With Old Age comes Healthy Dose of Wisdom and Skepticism

July 5, 2017

With Old Age comes Healthy Dose of Wisdom  and Skepticism

By Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

One of the pitifully few consolations of old age is supposed to be that, as the Old Testament Book of Job puts it, ‘with the ancient is wisdom; and in the length of days understanding.’

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But with every passing day I find myself less convinced of this, and increasingly if regretfully inclined to the contrary view that, as the late, great American skeptic and critic H L Mencken so aptly expressed it, “the older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”

In fact, if there’s one lesson that life has taught me, it’s to distrust all doctrines, dogmas, ideologies and other such alleged “truths”.

Especially those “truths” whose proponents, or rather propagandists, are most at pains to threaten dire penalties for those daring to doubt or outright disbelieve them.

Thus the older I get the more inclined I am to dismiss such typical examples of intellectual bullying as “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Bible, Psalms 11:10) and “He that doubteth is damned” (Bible, Romans 14:23) in favour of the proverbial Ancient Greek proposition that “wonder is the beginning of wisdom” and the observation by Miguel De Unamuno (1864-1936) that “life is doubt, and faith, without doubt, is nothing but death.”

In all conscience, however, as long as I’m arguing here for doubt, wonder, questioning, skepticism or whatever as the path to wisdom, I have to admit to awareness of De Unamuno’s wry remark that “a lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he is talking about.”

And since surely some foolish Malaysiakini reader who knows what he (or she) is talking about is already on the point of reminding me that as desirable as doubt might be in principle, it can also be dangerous or even deadly in practice, I might as well get in first.

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Starting with conceding that, yes, just as disrespect of or doubt in the supposed gods of ancient Athens proved fatal to the philosopher Socrates, and doubt in the biblically-proclaimed relationship between the earth and the sun decidedly dangerous to Galileo, doubt in allegedly “sacred” and indeed “divinely-inspired” books can prove a death sentence in many theocracies and other “religious”-majority countries today.

It is also clearly far from safe for the inhabitants of a great many nations to demonstrate a lack of faith in their rulers. For citizens of China, for example, to cast doubt on their fake “people’s” Communist Party; for Russians to question the probity of Putin’s corrupt oligarchy; or for Malaysians to express too strident doubts about the billions missing from 1Malaysia Development Berhad or the massive “donation” Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his cronies dubiously claim he received from some mysterious rich Arab.

In fact, to show a lack of faith in the virtues of Najib and his accomplices in the UMNO-BN regime is considered virtually tantamount to doubting Allah, by whom, it is regularly claimed, they have been chosen to rule.

Just as millions of US citizens paradoxically claiming complete faith in both of what to many of us are the conflicting creeds of Christianity and Capitalism have chosen to have their nation presided over by the preposterous, pathologically lying Donald Trump, who deems any doubts about him and his stupid tweets as “fake news”.

In short, as much as I hate to have to admit it, doubt isn’t always politic or even possible, and even when entirely possible, as in the relatively free and just society I’m fortunate enough to live in, it can be a decidedly mixed blessing.

When combined with sufficient effort, thought and sustained tolerance for the discomfort of uncertainty, doubt or skepticism can lead to wisdom, but unfortunately, it all too often gets subverted by the all-too-human tendency to wishful thinking, and thus results in nothing but wishdom.

For example, doubts by the disaffected, disadvantaged or outright desperate about the fairness and effectiveness of political institutions can lead, as we currently see to our collective dismay, not the greater wisdom of all concerned, but the kind of woeful wishdom that gives rise to a dangerous nitwit like Donald Trump as in the US, a Rodrigo Duterte as in the Philippines, and similar idiots elsewhere.

Doubts on the part of a spectrum of the populace ranging from the confused through the irrational to the utterly cuckoo about such creatively self-questioning institutions as medicine, science and technology result not necessarily in greater public wisdom, but in many cases entirely evidence-free faith in any of a virtually infinite clutter of weird and wonderful wishdoms including, to cite just a small sample of such superstitions and paranormalities, angels, anti-fluoridation, astral travel, astrology, aura-reading, breatharianism, clairvoyance, climate-change denial, colonic irrigation, druidism, ghosts, fairies, iridology, naturopathy, palmistry, pixies, psychic surgery, satanism, spiritualism, sprites, telekinesis, trolls and UFOlogy.

And given that all of us are liable to have grave doubts about the idea of what appears to be the inevitability of our deaths, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve achieved very few wisdoms, at least that I’m personally aware of, on the subject.

Plenty of witticisms, admittedly, two of my favourites among these being Woody Allen’s “I” m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens’ and Bob Monkhouse’s “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my father did; not screaming and crying like his passengers.”

But mostly we deal with death not through the wisdom of laughing in the face of its ultimate reality, or but with the laughable wishdom of an “immortal” soul that somehow either eternally survives in some “other” world, or keeps being “reincarnated” in this world in a series of different bodies. And in case our faith in such far-fetched nonsense fails, we can always pin our hopes on cryogenics.

In conclusion, in all honesty, I feel obliged to confess that, despite my carefully-cultivated skepticism and considerable thought I’ve yet to achieve even the degree of wisdom of which Socrates famously boasted in claiming that he was wiser than all his fellow ignoramuses in Athens, as unlike them at least he knew he knew nothing.

And in any event, I can’t help suspecting that even the very desire to achieve wisdom is probably nothing more than yet another symptom of the insatiable human appetite for self-deception, or in other words wishdom.

14 thoughts on “With Old Age comes Healthy Dose of Wisdom and Skepticism

  1. Let us old guys wake up. An Unexamined Life is not worth living. At the same time, in the twilight of our years, we should avoid being cynics. Stay positive. The journey ahead is full of challenges especially in Najib Razak’s Malaysia. Any comments Conrad, LaMoy, CL Familiaris, Semper Fi, et.al. ?–Din Merican

  2. Does age bring wisdom? Scientists say it does. The findings of Canadian researchers from the University Geriatrics Institute of Montreal say age brings us wisdom, contradicting previous theories claiming that our brains deteriorate with age, making us less able to make sound decisions:


    Scientists from University of California in Riverside say the same:


    I really don’t know if I’m any wiser now then I were younger. I only know now I’ve a wider frame of reference of life experience that I can refer to when facing a problem. I remember I used to look up to the adults when I were a kid and couldn’t wait to grow up like them “knowing everything.” I never had an answer when people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would answer with the most amazing thing you could think of, perhaps I felt answering that question with nonsense would be more fun (I still do that when I feel someone is asking me a stupid question). Then I were older and I realized I were still a kid in an adult body, and now I’m a kid in an old man body.

    The only thing becoming an adult made me realized that getting older doesn’t magically make you wiser. There was no sudden moment of clarity where everything just made sense when we hit age 18 or 68. We don’t automatically learn how to deal with our problems. Some of us repress. Some of us distract ourselves while our thoughts poke at us from behind a curtain we pray no one else can see through. I were frustrated as I grew up and realized adults didn’t have all the answers. Reality didn’t match up with the idea in my head of what the world should be. There was something that took me a long time to realize. Everyone you walk by today is just figuring it out and playing along. They’re trying their best to control as many outcomes as they can but the bulk of it is out of their hands. It’s liberating to know that you’re not alone in struggling on a daily basis. We’re all flawed and frightened, so relax if you’re not perfect. You don’t have to be worried that you’re the only one with these insecurities because we’re all just as lost as you are!

    Kids learn from adults most times but it works so well the other way too. There was an eight-year old boy named Danny Keefe who was getting bullied by some kids at an elementary school in Boston. He was being made fun of because he had a speech disorder called apraxia. Kids can be cruel with their words and can really destroy a person’s self-confidence. They see an easy target and they unleash hell. But…

    Watch the video below and tell me what you see:

    How many adults would do what these kids did? How many of us would band together to defend someone who was getting harassed? My guess is that we’d probably hang back and hope the problem resolves itself. We’d cross our fingers hoping that the issue will go away through some sort of divine intervention. Maybe we’ll tattle if we’re worried enough. Often we hear adults saying that “kids don’t know better” but that’s not true. Kids are capable of amazing things and we adults can learn a thing or two from them. So why do we give age so much credit?

    Now at 70 there’s still a kid in me. When my friends and I get together we behave like kids, pulling practical jokes on each other. We joke about the stupid and crazy things we had done during our college days. But the fear of death never entered our conversation because we understand this fear of death is often the fear of not living on our own terms. We have accomplished and seen our dreams come true. At this point of our life, we just want to lay back and count our blessings. We want to spend quality time with the people we enjoy being around, for who we spend our time with matters! We try new things, new food. We challenge ourselves. Most of all, we keep active and engaged with positive activities. If there is something that really rankles us – do something about it! If we have unfinished business – take care of it! If we have someone we need to speak with – make the call! The more we embrace life, the less frightened we feel about giving it up when the time comes!

    Is this wisdom? I don’t know. All I know is my group is a group of fortunate old men/women who do not have to worry where to sleep and where the next meal coming from. I know there are many old people in America whose social security check is not enough to pay rent and put food on the table. They need help like medicaid, housing and food stamp programs. They might see things differently and think differently. Trump budget is going to cut them off to pay the group like mine. Does my concern for these poor old people make me a leftist? Who is indecent and uncompassionate, Trumpanzee Shiou or I?

  3. With old age comes the sudden realisation that your pension fund has been stolen…and the health care you paid for to be looked after is no more…

  4. Dean Johns has a postmodern psyche (soul) which eschews the concept of an immortal soul and thus God, religion and creeds and doctrines. Yet, i would bet he believes in Money, Nation and Ideology. As all atheists or agnostics are won’t to do. He doubts wisdom and ultimately all that he perceives. He exercises his right to nihilism and questions his purpose, for which the classical philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle will see as a symptom of an ‘unfulfilled life’ (as Din mentions). I don’t know him at all except through his writings and am unable to substantiate his humanism, which is the new religion of the information age..

    Reality can be categorized in many ways but essentially falls into 3 broad streams of ‘Truth’:
    1. Objective reality – things that exist independent of our beliefs and feelings, like the laws of nature e.g gravity, energy..;
    2. Subjective reality – personal beliefs, emotions and feelings i.e experiences;
    3. Intrasubjective of Fictional realities – like the value of the Dollar, Nationalism, Religion etc – the value of which is ascertained by the delusion of the masses. This is by far the most tangible result of our ‘Imagination’ and the Memes that shape our attitudes.

    Now, Wisdom by it’s very definition, requires a personal, but definitive amalgamation of all these ‘realities’ into a holistic system of ‘Be-ing’. As we approach our end (telos), we are either terrified, anxious, resigned and so on – but we are never apathetic. Cynicism, skepticism and all the other ‘-isms’ do nothing to impinge on Wisdom once acquired.

    Btw, Wisdom, like virtue and ethics cannot earned. It has to be acquired firstly by knowledge, experience and then a good deal of introspection, humility and self determination.

    Doubting the existence of an immortal soul is good – but only up to a point, the rest is a ‘leap of faith’. For those so inclined:

    • Amen, @CLF. Dean, I came to realize ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ is in no conflict with ”wonder is the beginning of wisdom”. A huge part of that ‘fear’ for me is ‘awe’ which includes ‘wonder’. Also, the Roman 14 chapter is titled ‘The Weak and the Strong’. It lends support to all of the ‘healthy’ doubt a Christian should have. Hopefully, wisdom of age could see the point CLF and I are trying to convey.
      Over the weak, I have spent my holidays with parents at the Adriatic Seas visiting the craddle of Western Civilization, including Delos, Olympiad and Athens. It is an irony that craddle of democracy has gone through all extreme forms of polity, and is still not doing too well. For today’s Athens, too much democracy is killing it today. It is also an irony that we get to read about Plato’s Republic thanks to the Arabs who kept the writings safe. Yet, some of today’s Muslims don’t want ‘democracy’.

  5. We learn with age and through experience. As a kid we got burned touching a hot pot or kettle and we learn to be cautious of anything hot. Its wisdom acquired through experience. We also learn based on life experience. However its not the same as wisdom. As we develop our faculties in thinking and reasoning we begin to make better decision and often times we equate this with wisdom. This is true in deciding about monetary decision or investment but often times false in love.

    In politics we grow wise of promises of the politicians who promise everything under the sun just to get elected. Yet we foolishly elect them thinking that they will change over time but time and time again we get disappointed and we grow cynical. Ask the everyday folks if BN candidates will deliver their promises and the answer will be an astounding NO. However these same candidates will win the election, not because of lack of wisdom of the old folks but because these candidates win with the younger voters. The older folks have become wiser and chose differently. Not sure if there’s a study done, just my thoughts.

    Usually wisdom comes with age but for some age came alone.

  6. True for most people.
    Doubtful in the case of those with serious personality disorders
    (narcissists tend to get worse with age), the “ethically-challenged” (like our
    kleptocrats), many religious and political extremists (Osama bin Laden; example of political extremists jumping from radical left to radical right – Mussolini, David Horowitz)

  7. Wayne, i’m in my early 60’s but still feel compelled to bullshit. Statement like yours don’t edify us. Surely you can do better than that.. You are only as ‘old’ as you think you are.

    Here’s to us:

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