against wisdom

That’s the title of an article by UW professor Kathleen Woodward, in which she calls for “a moratorium on wisdom” as an ideal for the old. The notion of “wisdom” has always given me pause:  too woo-woo, too subjective, and definitely not the exclusive purview of the old. We recognize the wise child with a shiver when we encounter one, and we’ve all met plenty of utterly uninteresting old people.

Yes, adolescents are tiresome in predictable ways, and life experience makes for better decisions and meatier conversations. But the years can also calcify positions and priorities acquired early on, along with car insurance and dental floss. It depends on the person.

I could interview a different, extraordinary 80- or 90-year-old every day; they’re out there and they are remarkable. But the personification of wisdom by “sages” and “elders” (cough, cough) fortifies the notion of exceptionalism, which is problematic. People of extraordinary grace or achievement are daunting. The lives of “ordinary people” give me plenty to emulate and admire (or shrink from) without aspiring to “wisdom” to boot.

But I hadn’t conceived of wisdom in a political context until I came across a reference to Woodward’s essay in Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die. The crux of Woodward’s argument is that anger and wisdom are incompatible. Idealizing the latter in the old robs them of a powerful catalyst for personal and political change. It does harm, as evidenced by high levels of depression (anger turned inward) in older people, who sit mutely instead of protesting their personal or political destinies. Last but not least, “the association of old age with wisdom as an ideal often serves as a screen for ageism.”

It’s way easier to park Granny in a rocking chair offsite, especially when she succumbs with a smile, than to deal with what more she might have to offer or have the right to demand. After all, “conventional wisdom” holds that as we grow old we calmly relinquish the turbulence of midstream for the quiet of the shallows, and that this serenity is the hallmark of wisdom. Central to Erikson’s disengagement theory of aging [post 266], this dignified detachment makes it easier for Granny to let go of the full gamut of emotions and aspirations, and makes her death less painful for all.

Woodward questions just how well that script serves Granny – most Grannies, at least. In “Against Wisdom” she focuses on Senescence by G. Stanley Hall, the first major study of what Hall referred to as the second half of life (now more like the last two-thirds). She cites an oft-quoted passage: “Age has the same right to emotional perturbations as youth and is no whit less exposed and disposed to them. Here, as everywhere, we are misunderstood and are in such a feeble minority that we have to incessantly renounce our impulsions.” A hallmark of old age, Hall declared, is “a new belligerency” – what Woodward calls “wise rage.”

There’s rage and there’s rage. Take my mother-in-law, who’s crying on the phone to Bob because the weekend’s fabulous festivities have ended: the whole family, down to the one-year-old great-grandbaby here from Los Angeles, assembled to celebrate her husband’s 90th birthday with feasts, slide shows, photo albums, toasts, and reminiscences. Unfortunately Ruth operates on a scarcity model: there’s less on her plate than there was 24 hours ago. There’s also less on her plate than on ours because we have more years ahead than she does. She’s furious about that and wants endless rescue – except when she wants to be treated as the remarkably curious and engaged woman she is.

Wise rage this ain’t. I’m hoping to spend my 80s and 90s happy about what remains instead of pissed off about what I’ve lost, and the typical trajectory is indeed towards detachment and acceptance. “True, we are more immune from certain great passions and our affectivity is very differently distributed,” acknowledged Hall, 78 when he wrote Senescence. Energy diminishes and it becomes easier not to sweat the small stuff (or the big) as we adapt to the constraints and freedoms of late life. That hard-won serenity is a legitimate hallmark of a good old age.
We like our oldsters that way: calm and cheerful. Strong emotions in the old make us uncomfortable. We’re quick to downgrade anger to crochety or irascible. But anger has a place in the arsenal, as a response to being silenced or patronized. I feel it coming on when I snarl at being called “young lady,” and “cranky” is one of my prime identifiers.  So I was gratified to learn of a correlation between “irascibility” and longevity, perhaps because the socially condoned alternative is torpor. When the young take to the streets, we salute them.  Why not the old?  Why should they constrain themselves to a narrower range of feelings? After all (Hall again), “Age has the same right to emotional perturbations as youth.”

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