Well known and cherished couplings that seem to last the test of time: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bacon and eggs, snow on Christmas morning, Willie Nelson and country music, and so on.
Older and wiser? Not so much.
The world presents us with enough evidence to confirm that few of us, very few, become wiser as we age. If I wanted to use data here, I’d make a case that at least 96% of the older among us are clearly not wiser.
I bet you that nearly every one of us older folks have said things like, “I’m sure glad I know what I know now.” And then we proceed to do the most foolish and hapless things—as though we’re suffering from amnesia and cannot rely on the memory of our youthful indiscretions to guide our behavior. It’s not as though examples of older NOT wiser behavior hide from view. The media, after all, thrives on them; frequent and blatant examples of careless acts are the Vitamin D of network news.
Something false resonates in Sinatra’s words, “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But I did it my way.” Because “my way” frequently includes a trip to the emergency room, unemployment, bankruptcy, jail time, divorce, or adulterous liaisons. Frankly, “my way” doesn’t exist. There is no “my way” when it comes to foolish behavior, rash encounters, and general imprudence. Because, in fact, my way too often resembles the way of so many older and NOT wiser characters. The my way is a road paved with embarrassing and painful examples of reckless behavior. We have plenty of examples around us—we have a veritable GPS of examples, yet we don’t use it.
A bit of anecdotal evidence: My father, who used to be a dentist before he retired, now behaves as though an all chocolate diet is healthy. My mother, who used to be a nurse, supports this practice. Older, not wiser.
Do this quick exercise: Make a list of all the older and wiser things you’ve done. Next to it, make a list of all the older and NOT wiser things you’ve done. Which list is longer?
Of course, that probably wouldn’t be an accurate test because, remarkably, our memories don’t hold onto all of the unwise, irrational, thoughtless and reckless things we’ve done in our older years. Mercifully so.
In my case, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done something older and wiser. For example, I got rid of my snowboard last month because the image of damaging my veneers and breaking a hip had come into clearer focus as time went by. Perhaps we all need to play a video in our heads of the most likely outcome of our idiotic behavior—in full color with Surround Sound. Bring popcorn and a large soda.
A lot of us are expressing shock and awe over the Petraeus love quadrangle. Our reaction tells others that we believe the older, more celebrated, and most powerful among us are immune to poor judgment in some areas of their lives. Why should they be?
What does this all mean?
1. Perhaps we should be less hasty in condemning others for stupid behavior.
2. It would behoove us to use the examples of the older and NOT wiser to guide our behavior. Oddly, we rarely do.
3. Most of us seem to love a gloriously colossal fall from grace. What does that say about us?
4. Humans appear to be just as reflexive in the presence of temptation as a hungry mutt. Perhaps we’re all doomed to repeat mistakes and do stupid things.
5. Don’t wait for the news to print evidence of your less wise moments to become older and wiser.