Aging, Wisdom, Humility, and Respect

Aging does not guarantee wisdom in all things, but even the most resistant to the maturing process will usually accumulate some wisdom. If we define wisdom as being the process of converting life experience into universally useful life lessons, it is safe to say that most people will learn that it is not wise to put your hand on a red-hot burner. The process of becoming wise gets more interesting when we move into the subtler (less physical) realms of understanding. At this more refined level wisdom is an art form or high craft that requires practice and dedication to keep the skill honed.

For even the most intelligent among us, if we are wise, the aging process teaches us how little we really know. The wiser we get the smaller we become in the face of this phenomenon we call life. A fundamental principle in the 12 Step programs is that of “right size”. This principle is illustrated in the Appalachian Shaker song by Joseph Bracket that says:

‘Tis the gift to be simple,

’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

And now we are talking about humility and the place where wisdom and humility meet. In truth, wisdom is never truly wise without humility. One of the wisest teachers I have had was a man who worked for my mother as a gardener. This man had no need of the concept of being upwardly mobile. He found infinite joy in his life just as it was. He loved to garden. He loved his family and his relationships with others. He and his wife loved to dance the Mexican folk dances of their people. I went to see him on the day that he died and he was singing one of the light-hearted folksongs that he liked to dance to. He literally sang himself into the hereafter.

Humility is the acceptance and embracing of reality as it is. It is, put simply, the Truth. We frequently have ideas in our heads about who we are or the value of what we have done, how we should be viewed. When life doesn’t act towards us the way we think we deserve, it can feel humiliating, or, if we are wise, we can be humbled by what life is presenting to us. Life does us the favor, every once in a while of putting us in our proper place. That is a gift. It is much better for the mind and the heart and the soul to be in Reality, which is where God is. The ego may have a hard time adjusting to Reality but the wise person knows how to bring the ego into alignment. The trick is to do this sincerely, without secretly holding on to feelings of resentment or shame. It is wise to learn how to release these feelings.

I have had the supreme opportunity to transform what could easily be taken as a humiliating experience into a humbling one. I spent three years of my life raising money through the legislature and local non-profit organizations, to bring a program into Santa Fe for people with severe mental illness. I succeeded in raising three quarters of a million dollars in three years and establishing the program, and then something happened that was far from expected. A woman that I hired to run the program took a disliking to me and succeeded over the next year in thoroughly sullying my name and reputation in the behavioral heath community. By the time I found out about it, it was too late to turn it around. I ended up having to walk away from the program I had birthed.

If I didn’t want to spend the next few years of my life mulling over the injustice of this situation, feeling shamed, and resentful towards the people who didn’t let me know what was going on, I needed to see how this experience was a life lesson that was necessary for me to grow. I was able to frame it so that even though on the small playing field the situation was unjust, in the bigger picture there had to be some reason why I needed to have this injustice in my life. To this day I don’t know the why of this necessity, but I was able to accept that I must have done something, possibly in a previous life, that made it necessary. Because of my spiritual practice and understanding I felt acceptance of this notion. Acceptance of a public humiliation that seemed to be unjust was supremely humbling, and at the same time I felt the Peace in my mind and heart that comes from acceptance of Reality (humility) without having to understand why, and without an argument. This is one of the most valuable lessons of my life. I have not been plagued by resentment or shame. I don’t know if I will ever understand the why of this particular situation and I don’t feel that it matters. I got the lesson. I found the serenity to accept the thing I could not change and the grace to move on without resentment or shame in the face of injustice.

Many of us have taken on some noble work, thinking we could pull it off without a hitch and have discovered, sometimes painfully, that we were not as skilled as we thought. Sometimes the wisest thing to do is take our wounded egos in hand and “cut our losses”, or at the very least ask for help, before any more damage is done. This is where wisdom, humility, and acceptance can save us and others from further suffering.

There are those who have an unusually high degree of wisdom, Maya Angelou, Scott Nearing, Prema Chondron, Thich Nhat Hahn, and the Dalai Lama come to mind. Anyone who has made it into their 60s and 70s and 80s has accumulated some wisdom. It is in direct relationship to how consciously we practice this art form, what challenging moments our lives have sent to us as teachers, and how adept we are at pulling ourselves out of the small picture into a higher perspective. Some form of spiritual perspective is helpful.

There are traditional cultures in the world who hold the wisdom of the elders to be a precious commodity. Before the arrival of Europeans and the systematic attempt to destroy its culture, among the Iroquois, the Council of Grandmothers was a fundamental source of wisdom. This council was intimately involved in important decision making in the highest ranks of the society. I can only imagine what it would be like to grow up as a girl in a society where the wisdom of the female was called on, expected, and valued. The natural tendency of every female child to rise to that occasion, to automatically be in possession of a valuable principle, the female principle, would change the world as we know it today. As it is, most elders in our society, both men and women, are reflecting the attitude of the society at large. They frequently are not accessing the wisdom they have because they do not value it any more than the culture does. And this is what our children see and emulate.

In a world that is on the brink of self destruction, where the female principle is conspicuously absent from decision making, and our elders are locked up in “care” facilities, it behooves us to think outside of the box we are in. How can we shift this tragic loss that goes unnoticed until we are already in it and invisible.

This is a call to the young to listen up. It’s your turn next, if humanity survives that long.