Elder Wisdom
By Caroline Bassett, PhD, The Wisdom Institute

Editor's note: Caroline Bassett, PhD, is founder and director of The Wisdom Institute which helps people move more intentionally toward wisdom in their organizations, communities, and lives through research, conversation, writing, and giving talks and seminars. She also teaches at two distance learning universities and is a certified Master Gardener and avid tango dancer.

You can view the website of TWI at www.wisdominst.org, and Carrie can be reached at cbassett@wisdominst.org.


Recently, on a trip East from my home in Minnesota, my sister and I visited a 101-year-old friend of the family, an exemplar of elder wisdom, who lives in rural Massachusetts. Aunt Jane, as we called her (not her real name and some details have been changed to protect her privacy, but she really is 101 years old) ruefully acknowledged that she has to use a walker now and a hearing aid that she hates. She lives alone, drives, uses e-mail, and when we saw her, she was writing an article for the local newspaper. My sister Katherine and I asked a lot of questions — pumped Aunt Jane — about family friends from the old days of 30, 40, and even 50 years ago — and about herself. As I told her, when you’re a kid, the grown-ups are just there, like a kitchen table, with no intrinsic interest of their own. It’s only when you are older yourself that you see the growns as individuals and become curious about them.

Aunt Jane has an astonishing memory, remembering the facts of what happened and keeping the thread of the story strong and clear, avoiding side-tracking herself with other tidbits of interest. She remembered that the son of friends had been exempt from the service in World War II because he did spectroscopic analyses of cargo. And she remembered the names of the three wives of this man’s brother, the last of whom was a “long-faced doleful lady and the love of his life.”

What makes her so remarkable a specimen? It was not only that she has her health, that she never complained or even mentioned her aches and pains and resentments, that she lacked self-pity, that she talked frankly, openly, and uncritically about the people we asked after. It was that she was demonstrating what wisdom looks like.

My definition of wisdom

Let me put here my definition of wisdom so that we can work from it as we look at Aunt Jane and her life. Wisdom is having sufficient awareness in a context or situation to behave in a manner most likely to produce outcomes that are satisfactory for all involved, including the biosphere. I’ll talk about each of the three key elements of the definition separately: sufficient awareness, certain behaviors, and satisfactory outcomes.

First, in her stories Aunt Jane simply recounted the facts as she recalled them, without denigrating anyone so that she would look better. She knows that it (“it” being the world) is not about her. If she has any, old anger and resentments did not appear (although I wanted to ask if there is anyone she could not forgive, but I didn’t get the chance).

Besides the factual recounting, it was clear that she had deeply cared about these people. Caring about others is a central component of wisdom, along with — paradoxically, it may seem — detachment and the ability to see clearly and unemotionally what’s going on.

Second, the behaviors that can lead to the desirable outcomes for her include her emotional resiliency and coping with adversity, two qualities where elders have an edge on youngers. For example, she has survived an alcoholic husband (since he was 19!) and two brothers and three sisters, all younger, one of whom had tuberculosis and had to have a lung removed. Her parents did not speak to each other for 20 years because of an argument they had. Other behaviors include not holding grudges or feeling superior.

And these lead to the third part of the definition, satisfactory outcomes. Yes, as a Quaker, she has done some work for peace, but I am talking about something else, something smaller and more intimate. In this town a whole group of people has coalesced around her. Instead of being invisible as a lot of older people are in this culture, it is clear that the town cherishes her. She has created community. A year ago when she turned 100, several birthday parties were held for her, one of which was a surprise that took place at a local winery with a maximum capacity of 40–50. Seventy people showed up. Each Labor Day for the last five years she has been holding a picnic on the farm that has been in her family for 298 years. (Yes, this number is accurate. The family “acquired” the land after King Philip’s War.) Thirty or forty people attend these picnics, and I am planning to attend next year.

Her wisdom, though she would not acknowledge it, is, I believe, to create a gentle community. No, she doesn’t “create” it intentionally. It happens around her, and she honors and sustains it. Community is people being together, knowing and supporting each other.

The story of Aunt Jane is to give you an example of wisdom on a homey scale, the kind that you and I are likely to be part of or create. Wisdom doesn’t have to be WISDOM, a huge earth-changing thing. It can be small, local, and quiet.

The wisdom of elders

Just because you are an elder doesn’t mean you’re wise. Just because you are smart doesn’t mean you are wise either. We all know people who are really intelligent, but they just aren’t wise, either in the sense of prudence (not running a red light) or in the sense of insight, that is, having an idea of what’s a Good Thing Now and In The Long Term. We also know senior citizens who are just as stubborn or ignorant as they always were.

So, what does make you wise? But first, what is wise, anyway? Again, here’s my definition: Wisdom is having sufficient awareness of the context or situation to behave in a manner most likely to produce satisfactory outcomes for all involved. The satisfactory outcomes are considered the common good, on a large or small scale. If I tell people I will invest their money so that they will receive a brilliant yield and I do so for a while, but my name is Bernard Madoff and I was really doing it for my own gain without any benefit in mind to you at all, then this is not the common good. If, however, we raise money to get new books for a library, this activity has something for everybody. Narrow self-interest is not the common good, but neither is saintly self-sacrifice. The common good serves the commons.

How do people get to be wise?

How do people get to be able to have this kind of awareness to know how and when to act to get the desirable results? One main way is to be older. Elders have more life experience and have seen things come up and go down. We have seen the consequences of certain actions and know that some choices usually end up better than others. We know that certain things simply work better than others. Maybe you can get away with running stop signs a few times, but sooner or later (probably) you’ll get caught or be in a wreck or hurt someone else. It’s just not a good idea to be a scofflaw in some things. Having seen some friends of my parents die of lung cancer from smoking, I can say that not smoking works better than smoking.

Besides life experience and seeing consequences of actions, being able to regulate emotions can lead to wisdom. I described Aunt Jane’s emotional resiliency and generosity of spirit. A lot of elders have decided to forgive transgressions and move on. My friend’s husband had affairs and she finally divorced him, even though they had three young children, after much anger and trauma. Some time went by, and the poison that had infused her body from those years of emotional neglect and abuse seemed to drain out of her. She could talk about and meet her former husband and his girlfriend with equanimity. She told me that she had just decided to let it all go. But it took a while. I wouldn’t say that she forgave him, but she wasn’t infected any more. Even better is going to the next step and actually forgiving someone who has injured you. This is something that some elders seem able to do, when I, from where I stand, don’t see how it is possible. I hope to someday, as I move into elder wisdom.

Four kinds of wisdom

I have given several examples of wisdom and wise behavior, but they may seem all mixed together to you, minor things with major ones, small deals and big deals and really big deals. There is a difference in kinds of wisdom. In my research on wisdom, I have found four different kinds or levels of it, the difference arising with the complexity and/or the scope of the situation.


Pearls Before Swine, or prudence. Wisdom of this sort includes everyday common sense and the aphorisms and truisms that apply to it. These memorable short phrases help you through life and are usually small in scale or complexity. By that I mean that they are most often about preventing you from getting into a difficult situation, or at least an undesirable one. Here are some examples: “Don’t throw pearls before swine.” “If you see the teeth of a lion, do not think that it is smiling at you.” But this wisdom needn’t only come in previously concocted statements. It can as easily be found by simply noticing that it looks like rain today and you think you’ll take your umbrella. This is a wise thing to do because it is prudent.

As you can see, the Pearls Before Swine kind of wisdom works mostly on a personal or small-scale level and is related to being cautious so that you save your own skin. There’s another kind with which we can use our life experience and look ahead to various possible outcomes.


Ever After, or predicting consequences. This kind of wisdom derives from life experience and seeing how things play out. Elders are good at this because we have more data than youngers to go on from having seen plenty of events occur or decisions made, followed by the aftermath, for better or for worse. For example, in college I was planning on majoring in biology but my father counseled me not to for two reasons. One, I am not good at numbers, and two, I like to read novels. So I chose a French major instead, which turned out to serve me handily as I used the language in the Peace Corps in Morocco and then in travels in francophone countries. Or, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune of August 26, 2009, the CEO of Sun Country Airlines “publicly apologized and wisely offered the unfortunate passengers a refund” for six hours stuck on board waiting for a flight from New York City to take off to Minneapolis. That was thinking about consequences. If he hadn’t apologized and offered the refund, the passengers would be angry and choose another airline in the future. I expect that you can recall at least several situations where you had an idea of what the consequences might be.

On a broader level than predicting what the results of this or that action might be comes yet another kind of wisdom, the Good Thing. This kind of wisdom applies to situations with greater complexity.


A Good Thing Now and in the Future. This is wisdom on a wider scale than the other two, with more complexity involved. It is a good idea, a thing that is good to do right now and is good going into the future too. Here’s an example: eating locally. A fairly new idea, the concept of consciously eating locally makes sense because we support farmers near us, our neighbors perhaps, and because we spend less money on trucking the fruits and vegetables from far away, thus making a dent in saving the environment. Also, it just plain tastes better. It is an obvious thing to do but someone had to name it and once named, now we can use it. Another example is literacy for all. In the modern world, if you can’t read, you can’t do much or go much of anywhere. If you can read, you can get a driver’s license, and you can buy the kind of soup that you want and know if you should dilute it with a half cup of cream or three cups. It makes a difference! What kinds of Good Things can you think of?

There’s still one more kind of wisdom, the one with the greatest complexity and the widest range. I’m calling it Standing on the Mountain, or long-term perspective. Again, this is a kind of wisdom that we elder can have an edge on over youngers because we have been there, done that — and seen the whole of it.


Standing on the Mountain, or perspective. This means being able to see the whole of a thing and not merely the parts so that you can understand more about what is going on. You can see not only consequences but also patterns. You might be familiar with the Nazca Lines in Peru. On the ground they look like shallow designs made by rocks on the ground, lines that go here and there, with no discernable rhyme or reason. But if you go up the mountain (or nowadays, in a airplane) and look down, you will see figures of spiders, birds, and monkeys. So, from the distance you can see the pattern but close up it looks like random lines.

I would suggest that some of our greatest leaders have seen the Nazca Lines, so to speak. They have seen a very big pattern and have striven to create or maintain it. For Abraham Lincoln it was his fight to save the Union. That was important to him because in the mid-19th century, a representative democracy was still a relatively new experiment in methods of government. Before, there had been tribes, feudal states, and monarchies. An elected government where the minority had a strong say in what went on was new on the planet, as was a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and Lincoln was dedicated to preserving it. Another example closer to home is Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw that the current discrimination against Blacks served neither them nor the Whites nor the country, and he worked against it.

The wisdom from Aunt Jane’s Life

However, the contributions that most of us will make to satisfactory outcomes are likely to be on a smaller scale than Abraham Lincoln’s. I’m wondering about the wisdom that we can learn from Aunt Jane’s life. What I have found are these, and I would like to know what conclusions you would draw.

  1. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. See the whole picture as best you can.

  2. Connect and care. Care about other people. Don’t hold grudges, and forgive if you can. Accept people as they are. For the ones that bother you, think about what story you would tell about them when you are 101.

  3. What outcomes are you involved in that are really worthwhile? Remember, they can be small, quiet, local, and gentle. A homey scale is just fine. It makes a difference to those who take part in it.

Aunt Jane’s Parting Words

After I told Aunt Jane that I am looking forward to seeing her at the picnic next year, she said that Katherine and I should let our hair grow. I guess I’ll be doing that. Who is to gainsay a 102 year old?

Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
   This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.