I’ve long been leery of the way wisdom is bandied about as an auto-accessory of old age, like spryness and shrinking. It doesn’t come with the territory, and its association with passivity has political repercussions. (See “against wisdom.”) But I just came across a wonderful definition from a San Francisco-based psychologist named Todd Finnemore, whom I interviewed in May, 2010, when I was investigating why medical practitioners choose to work with older populations. (Like me, he got into it kind of by accident, and, like me, “as I started working with this population, I got hooked.”) Being highly woo-woo-averse, I really like the neurological component of his definition, and it supports what I’ve read about how decision-making changes as we age. I like the connection to compassion and empathy even more. Here’s what Dr. Finnemore said:
Wisdom is the capacity to see circumstances as integrated wholes. As we age our capacity for integration increases. Older brains are more diversely wired and use many more connections than younger ones, because we’ve made so many associations over the course of our lives. Wisdom allows for seemingly contradictory ideas or events to exist in out minds with less dissonance. We can be angry with someone we love without losing sight of our connection, or be outraged by an idea without losing hope. We don’t rush to the only truth because that’s all that we know. Not all older people are wise, and aging does not inevitably or magically create wisdom. But through attention to experience, aging offers many chances to develop wisdom.