Belfast Telegraph

Don't demand wisdom from our older folk, just allow them to get on with enjoying life

Knowing what makes our fellow men and women tick has nothing to do with age, argues Gail Walker

So, now we know. Or rather now we don't know ... Researchers from Yale University claim that getting older doesn't necessarily make us any wiser, any more intuitive, any more capable of reading people or of understanding human nature.

In fact, the survey concluded that the more mature were no better (but - and let's emphasise this - no worse) than younger people in understanding the nuances of human behaviour.

Many will huff and puff about 'experts' and 'surveys' and question how you can measure 'wisdom'. That's because we love the idea that we - regardless of how pig-headed, stupid and self-deluding we are now - are somehow heading towards the comforting, rolling pastures of eventual enlightenment.

It is, after all, a very comforting idea. No matter how nerve-shattering, chaotic, messy, neurotic, tortured and self-doubting our current existence may be, we can rest assured that it will all be alright in the end; that all of us are heading towards a silvery haired nirvana where we will look upon life - the past, the present and the future - and just know the inner meaning of it all.

There we'll be - comfy-slacked SAGA-reading venerable old gurus, ready to dispense profound insight and aphorisms to random passing youths.

All we have to do is wait.

But isn't there something fundamentally bizarre in the belief that the simple, raw accumulation of experiences will, through some odd but inevitable alchemy, turn into wisdom?

Surely, it is how we process, evaluate and understand experiences that determines wisdom?

And if you don't do that refining at twenty, thirty, forty and fifty, why would it suddenly start just because your hair is greying and your eyesight isn't what it was?

The way we treat our elderly is often pretty ghastly, but stripping them of their follies, their weaknesses, their vanities, their blind spots, their individuality, is perhaps the worst crime of the lot.

Hey, you! You're no longer you! You're An Old Person. And to make up for losing everything that makes you what you are, here's a reputation to a wisdom that you will rarely get to use because the rest of us are too young and stupid to listen.

And of course this works beautifully for the young and middle-aged. The settling of knowledge upon our bowed heads will be at some vague time in the future.

For the time being, rather like the young St Augustine and his rather slippery attitude towards sins of the flesh, we mutter under our breaths: "Lord, make me good - but not yet!"

In other words, we quite like our lives to be filled with contradiction, paradox, selfishness and gross foolishness and don't want to give them up … just yet. We prefer to foist wisdom on the old, like some kind of back-handed compliment. Here, you have the wisdom, we will have the fun.

Seeing life as it really is, is, paradoxically enough, a bit of a mug's game.

No, most of us are happy to keep our delusions and obtuseness, thank you very much.

So why should we foist 'wisdom' onto the elderly? Far better to be bungee-jumping at 67 or embarking on another doomed love affair - there's no fool like an old fool! - than sitting alone credited with an unearned wisdom and staring pointlessly out of the kitchen window.

Instead, let us draw from our own experiences.

Some of the wisest, kindest people I have ever met have had the odd wrinkle or two.

But so have some of the sourest, most intolerant, most unpleasant men and women I had the dubious pleasure of running into during the course of my life.

I have received profound advice from those who have lived life. I've been comforted by those who have lived long enough to know that when disaster strikes ... you can (nearly) always have another go.

I've benefited from the experience of those who can survey what seems like a post-apocalyptic emotional or lifeplan landscape and say convincingly that it only seems like it's the end of the world ... now.

But I've also been given useless, dessicated, dull truisms from older people as self-regarding and solipsistic as any moody teenager.

And some of the wisest words I've heard have come from people ten, 15 or 20 years younger than myself. Sometimes that's down to coming through the sort of brutal experiences that it's well nigh impossible not to learn from.

And occasionally it's from those who may not have had experience as such, but they just know their fellow men and women, what makes them tick, their virtues and vanities, their strengths and weaknesses. It is a bit of a gift. Like an ability to play the piano or languages.

Except, of course, it isn't. The Yale team found that the best readers of situations and character were those of a solitary disposition, those who watched life on the sidelines. They also tended towards being a bit melancholy.

Not exactly clinical, but self-aware enough to realise not to don the rose-coloured spectacles when confronted with awkward truths. To look it in the eye, so to speak.

In some ways it is so obvious that it is rather shocking.

People who see things as they are tend to be those who actually take the time to look, mull over, evaluate and reconsider.

I suspect that most of us will never have the courage to take ourselves outside the herd, becoming a little less foolish by spending a lot more time being on our lonesome.

If that's the price of wisdom, thanks but no thanks just about covers it.

So if it's good enough for us, why isn't it good enough for our elderly? Instead of crediting them with stereotypical but essentially pyrrhic qualities, perhaps we should just let them get on with their lives in all their strange glories?

Maybe it's time for all of us to get wise.

Belfast Telegraph

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