Old and Wise

Kindness is fashionable, thank goodness. Be Kind is emblazoned on t-shirts and pullovers, it is talked about as an attribute, cupped like a new chick in our hands as something we have forgotten but need to rehabilitate and restore into the everyday. This reminder is a good thing – because it is true, we all ought to be kind – and this reminder is an awful thing – because we shouldn’t need reminding to practise the most basic display of human decency. Surely kindness is innate to us all? And if it is, when did we lose our way and jettison it? Did we lose it because certain role models out there have been teaching us otherwise? That it is better to be right, to win, to vanquish, to succeed, to achieve, than to be kind? One assumes that such flawed thinking melts away with age; that with age self-serving, raw ambition and blind trampling of others is replaced with wisdom. Alas, it is not always the case.

Ideally wisdom is one of the natural payoffs for getting old, but only, it seems, if you work at it. If you watch and listen and learn and from the ups and the downs, the celebrations and the catastrophes, the cycles of life coming around again and again, that’s when you become wise. Those who are old enough have seen it all before, know what matters. They are able to lead, communicate, hold their counsel, chose the right moment to intervene, share their thoughts, stay silent, rage, let go, forgive, seek justice, see the funny side, keep a sense of perspective, wait for change. In short, they act from a place of considered judgement and speak from a place of having lived it all before.

As much as the world needs youthful exuberance, new ideas and energy, it also needs old and wise people with lived experience to lead. Who cares if they walk slowly, if they have thin hair, if they occasionally call you by your sister’s name instead of yours? Who cares if they don’t know who BTS are, or how to make a dalgona whipped coffee, or have never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, that’s the big wind fall when you get older – you can take or leave popular-culture. If you have done it right, you don’t care what people think of you because you realise that you are good enough. Long gone is that Holden Caulfield-esque existential angst of youth! The world is less of a confusing place because you have had a long induction to it. There are only so many experiences a person can have – archetypal experiences – and so when something new happens, the older person thinks: “I’ve been through this before,” or, “I’ve met this person before.”

When I Am An Old Woman I Will Wear Purple, is a celebrated poem by Jenny Joseph. Loved in its day, it now sounds desperately out of date to my ear. Is wearing purple really the most subversive act we can gift to older people? David Dimbleby got a scorpion tattooed on his shoulder for his 75th birthday and grumpy Jeremy Paxman’s take on wearing purple (see latest series of University Challenge) is to grow his silver hair long and get a funky new pair of specs. But how about: When I Am Old I Will Lead A Country? When I Am Old I Will Be Listened To? When I Am Old I Will Not Be Written Off? When I Am Old I Will Wear Grey To Match My Hair If I Can’t Be Bothered To Capitulate To The Forever-Young Industry? When I Am Old I Will Be Respected For What I Know?

Take two of the super-seniors, both of whom are ninety-four: The Queen, whose wisdom comes from staying well out of things, maintaining that poker face, and her un-readable thoughts; and David Attenborough whose wisdom comes from rolling his khaki-coloured sleeves up and telling us we all need to wise up, fast! Together they model the twin powers of dignity and action. Jonathan Sacks, British Orthodox Rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author, and politician died last week, and one of his ‘Thoughts for the Day’ was re-broadcast on BBC radio in memory of him. It was a reflection on the positives of old age. He spoke about the old masters throughout the ages who kept learning, experimenting, getting better, influencing. As David Attenborough said in his latest film, A Life on Our Planet, “to continue, humans require more than intelligence, we require wisdom.” Here’s to all the old people who are naturally kind and who rock wisdom.

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