A couple of words we could all stand to hear more often

There's a lovely word that has been in existence for more than a thousand years, but I don't hear it used very often. Offering it up to describe someone is a high compliment. When it's used to describe a decision or an intended action, you're comforted — at least I am.

The word is "wise." It seems to have gone missing. It doesn't accurately depict many of the actions taken by elected leaders — no matter what your political leanings. It doesn't seem to naturally pop up in conversation unless you're talking about your great-grandfather who homesteaded in North Dakota or someone like Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama.

A recent piece in the New York Times titled, "The Science of Older and Wiser" (March 14, 2014), prompts me to ponder this and ask you to do the same. The well-researched article indicates wisdom is "one of the most important qualities one can possess to age successfully" — particularly at the point in life when we face physical decline and near-death.

Before I go on, let me qualify what I just said. There is indeed some wisdom out there. The folks in Portland who made the decision to use the term "honored citizen" to generate tickets for aging adults riding the light rail — wise move. Whoever concluded that Medicare should totally cover the cost of colonoscopies — very wise. (Did you know that colon cancer has been reduced by 30 percent over the last decade because more people have gotten colonoscopies?) The considerations currently underway on developing a pill containing all the health benefits present in dark chocolate — minus the fat and sugar — is something akin to wise. The jury is still out on that one.

So what is wisdom? One geriatric neuropsychologist studying it for decades, Dr. Vivian Clayton, describes wisdom as consisting of the interplay between "cognition (brain function), mental reflection and compassion."

Our aging brains contain a lot of information, and although it might take longer to extract information as we age, the insights and perceptions we get from doing that (the reflective dimension) can be used to understand and help ourselves and others (the compassionate dimension). Other researchers at the Stanford Center on Longevity suggest real wisdom involves a "reduction in self-centeredness."

"You're not focusing so much on what you need and deserve, but what you can contribute." Think about that.

Isabella S. Bick, an 80-something, still-practicing psychotherapist who reportedly resists her own aging process and yearns for youth, puts it this way: The wisest among us demonstrate "an acceptance of aging — not a resigned acceptance, an embracing acceptance."

There was something particularly unexpected in the New York Times article that caught my attention. Apparently, people in nursing homes with a terminal illness, when tested about their feelings and perceptions using a wisdom scale developed by Dr. Monika Ardelt at the University of Florida (www.wisdompage.com/WisdomResearchers/MonikaArdelt.html), "score high on wisdom and well-being." I interpret that to mean: If things are really bad, it's better to be thoughtfully insightful, self-reflective and, might I say, "kind," to self and others. "Kind" — now there's another word that could be used more often.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.

Share This Story