January 28, 2009 / 6:34 PM / 10 years ago

Old people's wisdom, for everybody else

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a quest to define what wisdom means, how to get it and what to do once it’s found author Henry Alford spent a year talking with old people, including his mother, then wrote a book about it.

The result, “How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth),” mixes travelogue, family memoir and elaborate character sketches..

On his quest, Alford met a woman who walked across the United States, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, and a man in Malibu, California, who takes recycling to extremes. He also talked with actress Sylvia Miles, literary critic Harold Bloom, and playwright Edward Albee.

Woven through the book is the story of Alford’s own family, after his mother’s decision to divorce her husband and move to Raleigh, North Carolina — at the age of 79.

Reuters spoke to the 46-year-old author about aging baby boomers, self discovery and honing survival instincts.

Q: Did you come to a conclusion as to what defines wisdom?

A: “It’s such a slippery topic, it’s like sculpting with mashed potatoes. There are about 9 million definitions, but you can talk about five general principles — reciprocity, doubt, non-attachment, working for the social good, and discretion. I never point-blank say wisdom is this, because it’s so many things.”

Q: With the aging of the Baby Boom generation, is this a good time to start paying more attention to older people?

A: “Yes. It’s a shame that all the people who really know how to run the world are busy cutting hair or driving taxicabs. We’ve sort of left old folks by the wayside, they’re like this big brain trust that no one taps. It’s their time again.”

Q: You cite research that describes a process of disengagement as old people face death. But the people you profile suggest just the opposite, that part of wisdom is re-engaging with one’s surroundings.

A: “That’s my point. The third part of one’s life is potentially as important a time for self-discovery as childhood or middle age, though not everybody takes advantage of it. I was amazed when I found all these examples of stuff people had done after the age of 70. Joan Didion and Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy are doing the best work of their lives.”

Q: You point out that the human species is one of the few that lives past the age of reproduction. Is there a biological purpose for that, or does something else explain it?

A: “Man is responsible for that. Through medicine and through eradicating our predators, we have given ourselves more lifetime. In the 20th century, we added three decades to the average life expectancy. That’s the irony of aging, that man has given himself the opportunity to have macular degeneration and hip problems and all these medical ailments.”

Q: Some of the portraits you draw are of famous people who turn out to be rather eccentric characters, in some cases downright unpleasant. What did you learn from them?

A: “When I set out to interview these people, the one thing I didn’t want to hear is cliches like, ‘It’s all about family.’ I didn’t want people to get all lovey-dovey. Harold Bloom was the one person I allowed (to say) he has profound respect for his wife. It’s so not what you expect from an intellectual. Bloom brings such an intellectual acuity to the question of wisdom, he can recite thousands of lines of poetry from any era. He brought a lot of context.

“(Edward) Albee is totally ornery. He’s so flinty in person that the need for specificity is something I took away.”

Q: Before the financial crisis, people in their 30s and 40s never really had to face a challenge like Vietnam, World War Two, or the Great Depression. What can we learn about dealing with adversity from people who lived through tough times?

A: “They’ve honed their survival instincts in ways that young people haven’t had to. They can teach us the value of patience and humility. That sounds so sappy, but really it’s a question of waiting things out and making do with whatever reduced circumstances you find yourself in.”

Reporting by Nick Zieminski; editing by Patricia Reaney

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