There is a quip I remember, but I have no idea who said it: to have knowledge is to know that a tomato is a fruit; to have wisdom is to not put it in a fruit salad.
It is not fashionable these days to describe oneself or others as old. Why is this so? When did age become something to be ashamed of, and something to be embarrassed about?
Why, if we are accused of being old before our time, or of thinking like an old person, do we apologise?
In the past, it was seen as an honourable state, conferring wisdom and deserving respect. In the distant past, or even in the present in the few cases where it is still relevant, among hunter-gatherer groups or foraging bands, there was an implied oligarchy of age, a “gerontocracy”, if you like.
It was both the strength and the weakness of such societies. On the one hand, the culture and history was preserved, old people were considered to be, and were, wise through a lifetime of experience and learning. They were the custodians of the culture, the arbiters of taste and usefulness. On the other hand, because the elders’ job was to protect the past and apply it to the present, nothing ever changed.
Fred and Frederina in their cave, or by their fires, or roaming through their ancestral land, saw no point in changing things. They did not study the future, and so invented no business consultancies or marketing departments. They did not re-brand the flint axe, or call themselves “stone operatives”.
These future-orientated inventions and ideas are, understandably, the province of the young, for they are the ones who might benefit from them. Left to themselves, old people would never have invented the internet, or mobile phones or Ofsted, the official body in the UK that inspects schools and ensures they all follow government policy, whatever that happens to be at the time.
At the moment, we seem to be in a period of what could be called “futurocracy”, in which society is organised in relation to what might or might not happen in the future. The media’s lifeblood is a studio full of pundits and forecasters with graphs and extrapolations.
95% of scientists forecast man-made planetary catastrophe, but 5% are not convinced, so we all have to say the jury’s out on climate change. We don’t submit like this to the loonies who still say the earth is flat. We don’t doubt evolution because some people think everything was created 4,000 years ago.
So, as we are no longer hunter-gatherers, despite the evidence to the contrary of Black Friday shopping, some kind of compromise is sorely needed. We still need the future-orientated people and projects, although don’t let us kid ourselves that this has anything to do with any so-called evolution of society towards a better way of organising things, for that’s the equivalent of marketing-speak, and just leads to the hell of the shopping mall and economy-class travel. It’s just that we need to accept and use the energy of the young.
As well as this, you won’t be surprised to hear me say, we need to accept and use the experience and wisdom of the old.
Needless to say, if we’re going to accept this, it is a fundamental responsibility of the old to get themselves wise! Heed the advice of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the only sane character in a world gone mad, who says to the despairing Lear, “Thou shouldst not have grown old before thou hadst grown wise” – or something along those lines.
King Lear is a warning to us all. It is a sadistic and arrogant world where the rulers seek to cut and cut, just for the sake of exercising power. (Sound familiar?) When Lear is asked why he needs so many knights in his retinue, he cries out in utter bewilderment at the culture of benefit cuts, “Argue not the need!”
It is a world in which old people, like Lear, have abdicated the responsibility of age and power, or, like the Duke of Gloucester, have been foolishly or wilfully blind to reality. The power has been taken by the young and energetic, and there is no elder to restrain their greed and loveless economic system.
We all need to know and accept when we have made the transition from middle-aged to old, then make damn sure we know the difference between wisdom and knowledge, between understanding the world and exploiting it.
So here are a few tips to help you know when it is happening to you. Keep these tips handy on your bedside table, for, however much surgery you have, it will happen to you one day, and, before you can say “Stocks and Shares” you will be facing Death, and you will be unprepared and frightened.
These, then, are the early signs of ageing.
You will start to appreciate foods like Brussel sprouts, olives and blue cheese. You will start to pretend to like and be knowledgeable about wine and single malt whisky.
The human world will start to feel too fast and too noisy, and you will start to obsess about the damage you did to your eardrums when you were young. Personally, I blame Pink Floyd concerts for any loss of hearing I notice.
We find ourselves liking and seeking out silence. We start to understand why Dad used to keep shouting up the stairs, “Turn that music down!” We might find ourselves shouting it to our own children.
We will describe contemporary pop music as noise, or tuneless, or not as good as it was in the sixties, and, despite our advancing deafness, we become increasingly intolerant of the thumping bass line of amplified music.
You will start to change radio stations. Honestly, you will. The first change is to Radio 2, where the music will sound more familiar and comforting. Then you’ll try Classic fm, where you might stay till the smug bastards in the adverts send your blood pressure through the roof.
You might dabble with Radio 3 for a bit, to try to get a music fix without adverts, but eventually the old and addicted listener will end up in Radio 4. Even Radio 4 has its recreational users and its hard core addicts. You might start with the occasional Saturday Live or Loose Ends, but, as sure as eggs is eggs, you’ll wake up one morning after a heavy session of The Archers, muttering “Never again”, but it’s too late. You’re old, and you care about David and Ruth Archer’s farm and Linda Snell’s Christmas Pantomime.
Just accept what has happened to you, and try to learn from it. It happens to everybody. You’re nothing special.