I’m not so sure. But if so, I suspect the process doesn’t work the way we usually think. If time produces wisdom, it’s not because time allows us to see and experience new things, although it certainly does. It’s often because time gives us the chance to experience the same thing over and over, but from a different point of view each time.
I watch my parents as they laugh with their grandchildren and now great-grandchildren, and am thankful that all of them, the old and the young, have been granted this time in which to know each other. It’s a special thing. The elders are the roots of the family tree, the youngsters its fruit, and seeing one physically connected to the other offers a reassuring sense of completion. That’s life as it ought to be and too often isn’t.
There’s also something unique about the relationship between young and old, in part maybe because they treat time in much the same way. They are more at peace with the passing of time than the rest of us, the young out of ignorance and the old out of knowledge. They just let time happen, while those of us in the harried middle insist that it be put to productive use “doing something.”
On the other hand, it’s also true that time compresses as we age; the passing of a year is an eternity to the young but a flash to the old, much as a dollar is nothing to a millionaire, but to a hungry man it is a fortune. What time teaches most of all is that time itself is the greatest gift.
I look at my own children, now grown, and I appreciate the time that I’ve been given to see them grow into adults and make their own ways in the world. You know as I know that not everybody gets that good luck. The allotment of time is kind to some, cruel to many others, and all for reasons that are completely arbitrary.
But what I appreciate most about the passing of time is that it allows us to shift roles. No feat of imagination can allow a 13-year-old to see the world through the eyes of her 40-year-old mother or those of her 65-year-old grandmother. It’s just not possible. But that same 13-year-old can look at her six-year-old cousin on Christmas morning, and for a few moments, she can again see the world through six-year-old eyes. She can still remember what it was like to believe in Santa Claus, and she might also regret, just a little, the sense of wonder that she lost once that knowledge was gained. She has grown wiser.
Her mother, meanwhile, looks and knows what her daughter still cannot. She knows that at 13, her daughter’s exchange of innocence for wisdom has just begun. In the next few years, the mother will again experience the trauma of adolescence, but this time from an entirely different perspective. Through that process, she will learn a lot about herself and understand a lot more about her own mother as well.
And Grandma? She has seen it all, through the eyes of the six-year -old, the 13-year-old, the 40-year-old and now through those of the family matriarch.
It’s that shifting perspective from which wisdom is distilled. You can’t read about it; it can’t be taught. It is a gift only time can bestow.