Friday, January 07, 2005
The Myth of the Wisdom of the Ancients
Some months ago my mother was watching a Dr. Phil show about disciplining kids who are (and/or when they are) difficult to handle. As my mother watched the videos of the kids misbehaving she leaned forward in her chair, eyes glittering, hands gripping the arm rests. She could contain herself no longer when a biter was highlighted. "What she needs to do is bite that child right back. Show him how it feels. Don't injure him, mind you, but hurt him enough so he gets the point."
My mother is a retired teacher. She was at the top of her field, loved what she did, taught in both public and private schools, was recognized and lauded more than once for her teaching skills and techniques, was relied upon for much Teaching Wisdom from other teachers...I could go on but I won't. She taught through the eras of corporal punishment and no corporal punishment. I don't recall whether she ever engaged a child corporally in the name of discipline. I don't recall ever being bitten by my mother, and I'm sure I would remember if she had, but I was not a biter.
I have heard her recommend a variety of "bite back" disciplinary reactions to child misbehavior. It is to her credit that she would never dream of considering, much less calling, any child "evil" or verbally abusing a child. She doesn't believe in verbal abuse or considering anyone "evil". She is practical in matters of learning, too, and understands the power of example. It is also true that fairly young children have yet to develop a reliable conscience. For this you need to be fairly far along the Sympathy With Others path. There are many children who misstep morally at certain ages. I have always cringed, though, at the example of purposely hurting anyone to teach them a lesson in hurt. There are enough people out there with short fuses so that it never takes long for a child to begin to experience hurtful (in all senses) attacks. The truth is, I don't know anything that would work better than my mother's strategy for training a child not to hurt others. But, well, I'm of the era where smacks are questionable, to anyone, for any reason. I remember when I discovered that to not wear green on St. Patrick's Day was an invitation to be hit. I ever learned from this lesson that there are some people who are mean enough, for whatever reason, to look for opportunities to hit others.
This is not the only area within which my mother's wisdom, gathered or awarded as a result of having lived almost nine decades, is questionable. If my mother had not entered the realms of Dementia-Lite I think many more of her conclusions would be considered wise. I notice that it is not uncommon for her to revert to "new" wisdom, gained in one's twenties without the honing of experience. Quite a bit of those pronouncements are not wise, nor well worn. As you've read, as well, she has a streak of cruelty in her, in the sense of coldness toward others who irritate her, and, as a sideline, enjoys torturing pets. Not big time, more like avocational bear bating. It can be dangerous. I'm don't think anyone would consider my mother cruel, but she has her moments. It's hard for me to recall much general wisdom rooted in cruelty, except for sophisticated economic "wisdom".
I can readily identify, and have thought deeply about, three types of wisdom associated with, but not necessarily granted by, her age:
- A deep trust in the changing nature of life: Nothing lasts forever; she knows this in her bones and it allows her a cheerful approach to life, which is deeply wise.
- The ability to recognize, immediately, the silly, hilarious and absurd in life. She's always had this perspective but, as she is finishing her ninth decade, this foolishness is not diversion; it's the constant.
- A peculiar Demented Wisdom, allowed only to those demented who are (and while they are) self-aware: The type of wisdom that mistakes me for someone, but for someone who describes a role I play in her life or reminds her of me, or vice versa. This is a perspective changing wisdom to experience and contemplate. It knocks the "Mistaken One" over the head with an eye splitting hammer.
- He believed, benevolently, staunchly, enviously, that all Native Americans were a species of proto-human unto themselves, "closer to the animals", he used to say, an example to us all, and could be relied upon to be more physically and spiritually aware than the rest of us billions of stupid dolts called humans.
- He believed in the wisdom of rocks, reliant on intimate, sensitive, manipulative contact with them. I understand, from his work with rocks, what this wisdom is. Since I didn't know him before he was Ancient I have no idea if this wisdom gathered and flowered in old age or was early recognized;
- He recognized how old he was, how long he'd been around, how much he'd seen and imagined and he demanded respect for this by gently reminding others how "dern young yer are". This, I think, is one of his individual Ancient Wisdoms.
- He absolutely believed, from an early age, that one should maneuver through life as easily as possible by shrewdly picking compatible friends and mates. He did not die of any consequences of stress, which I believe he rarely experienced. This was a gift and he displayed it from a young age.
I don't know whether she'll go down in our family as a "Wise Old Woman". Having had the opportunity to live closely with and attend to an Ancient One, I still don't I have a clear idea of what's wise and what's foolish when it comes to my mother's extensions into the world.
I do know that some Ancients become wise in cultures that not only expect wisdom from them but encourage them to nurture their instincts toward wisdom. Classic Hindu psycho-social thought counsels one to expect this and prepare for it. Not everyone does, nor does everyone do it well. I remember a portrait in a novel whose name I wish I could recall of a man scrupulously, like the Sanhedrin, following The Path of the Ancients and including sexual predation as one of his journeys. Not an inspiring picture.
At any rate, whether an Ancient One is wise should have nothing to do with whether that person's company is treasured by others. If an Ancient One is wise, chances are it is granted them by their character rather than their age. Further chances are that the Ancient One is not always wise depending on both internal and external environments. Foolishness is not a condition of chronology, either; it is as likely to turn up in The Ancient as it is in Those Wet Behind the Ears. Treasuring another's foolishness is part of loving. And loving is a wisdom unto itself.
All material copyright at time of posting by Gail Rae Hudson