Do we become wiser as we grow older? A moment in a college class years ago was full of insight into how we acquire wisdom.
As a college student, I took a course in the Psalms and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. The professor bore a passing resemblance to Mr Burns from the Simpsons. In reality, he was kinder and more sincere. As long as you did all the course work.
Email and the web were a thing back then. But this college was still resisting technology’s advance. Every week, before this class, we would get a stack of photocopied readings topped with a green sheet of instructions.
“The green sheet will save your life,” the professor would say.
As long as you’d read the green sheet first, he was always cordial and responsive. But it wasn’t unusual for him to reply to a student’s question by silently holding up the green sheet and pointing to it.
Wisdom In Ancient Poetry
For a lot of people, the Psalms are their favourite part of the Bible. They’re accessible poetry. Most Psalms are hopeful and comforting. They’re the closest the Bible gets to Hallmark sentimentality or motivational-poster-style inspirational quotes.
But not Psalm 88. It’s bleak. Dark. Lacking hope.
The writer of the Psalm has a “soul full of troubles.” They feel judged by God, isolated, afflicted, like their life is over and their achievements already forgotten.
“Anyone under 40 can’t really understand or interpret Psalm 88.”
The professor’s words hung in the air for a while. He went on to talk about how Christians find the Psalm troubling. They try to find hope where there isn’t any. Only the cumulative effect of age and grief and disappointment can open the poem up to any meaningful interpretation.
I was too young at the time to understand what the professor was saying. But I got his point that Christians were uncomfortable with doubt, and even with the parts of their own Bible that held space for doubt, like this Psalm. And that didn’t feel wise.
Now that I’m older, I get it.
Being Oriented Towards Wisdom
You could say the professor alienated the younger students in his class – maybe all the students in his class.
His words were not inclusive or democratic.
Or perhaps what felt uncomfortable was the idea that acquiring wisdom is somehow connected with getting older.
It’s not a message young people want to hear. I didn’t want to hear it in my twenties. We didn’t have “OK Boomer” memes back then. But we were already over having Boomers “explain” the world to us.
Getting older doesn’t automatically make you wiser. We’ve all met people in their 50s or older who have no more emotional intelligence than someone many years younger. And, of course, we don’t follow the same path through life.
Because we all have different experiences of education, family, work, travel, relationships, art and culture, we can’t just use age as a benchmark for how well someone understands life or how much wisdom they’ve acquired.
We don’t acquire wisdom directly from experience anyway. Some people learn their lessons while others keep making the same mistakes. Some change and grow while others get stuck and struggle.
Action creates experience, but reflection enables wisdom.
How We Acquire Wisdom
We acquire wisdom from the inside out. You don’t start by trying to understand how the whole world works but by understanding what the world is doing to you.
That’s why the folks with an explanation for everything, a grand theory of why people do what they do, the ones who want to win every argument and turn every conversation into a TED talk, never sound wise.
The wisdom of Psalm 88 comes not from certainty, but from uncertainty. It’s the wisdom that comes from embracing doubt rather than rejecting it. From having lived through the dark night of the soul.
Maybe the professor was partly right. This doesn’t come naturally to the very young. Perhaps you don’t have to wait till the dark hairs appear to get it. But you do need life to have thrown some hard things at you to quieten down the urge to explain away the uncertainty.
It’s here we start to see the difference between wisdom and knowledge. The information we understand, the ideas we have internalised, the concepts we have domesticated enough to be able to put them to work for us, this is our knowledge.
Our wisdom is something more diffuse and subtle, the way we respond to mystery and uncertainty, the space we hold for human fragility and loss, the words we find when explanations will not suffice.
Life doesn’t always hand us a “green sheet” with clear instructions. It’s tempting to try to find one – in politics, or religion, or the company of people who are similar to us. Or resist the way the world changes and the challenges life throws at us.
The alternative is to hold space for the uncertainty, the doubt, and even the darkness. It doesn’t need to consume us. But it might hold the path to wisdom.