I read a very interesting article in The Wall Street Journal about who young people turn to for advice. In short, the answer is that they largely turn to their peers, for a number of reasons. Being old, I have the sense that this is a really bad idea. But reading the article opened my eyes to a few things.
In general, I think people are well served by listening to older and more experienced people. Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” Nowadays, it seems that the sense that parents are out of touch extends well into adulthood.
Historically, people have thought wisdom was linked to age. I am not sure the research bears this out, though it is inherent and explicit in most authoritative religious literature. Perhaps the research results vary from the assumptions because it is so difficult to live wisely for a long period of time. Longevity and consistency in relationships is all too rare, and we are regularly greeted by examples of middle- or older-aged moral collapse.
As I have written, wisdom seems to include dialogical and dialectical thinking at a minimum, the ability to consider others’ perspectives and to think long-term. Reading the Wall Street Journal article made me consider that perhaps people of my generation have different strengths and vulnerabilities than those of the generation of students I teach. Each has the potential for great wisdom, and also the opportunity to make crash-and-burn decisions.
I think what I have noticed is that my students, and my children, are far more dialogical than I am. They are incessantly communicating with one another and sharing their perspectives. They are getting input from all overâ€”from best friends, from strangers, from Facebook, from authority figures, from the media. Though, to older people, they sometimes seem to have trouble distinguishing the relative reliability of the sources, they are listening.
That is the weakness of people like me. I become entrenched in my position, and I often fail to listen respectfully the way I should. In closing myself to those sources I consider to be of questionable reliability, I find that I have often failed to listen to unique viewpoints that may help me get closer to truth. More painfully, this can be true of me as a father. I want my children to see me as the expert, and I don’t always enter the conversation listening. Or worse, I wait for the weakness in their arguments to emerge, and I pounce. They rightly cut me off as a source of advice. Even when I am right, I am not to be trusted.
But my young friends have a weakness too, and that comes in the difficulty they have thinking dialectically. There is no way they can be expected to have a long-term perspective, when they have not had a life experience of major failings and mistakes, or of fruitful choices that paid off. Of course they underestimate long-term negative consequences of their decisions. Why wouldn’t they, unless they have experienced those consequences directly in the form of fallout from their parents’ lack of wisdom?
Where is wisdom to be found? I think it is in recognizing our vulnerability to these tendencies, and in engaging each other in conversations respectfully. For my part, I am working on becoming a better listener and not trying to solve problems before I even hear them. If that meets up with young people who really want to develop a long-term perspective, there is potential for real conversation. Even more, it may lead a few steps down the road to wisdom.
They say a father is someone who carries pictures in his wallet where his money used to be. That money is spent in hopes that his children will make wise decisions that lead to a good life. For me, it always seemed that financial investment, and my commitment to my kids, earned me the right to be heard, and listened to.
But I think, instead, it is an investment that must be combined with the kind of character in my own life that allows me to listen, even when it is hard to sit still. If I want to be wise, and to help my children grow in wisdom, I will need to engage them humbly and learn from them as well. And that is what I intend to do.
So, reader, to whom do you turn for wisdom? And why is it that you see that person as wise?
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