Thursday, September 12, 2013

Do we really get wiser with age?

This wry comment from a younger colleague sent me into philosopher mode:

"Although we are getting older, I would like to think we are continually getting wiser which is a fair trade-off ... I think.  So enjoy that old age, old man, but do it wisely."

Ahem. My friend was plainly implying that I was indeed older, yet perhaps not as wise as might be expected for my advanced years.

Do we really get wiser with age? I found this proposition interesting. As I thought about the proposition more, what occurred to me is that aging is neither necessary nor sufficient for obtaining wisdom. Plenty of people get old and never seem wise to others. Likewise, some young people seem to have unusual gifts of integrity, character, and vision. So aging is not a continual, linear trade between decreasing physical ability and increasing mental, spiritual, and emotional ability. Age merely provides us with more opportunities to struggle and learn. Age opens us up, makes us pliable, and makes us more resilient (if not physically stronger).

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson created an eight-stage theory of the human life cycle. In each stage, a person faces an internal struggle that develops different aspects of personality. For example, an infant's struggle is the battle between trust and mistrust; when infants feel they can trust those around them, they develop a sense of hope. In maturity, this virtue of hope manifests in an appreciation for interdependence and relatedness. Erikson's last stage, old age, people grapple with the balance between their personal sense of integrity, and defeat in the face of death and physical disintegration. If integrity wins out, then the result, according to Erikson, is wisdom.  

Accessed Sep 12, 2013 from

I like Erickson's Stage Theory because it seems to explain things well, and because it can serve as a solid framework for questions around character, maturity, and acquired wisdom. The dialogue between my younger colleague and I proceeded thusly:

We all have our struggles and our stories, and according to Erikson, we develop at different rates depending on how we respond to struggle. I know very little about your story, and you probably don't know a whole lot about mine. Our opinions of each other are based solely on our brief interactions over the last few years. 

Your words imply that you do not think much of my wisdom and that you feel yours is superior. I would like to point our that I have not come to you seeking your advice on the matter. If you want to challenge me or teach me or help me to grow in wisdom and grace, I will listen, because I am far from complete and I am sure you can teach me many things. 

However, before you start something with me, please think about where you are coming from and what you hope to achieve. I know myself very well--the good, the bad, and the ugly. What do you see that motivates you to tell me to "enjoy that old age old man but do it wisely"? 

I have learned that criticism is always about the critic. For anyone to see a flaw in me, (a) I must be doing something; (b) they must be able to recognize the flaw first in themselves; and (c) they must have a motive for bringing this flaw to my attention. The playground rejoinder applies: "It takes one to know one." I wanted to know more about the issue that motivated my colleague's unsolicited advice. I suggested a we let Erikson's model serve as a common framework for advancing the discussion.

This willingness to listen without becoming defensive is not easy for most people, myself included. The idea of a common framework like Erikson's helps to keep the discussion objective. Another thing that helps is setting a common purpose, like helping each other grow. In this light, difficult conversations can be offered and accepted in the form of constructive criticism.

So I offered the framework and the purpose as a baseline from which to build, and continued:
If this baseline works for you, I am willing to learn why you felt the need to jack me up. I will listen without arguing or attempting to defend myself until you have made your point.

I wish I could say that the ensuing conversation was productive and mutually satisfying. Unfortunately I think my somewhat indignant tone belied my willingness to listen. I am still wondering, still aware that my character is not fully perfected, and still waiting.


1. How do you handle criticism, especially unsolicited criticism?
2. When do you decide to offer criticism?
3. What if anything would you have done differently from me in the scenario I described?
4. Are you aware of a human life cycle theory that is better than Erikson's?

For readers who are curious about the relationship between age and wisdom, here is a link to some additional resources:

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