Age, Wisdom And Failure
Copyright © by Len Holman, 3/29/12
There is an old saying that you can do everything right and still get a bad outcome. There is another old saying that age brings wisdom. I’m old enough to know that the first is correct and the second is a hope which is often unfulfilled. The same is true of nations, which start raw and idealistic and are bubbling with ideas and rising leaders and the sure, juvenile knowledge that this country, these founders—so pure of heart and divinely inspired—will save the world and in the process, make the nation preeminent. These nations grow to maturity and then, eventually, inevitably, to senescence.
This sequence—as with humans—takes various amounts of time, with some never getting out of one stage before being swamped by a larger, more rapacious culture, or being overwhelmed with its own excesses. Even a venerable culture, such as China or Rome or Egypt eventually disappears, no matter if the name stays the same. Some people live a very long time and cannot or do not do anything but decay and disappear within themselves, becoming dust in the ground later rather than sooner. When age produces wisdom—however defined—it is usually a product of experience, thought, and application of lessons which burned the fingers—maybe the whole hand, and when a person or a nation continually burns a hand and keeps putting it back in the fire, and is in a stage where mature wisdom is expected, nothing good results.
Sometimes a person may lead an exemplary life, be kind to kittens and old ladies, give to charity, pay all her taxes, remain faithful to her spouse and always root for the underdog, like the Cleveland Browns, and still her life is one disaster after another, one painful episode following upon another, one incomprehensible upheaval following upon another. Another person may be a rotten heel and live in a nice hilltop manse in Malibu with his third trophy wife—unaware, perhaps, that in his next life, his karma will send him to live in a swamp with all the other alligators.
Nations get to a point where they believe that they will not, cannot, ever die—just as humans rarely, if ever, believe that the bony hand of the reaper will ever touch them or their loved ones. One of the features which presages a nation’s slide into the back pages of history books is the unwillingness to allow dissent—even if that is one principle upon which the nation was originally founded and by which it gauged its potency and legitimacy. Another signal is the gathering of wealth for the few over the many, which—sooner or later—results in mounting awareness, dissatisfaction, and often, open revolt. Individuals who use age as an excuse to stay rigidly inflexible, stuck in their own misconceptions, avariciously gathering in excess (how many yachts do you need to own? How many smart phones and tablets?), will gain little but things, which they must guard and must never be at ease with—as Lao Tzu and other Daoists warned a very long time ago. As nations age, they seem to become sclerotic, grasping, acquisitive for the sake of acquiring. Such a nation makes up reasons for why it does what it does because it knows not why it does anything. “We are saving democracy.” “We can’t allow such demonstrations to ruin the good social order.” “We must destroy this village to save it.”
Finally, for nations and individuals, there comes that point of no return—but sometimes the dragon keeps flying after the head is gone. Sometimes a nation—and a person—will last long after the mission is over, long after the point is lost and the tide has washed the footprints away. Remember Mao and Castro (Fidel, not Raul)? Remember that Mao wore his Long March outfit until he died, and Fidel still wears his Revolution Army fatigues. It’s not because they want to make a fashion statement. They knew that their time was past and those old uniforms remind them of a time when hope was young, when the revolution was spring and summer promised to be a time of great harvest. But Cubans are driving 1958 Buicks with jury-rigged parts—if they drive at all, and China is making iPads; the Long March is a trip to an Apple store. Wisdom is as slippery as beauty or justice or the defininition of a good life. Age is no guarantor of wise choices. The United States is young, as nations go, so it stands to reason it will make a ton of mistakes—but even a callow youth, who aspires to a wise path, must sooner or later realize the error of his ways and change. If he continues to commit the same errors and gets bad results, and then blames others for his misfortunes, that is a definition of immaturity. If he continues to do as he has done, with hopes for an improvement, and gets the same horrific outcomes—that is a definition of insanity. And the insane are manifestly unwise.
Of course, in a world of manifestly unwise nations, one sane and judicious act can be illuminating and a powerful example. In the West, we no longer look upon our aged as reservoirs of experience and wisdom. They are just in the way and they don’t buy many smart phones, either. Age and wisdom are separating and it seems the twain shall not meet anytime soon. All we ask is one sane act, for one experienced person to say, “I tried that, almost got killed. Don’t do it.” Or, “Try this way instead. Be cautious. You have the fate of babies yet to be born in your hands.” Instead we get the unwise individual, the unwise nation, telling us how to live within the narrow confines of a morality which cannot possibly begin to encompass the human condition. Maybe one rule we COULD live with is the one Socrates—arguably a wise man—lived with: know that you don’t know. That would mean seeking answers and applying experience. That would be very wise.
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