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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

The Wisdom in Aging

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'The answers are all there, one just need ask the right question' said Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the polio vaccine. I find this comment to be more interesting everyday as my own questions tend to roll more frequently and diversely with age. As we age, there seems to be an opening spout of questioning arising from the experience of living. We see patterns repeated again and again by our memory of our parents and our observations of our children, or those around us, with slight variations due to time and culture. But the basic repetition of human experiences is so pronounced, and our similarities across space and time so evident in such repetition, that a common set of questions, stemming from such observations naturally arise.

Why do we harm one another or harm the planet upon which we depend for survival? Why do we have such a difficult time seeing the world from another's perspective? Why do we fear death? Why do we fear pain and suffering? Why do we seek happiness through attainment of sensory thrills or possessions? Why do we not spend every moment in the very processes that bring us genuine happiness - moments that connect us deeply with one another, the earth, and our own sense of our true nature?

Yet, also as one ages, a deep understanding of the human experience seems to bring about answers to these questions. The questions emerge through living, through experiencing life in its fullest capacity, and the answers follow if merely one listens. In this realization, there can only be a smile and a laugh, because in a way, we are part of a very big story, repeated again and again, with variable endings throughout time; a story that some see as a drama unfolding, others see as a comedy, and others see as a horror story, from the point of view of their role in it.

Shakespeare pointed this out so clearly in the words, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages."

Not only do we see the roles piling up as we age (that role of the 5 year old girl, that role of the 15 year old adolescent, the 30 year old mother), they seem more and more distinct and disconnected, yet repeated roles, like the school play brought out year after year in the local grade school. In this wonderful realization of the story, the game, the play, in which we are all a part, comes the realization that it's repeated again and again and again through the ages. And in this grand realization, the questions become clear as do the answers behind them.

We harm through misunderstanding, a mis-understanding of the world from all perspectives, a task requiring vigilance, patience, and kindness in first seeing through our own often clouded lenses. Through inquiry again and again, we may clear our lenses well enough to see through another's eyes, but again and again, our own lenses cloud requiring another fresh look at what blinds us. And in this process of attending to one's own clouded view, observing, questioning, observing, questioning, a clearer vision begins to emerge. It becomes easier and easier to put oneself in another's shoes, to sense the world from their view, to understand their feelings or thoughts in a way that is deeply personal, deeply connected with one's own sense of knowing.

In the wonderful book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the author suggested what a different world it would be if we changed color depending on our emotional feeling. For example, you turned red if you were angry, blue if happy, purple if sad, green if envious, etc. It would radically alter our own behavior if we sensed what another felt - truly felt - before we interacted with them. It's unlikely you would use words of anger if you saw the child before you deeply purple in sadness after breaking some rule or doing poorly on a test.

We suffer from a blindness of sorts, a blindness perhaps best described by 'blinders', blinders that narrow our view of ourselves and the world around us. Blinders that generally disappear with age. We have forgotten to seek the wisdom from those who are the most aged in our society, those who are least likely to have blinders on. It is in that group of living elders (as well as the sages throughout the ages) that the greatest answers are known and need only to be shared.