As I look at my life, I can tell my pace is slowing, but my production seems to be increasing. How is this possible? I think it is because as my pace has slowed, I have given more time to think more deeply, which has led to more impact.
Wisdom is knowledge applied. There is a great difference between knowledge and wisdom. The Scripture often equates wisdom with age, but I know a lot of people who age and who don’t become wise. Either they didn’t keep learning, or they didn’t take the time to apply it to their life or the lives of others. Ezra, an Old Testament priest gives us a model here as he aged: For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. (Ezra 4.10).
I recently talked with Ann Smith*, a retired missionary and church leader who is 98 years old. She is obviously less mobile today than in the past, but she is as sharp as most people I know. She is still learning, as demonstrated by her completing a seminary class (audited) last week! She was just interested in the subject matter! When I asked her questions, she thoughtfully responded, out of what she is learning right now. One of the questions I asked her was how she was staying relationally pliable when most of her lifelong family and friends were dying. She told me that she continues to introduce new, younger people into her life. This keeps her relationally connected and growing. And this is not a new discipline for her, she has maintained this stance since I have known her for the past 45 years.
It seems to me that I have more margin in my life, which has led me to think more critically about my life and the lives of those around me. Earlier in my life, I would run from one appointment or task to the next, which caused me to react in most of my life. I loved to react and did quite well at it, so I wasn’t bothered by it.
But now, looking back, I realize that I wasn’t learning, and I wasn’t making the wisest decisions. Wisdom takes time. I was accumulating knowledge, but I am not sure I was gaining wisdom. Wisdom develops through a slow process. Only as we take time to process knowledge and experience do we gain the insights of wisdom.
Let me suggest five ways we can keep growing in our wisdom as we age. These five learning postures can keep old people young and help young people gain wisdom.
1) Accumulate—For wisdom to grow, the knowledge base from which it springs must also be expanding. We have so much knowledge available to us today. However, we must cull and vet this knowledge. For instance, watching Fox, CNN, or NBC News is not the kind of knowledge I am describing here. I am talking about reading books or blogs from respected experts in their fields. Not the ones with microphones up to their mouths or a lot of followers, but those who have researched and thought deeply about their field and published work that is open to others’ critique. This doesn’t mean in academic venues, but they are writing for others to review and critique. When they are challenged, they respond thoughtfully and humbly to others’ analyses. Most, though not all, of what I read is not pop culture “talking heads speak,” but thoughtful, reflective, open-for-dialogue kind of stuff.
Let’s face it, we can’t learn everything in any subject. We live in an era where information is all around us. We must discriminate what we choose to learn. I don’t watch TV or review social media, so I am clueless about the current issues of many subjects. I do catch sound bites and ironically can keep current with 85%; the rest, I choose not to know.
We all need to continue to be taking in information till we die. Most of us die mentally before we die physically. When we stop taking in new information, we die mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. And you must intentionally choose what kind of information you are going to accumulate. It is your choice; you can intentionally choose the knowledge base upon which you want to build the wisdom of your next decade.
2) Ruminate—It isn’t enough to simply take in information. We must ruminate on it. We need to let it sink deep in our soul. The good news about getting older is that our souls have more in them to interact with this new information. I am not talking about cognitively processing this information; that comes in the next stage. But I am talking about just letting the deep soul live with the information and asking yourself, does it feel right? If not, why not? If it does, why? This rumination is mainly unconscious to me. I find myself pondering on stuff I have read or watched days, weeks, or even months earlier.
This is where prayer is a much more important aspect of wisdom for me than when I was younger. If I read something that bothers me, I will ask God to give me clarity and insight into the issue. This is why I read materials that challenge the way I think. It ruminates in my soul at a deep level and causes my faith to grow deeper as I wrestle with this stuff. According to James 1.5, if we lack wisdom, we should pray about it and ask God for wisdom. I expect the Spirit to guide my processing. I ruminate on a lot of stuff in my sleep; my dreams or the twilight hours are often ruminating on what I am learning.
3) Evaluate—this is where the cognitive domain begins to interact with the information. Can I think of reasons why I agree with it or disagree with it? As mentioned above, I can tell some stuff doesn’t feel good in my soul, but I don’t know why. As I pray about it and come to this stage, I often can ask what assumptions underly but are unstated in the conclusions. Who paid for the research of the article? This is when I compare this new learning with what I have read or seen, or experienced throughout my life. I am not sure there is a clear line between ruminating and evaluating, but it happens in different parts of my brain.
I ask myself if this information challenges or confirms my current worldview. Is it consistent with all that I have read or experienced thus far in life? If not, why not? If not, it doesn’t mean I discard it, but I do evaluate my current beliefs considering what I am learning. I find that sometimes I change my position in light of new information.
In our current polarized culture, there is such fear of truth. People are afraid to be stretched or learn something different from what they currently believe. We have no fear in pursuing truth. CS Lewis wrote: “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”**
So you must decide if you want to be wise or comfortable.
4) Assimilate—This is the stage where I have come to agree with knowledge and begin to apply it to my thinking. I ask myself, what difference will this make in my life, in the way I think, live, and believe? This is what makes the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Remember Ezra? I seek to assimilate this into the way I process or view the world around me. An example of this may be how I have come to perceive ai over these past 6 months. I have had to reconsider what I previously believed about ai and what it means to be human. I am not saying what I believed prior was wrong, though clearly, some of it was. I have had to rethink much of what I do and how I view others through their unique contributions to the Kingdom considering ai.
5) Integrate—This last stage of developing wisdom is where I actually ask myself: how do I make this information a part of my life and/or a part of the lives of others? How do I integrate this new information into not only the way I think (assimilate) but now how I live? How does it impact my relationships, priorities, passions, etc…?
This is the stage when you notice an older person doesn’t get irritated like others because they have integrated deep truths into their souls that keep them from losing their center. This is where the wisdom of people who have aged through wisdom becomes evident. They have learned many things in life, and what is important is one that they have integrated well.
I am not sure I go through all five stages with all things new, but at some level, I seek to process learning to produce wisdom. If I am still alive at 98, Ann Smith is who I want to emulate. So I am working on it now.
*click here for a 20 minute interview on her when she was 96 years old