring information has turned the process into a travesty. The ‘information age’ was anticipated, but with the introduction of quantum physics, this breakthrough into the digital realm has opened Pandora’s box.
Faced with the introduction of robots and cell phones, the antiquated analog way of seeing and doing was doomed. Symbolically, the pocket computer replaced the colorful cash register, and the cell phone replaced the home rotary-dial telephone. . Digitalization is proving to be a curse as well as a blessing. (My grandmother would habitually take off her apron before answering the phone. Now with computer phones like Skype, you have to put on your pants before answering!)
How does wisdom fit into this picture? This is an important question, because through wisdom we encounter the ineffable, no matter whether it concerns life or quantum physics. Niels Bohr claimed that every new idea introduces a paradox, though this is a problem more younger thinkers tend to ignore or avoid. The first half of life tends to be concerned largely with confronting definable problems. C. G. Jung compared the course of life to the rising and the setting sun, the second half being as demanding as the first. Our culture tends to advocate keeping the zenith mentality as long as possible.
The alternative is to be a seeker of wisdom in the one’s sunset years, suggesting that age and wisdom can perhaps be soul mates.
Hermann Hesse portrayed Prince Sidartha as a ribald youth who with age received enlightenment. The enlightened Prince chose to be the ferryman who rowed people across the river.
People debated whether he was a wise man or a fool.
Maybe he was both.