Saturday, 23 February 2013

A Wonderful Process

I don't deliberately do blogs in series, but what often happens after I write on a given topic or two is that I discuss them with people (not necessarily because they've read the blogs, you understand, it's just what's on my mind at the time) and further ideas develop. This week the two nuggets that morphed into discussions elsewhere and ended up causing THIS blog, were the idea that we change as we age, (and that one of those changes is sometimes wisdom), and the idea of knowing oneself.

Last night I was talking to my boys about concepts that require several words, or even several sentences in English, but are captured succinctly in one word or phrase in other languages. For my sake (and maybe yours too) I urge you to look up Weltschmerz (German) and Mono No Aware (Japanese) if you are not already familiar with them. These are two things than can increase with age, and there are several ways of dealing with it. You can indulge in them, or you can fight them, or you can allow them occasionally, but otherwise try to avoid them. I follow the latter.

There is a concept that has arisen in a few places lately, which is how the language we speak affects our mindsets, our outlook. I've just ordered Through The Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher, and will talk more about it after I've read it, but just to give you an example, in many languages, especially ancient ones, the words for colours are not like ours. We expect to be able to translate the word "blue" quite easily, but it can't always be done. Because we have the word "blue" it affects how we see things, how we define things, and how we relate to things, with regard to their blueness. But as I said, I'll return to that in a couple of weeks.

One of the things that changes with age is speech. We increase our vocabulary, and we may also move in circles that cause us to change our speech patterns. In fact if you meet somebody young who uses a formal style of speech, with lots of long or less common words, you tend to say he's old for he's years, or that he sounds old. He may be teased by his peers. If you meet a older person who has acquired a style normally associated with teenagers, we are often all quite unkind in our judgement, writing them off as trying to sound younger, and suggesting it's not fitting. There are real expectations here.

We connect language with wisdom, in fact. We may doubt whether the "trendy" teacher who apes the slang of his students is quite as able as his colleague who talks very formally, despite them being the same age. And we assume that the young person who uses a lot of street slang is less intelligent. It's a type of prejudice. It may or may not be accurate, that's not the point. We have a concept that a person "sounds stupid" because of the way they talk. It may be unfair, but that's how it is.

Because of this we might encourage young people to "talk better". I certainly do with my kids. I correct spoken grammatical errors without hesitation ("I seen it"), and I'm famous for not allowing the stereotypical Canadian "Eh?" in my house.

I have had success, for the most part. I have managed to convince my kids that sounding intelligent is a beneficial thing, a positive thing, and something to aim for. Either I've brainwashed them, or they agree with me. Doesn't matter. It worked. The prevailing culture in this family includes improving oneself.

Right. Let's go back to how people change with age. We learn as we age. We collect more information, we have more experiences, and we pick up all sorts of ideas that when combined, allow us to improve our thinking skills. Some people do this faster than others, partly because of inherent IQ, and partly because of opportunity. But there's something else as well. Sometimes really intelligent people, raised in a culture that encourages learning, having had at least a reasonable education, and having been around a few decades, discover they have only just learned something that should have been obvious long ago. In fact, they even notice that there are younger people who have always "got it".

Now I'd like you to be honest, and admit this has happened to you. It certainly happens to me. I'm not talking about suddenly understanding Einstein's Special Theory at the age of 42. No, I'm talking about much simpler life skills. I was well into my forties when I figured out what "joy" was for example. Knew the word, obviously, but had never really "got it". Sounds silly? Bet you've got one. Bet you've got dozens.

In fact, I guarantee (and I hope) this continues as long as we live, even if we reach a great age.

There are things that can be taught, but can also be missed, repeatedly, until one day we surprise ourselves by suddenly understanding them. If we admit it, to ourselves or others, we say things like "I can't believe I didn't figure that out before".

In fact, let's briefly go back to Einstein. Although obviously "bright", he was famously not the best student at school (notably better at some things than others). But in later life he came up with many theories, which have made him a household name. When he developed his theories, it was after many years of NOT developing them, if you see what I mean. Some of them were based on the work of others, some took him many years of thought, but then one day he had a breakthrough that allowed him to present a viable theory, which he hadn't had before.

I doubt Einstein felt any sense of "duh, how did I not figure that out before", but we do, don't we? We are really quite hard on ourselves sometimes.

Instead of being embarrassed, keeping this to ourselves, or even covering up for it, we could use this experience as a reminder to be little more tolerant of the young, and we're all younger than somebody.

Yes, this is coming from the person who regularly rails against stupidity. But I define stupidity as something more than simple ignorance. I define it as wilful, deliberate. If you genuinely don't know any better, because of youth, lack of experience, lack of opportunity, or from a cultural disadvantage, that's not stupidity.

I remind myself of this every time I have an embarrassingly late discovery, and hope it makes me a little kinder on those who aren't there yet. It was just a race, and I won.

Here's a gratuitous 1970s song, because bands like this, with esoteric or surreal lyrics that kept sending me to the library, taught me more than all my teachers combined.


  1. I constantly defend when others berate the "stupidity" of the young. I am surround by young people and although they make the errors of the young, their brilliance amaze me. My son is exactly what I set him on the path to be; far far smarter then me. Not quite as wise yet, :)....but that will come in it's own good time.

    1. Yes, "errors" they are, not failures, not faults, not stupidity, but just mistakes. Sometimes the wisdom of the young blows me away. My kids come out with these pearls, and I think "WOAH, I wasn't there yet, at your age".

  2. I suppose everybody could kick themselves at times for being human. LOL I've been forgetful, and maybe even a little 'willfully ignorant' at times, and I am grateful for those friends who have called me on it. That said, even with the 'obvious' being brought into focus, until and unless we realize it [whatever the truth is] on a deep and personal level, it may continue to escape us.

    Being a curious kid (always asking "why?") and considering that disingenuousness is a real part of who we are, things do balance out at some point. Great if that happens when we're younger, but it happens to all of us eventually, hopefully before we die. ;)

    Maybe the challenge lies in not letting go of curiosity? Once we feel we 'know it all' we may be more lost than we think. Once we have the 'perfect system' in place, erosion and destruction are inevitable. Just ask Mother Nature. ;) ~ Blessings!

    1. "Maybe the challenge lies in not letting go of curiosity?"

      I really like that.

      I remember some years ago, my husband talking to a neighbour, suggesting that if you don't learn new things every day you may as well be dead. I will never forget the look on her face. Clearly she either didn't share his view, or.................. didn't understand it.