Being smart and being wise are not the same thing, and I think it’s hard to be really wise when you’re young. We use the phrase “wise beyond one’s years”, which implies that not all decisions taken in our youth are feckless. But with age comes nuance, and a recognition of unintended consequences, and a deeper well of compassion – even toward ourselves.
A.R. was a kind of elder statesman in the Rochester financial world, and in his retirement from a bank president’s job he took office space with us at Jerry’s and my financial planning firm. Jerry liked having him around, and I often came upon the two of them shooting the breeze about some arcane stock market move. A.R. had political contacts that Jerry didn’t have and didn’t really want, except that having those contacts sometimes mattered in our subsidized housing business. A.R. was always willing to share his golden rolodex, in return for a small cut of the deal. A.R. became a mentor to me as well. He’d mentored younger men throughout his career, and I think it intrigued him to find women in positions senior enough to be interesting. He shared an invaluable piece of wisdom about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. He told me that when things go bad, you never ride the ship down to the last dollar, out of your own hubris and not wanting to fail. You have to be ruthlessly honest, and cut your losses while there’s still money to create a soft landing for the people around you. I was surprised at the observation, because I thought of A.R. as quite cutthroat in the business world. He was telling me that as much as you want something, it’s not all about you. It’s also about the people you hire and what’s fair and decent for them.
I don’t think you know that when you’re twenty or thirty or forty and ambitious and competitive. I think you know it when you’re seventy, and have seen a lot of things succeed and a lot fail, and been forced to recognize the collateral damage to employees left out in the cold over bad business decisions.
My friend Mary shared a different kind of wisdom with me recently, about long relationships and having – in the words of Virginia Woolf – a room of one’s own. She and her husband have been married for decades, surely over fifty years. They have grown offspring and grandchildren. They own two adjacent apartments, and kept the spaces separate, without breaking through the walls. One is hers, and one his. They both use both. But they also claim their separate spaces when either needs to do so. And it works.
My own piece of wisdom is about knowing what you most long for, and then being able to recognize the blessing in what you get. I use the word “blessing” not in a religious sense, but in the sense that life brings each of us openings that may not be immediately recognizable as having potential. The question is how we see those precious slivers of light, how we claim them. I longed to grow old with my late husband Jerry, and I didn’t get that. But I was free, after his death, to move across the country, find an urban home whose ambient noise level and commotion – sirens, ferry horns, fireworks over the downtown stadium when the Sounders have a victory, planes flying low toward Boeing Field – would have driven Jerry crazy. I have time to enjoy a much closer relationship with my grown kids and grandkids that I might have had if I were in a long term marriage to a man who wanted us, in retirement, to ride bikes from Capetown to Cairo.
I longed to have a mother who was relaxed and easy and trusting of life, who loved me unconditionally. I didn’t get that. But I did get Minga, an illiterate woman in a poor village who has been a profoundly mothering presence for me since I was in my early twenties and came to know her during my Peace Corps service. She has no idea of my professional life, whether I’ve been successful or not, and she doesn’t much care. She is relaxed and easy and trusting of life, and my coming to sit with her on her porch is all she wants or needs. No conditions. No judgment.
It’s not that I make a choice to move away from what I long for in search of something else. Life makes that choice for me. But then, into what seems like an utter void, something new emerges. The question is whether I see it, and can claim it and make it my own.
That’s the wisdom I’d share. I wish I could have shared it with my younger self; I think I would have been happier earlier. But wisdom only comes with time, and with perspective. Wisdom comes with age.
If you have wisdom stories, or wisdom insights, I’d love to hear them. Now that I’m finishing the memoir, I’m thinking of another long writing project, and it might be this. “Wisdom of age” isn’t a new topic, and it certainly isn’t a new title. But I think there are new stories to be gathered, new insights to be shared.
Please share with us.