The pursuit of wisdom consumed my life. In high school I dedicated myself to reading every important or influential book. I read Plato, Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Machiavelli, Hardy, Eliot, Hemingway, Hesse, Orwell, Steinbeck, even Albom. Anything a friend or teacher recommended, I mentally devoured, so eager I was for knowledge.
College was a time of exploration. I took classes that were intriguing and challenging, earning the maximum number of credits each semester. I double majored in philosophy and communications, with a minor in history. I participated in clubs and attended lectures, trying to get as much as I could out of my privileged situation. But after four years, I decided that I’d had enough school.
I decided to travel, hoping that that could teach me something of wisdom that staying in one place surely couldn’t. Over the next few years I visited every continent except Antarctica. I learned languages, customs, traditions. I went to museums, temples, monuments, and landmarks. The vastness of the world staggered me, but I was determined to understand it all.
Everywhere I went I sought out teachers: famous authors, professors, holy men, figures of authority. Whether it was a brief contact or a full out interview, I listened and absorbed all I could. I was on a quest for wisdom, and every little tidbit helped.
I met many people during my travels, famous or otherwise, and tried to get their perspectives, their outlooks. Pope John Paul II spoke of faith, the Dalai Lama, of kindness. I sat in the audience at a J.K. Rowling interview, and she surprised me by not equating money with happiness. I stood outside of Salinger’s house and listened to the silent “You are not welcome,” wondering what he knew that no one else did.
But everything I learned, everything people said or wrote or insinuated, wasn’t enough. There were too many contradictions, too many biases, too many flaws in logic. I thought that if I looked hard enough I could find wisdom, but so far I hadn’t been rewarded.
At times, I thought I’d done it. Sometimes, during an interview, or a lecture, or a sight-seeing foray, I would come upon a new idea, a revelation, a new secret exposed to my curious inquiries, and it would cause me to pause and say “Ah ha!” It always seemed perfectly obvious, the true meaning of life, the true source of wisdom. I would revel in the moment of completeness, of a journey ended well. Just for that moment I would be content. That is, until I began to think about it. And the deeper I thought, the more the new postulation crumbled; it fell apart upon closer scrutiny.
After the years of travel, I came home, empty-pocketed and empty-handed. The real despair hit me then. Because now I had nothing to turn to, nothing to further my quest. I was alone in my apartment, living a day-to-day mundane existence. My discontent, my hunger for wisdom, consumed me, made me hollow. Nothing seemed to offer the answers I sought. I was on the verge of giving up.
But then one day I opened the newspaper and saw the byline, “World’s Oldest Man Turns 116 Today.” And I had an idea then, a new spark of hope. My curiosity couldn’t be quenched so quickly, so easily, by thoughts of despair. I resolved then and there that I would meet this man. For if age brings wisdom, wouldn’t this man by default be the wisest in the world? Now, I knew it didn’t necessarily work that way. Still, a man of that age had probably experienced a lot and would know something that all the others I had talked to hadn’t. Perhaps it would be something to unify all the theories swirling around in my head. It was worth a shot. I contacted the newspaper and called him that very day. The appointment was set. As I packed my bags for this latest trip, the exhilaration of new opportunities pulsed through my veins. It was anticipation that usually led to disappointment, but maybe this time…
The taxi pulled up to a small cottage, a country home surrounded by trees and gardens. A low fence surrounded the property, less to keep anything out than to look picturesque. A winding stone path led up to the front door from the quaint wooden gate.
I looked at the home for a moment, pondering. I didn’t quite know what to expect.
But I’d been through this routine before. I paid the driver and stepped out onto the dusty road. With a deep breath I pushed open the gate and walked slowly toward the house, my shoes clicking on the flagstone path.
As I was about to knock, the door opened and I was faced suddenly with the man I had read about in the newspaper. The old face that peered back at me was lined with so many wrinkles it was hard to call them wrinkles at all; it was just the texture of his skin. Wisps of white hair stuck out sporadically from the top of the otherwise bald head as if they hadn’t been barbered in quite some time, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. The man’s thin lips were slightly parted and drawn up at the corners. But the eyes were what caught me and held me in place. They were pools of dark brown, deep and mysterious, but also with a glint of what might have been cheerfulness or joy. But I couldn’t study the old man longer, it would’ve been rude.
“Hello, I’m the one who called about an interview…” I began.
“Why, of course you are. I’ve been expecting you,” the old man replied, smiling. The voice was slightly airy but easily understood. The man took a step back, opening up the doorway, “Welcome, welcome. Won’t you come in?”
I nodded to the old man and stepped into the house. The walls of the short hallways were totally covered in framed photos, some in black and white, some in color and obviously recent. I didn’t have time to study them closely as I was escorted down the hall into a small sitting room, but they did assure me. The man must have had a full life; he would have something to say worth listening to.
“Won’t you sit down?” the old man asked, offering an old cushioned chair near an empty fireplace. I accepted the invitation and sat on the edge of my seat as the old man slowly made his way to a similar chair positioned opposite me. The man took his time to lower himself onto the cushioned seat, then gave a contented sigh and leaned back.
I waited patiently for a moment, making sure the man was settled, then spoke up, “I’m sorry to intrude like this. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here.”
“Oh, not at all. I always get a few visitors after my birthday every year. People read about me in the paper and are curious. Want to ask a few questions from the “world’s oldest man.” Don’t be sorry. I enjoy the visits.” The old man smiled encouragingly.
Taken slightly off guard by the man’s quick and accurate assessment, I struggled to find a way to begin. “So, I was just wondering… I guess first I’d like to know what it’s like to be the world’s oldest man?”
“Not so different from being any old man. It’s just I get the title.” Again, the old man’s eyes twinkled. He was enjoying this.
I scrambled for another question, “You live here alone?”
“Yes. Surprising I know. But I enjoy my independence. And I can still walk and talk and feed myself, so I think that I’m at least being reasonable in my stubbornness. Although even if I couldn’t do any of those things I probably would still be here. This is my home and it’s a part of me. One thing about being old, you kind of get stuck in your ways.”
“You don’t seem all that old to me.”
“Except the wrinkles, right?” he laughed, a slightly wheezy sound now, but I imagined that it used to be full and hearty, “I get that a lot. Again, I’ll tell you I’m stubborn. I’m not about to let my body go to pieces. My wits either. I try and keep them both exercised and I don’t have many problems.”
“That’s incredible,” I complimented, truly impressed by his insightfulness and quick wit.
“No, I think it’s fairly simple actually. Well, there’s also the factor of luck. I haven’t had anything too horrible happen to me. No accidents, no diseases, no hardships. That’ll account for most of my longevity I think. Just plain old luck of the draw. I’m not complaining.”
“So…” I deliberated for a moment, then decided it was okay to be blunt, “Since you already know why I’m here, I guess I’ll ask the question: what has your old age taught you?”
“That people really are intrigued by old age.” Again the man laughed, long and airily.
I hadn’t expected that response, “I don’t know if I understand.”
“I’ll try and explain. But really, it’s the reason you’re here. It’s the reason I was in the newspaper in the first place, which I’m guessing was the inspiration for your phone call and visit today. It’s even the reason the newspaper had to report on my birthday.”
The old man paused, apparently gathering his thoughts.
“Old age is a strange concept to the young.”
“Not really…” I began, but he cuts me off.
“Oh you may know something about the condition. You may know some old people. But you really don’t understand it.”
“Alright,” I conceded, “Sorry, go on.”
He gave me a knowing smile and continued, “I think it’s because old age has multiple associations. The oldest members of a family are loved and respected, all the grandparents and great aunts and such. The “little old lady” is also a cute concept. But nursing homes are looked at with foreboding. And the ideas of dementia and the return to diapers always haunt the minds of the young and healthy.
“But more than that there is the stereotype, the common conception,” At this, the old man looked me directly in the eye, “That old people, as a result of being old, are therefore wise.”
I opened my mouth, trying to form an appropriate response, “Well, I mean, you see sir…”
The old man smiled and leaned forward, “I didn’t mean to fluster you, son. It’s not a horrible accusation, really. You’re stereotyping, but at least not in a derogatory way. There really are worse people out there, and worse misconceptions.”
“Well, I’m sure it seems like a type of stereotype if you put it that way, a cultural theme, but I don’t believe you should dismiss it because of that. It’s not age that brings wisdom, its experience, correct? And the longer you live, the more experiences you have.”
“Ah…” the old man responded, “I enjoy a good philosophical debate. Don’t get many of them, living out here alone and all. But let’s see here.”
The man paused, perhaps going over what I had said, “Well, maybe you’re right,” he mused, “But the thing is, I don’t know if I buy into that idea of “wisdom.” It seems kind of gimmicky to me.”
I was taken slightly aback by this comment, but I was growing more intrigued by the moment. “Gimmicky, how so?”
“I don’t think wisdom is something that can be found. It can’t be gained. It can’t be learned. It can’t be obtained. It just seems intangible to me.”
“But many things in life are ‘intangible’ as you put it. Love, truth, morality, justice. Does that make them gimmicky?” I was getting excited, not in an accusatory way, but an intellectually stimulated way. It was nice to have found someone else interested in the same topic.
“Ahh… you’ve caught me there. But doesn’t your definition of wisdom seek a way to unify all these things? Isn’t that what you’re looking for? I don’t know if you can just lump together everything. All your so-called experiences, all your emotions, all those abstract ideas you listed, they somehow come together to create wisdom? I don’t buy it.”
“Still, there is such thing as wisdom.”
“Yes. But not, I think, how you see it.”
“Well then, how do I see it?” This was going well; better than expected.
He didn’t respond; instead, he stopped and looked me in the eyes. I held the gaze for a moment, then had to look down. He shook his head, “Ah, I know your type. You are looking for answers.”
“What’s so wrong with that?” I asked, genuinely confused.
“Nothing. Curiosity can be useful. I just don’t want you to become enamored with my explanations.”
I opened my mouth to defend myself, but he cut me off, “You expect me to say something profound and you will find some deep meaningful theme in my words. You expect me to tell you the story of my life and learn something from my experiences. You expect me to suggest things to try, books to read, and those will get you closer to ‘wisdom’ and the ‘meaning of life.’ But it doesn’t work like that.”
I couldn’t help myself, “How does it work?”
“See, that’s not the question you should be asking. If you needed a question, you should have asked why the way I just described doesn’t work.”
“Okay. Why doesn’t that work?”
“Because it goes back to the idea of old age, the idea of stereotypes.”
“I don’t follow.”
He smiled knowingly, eyes twinkling fiercely, “Because that is assuming that I am wise because I am old. That is assuming that leaders are wise because they are leaders, monks are wise because they are monks, ideas in books are wise because they were written down. It doesn’t work like that.”
I reflected on that for a moment, then hesitantly asked, “Now can I ask how it should work?”
An amused grin crossed his face, accentuating his already prominent wrinkles. “My, my, you are curious. Fine, I’ll give you an opinion. But it is only that, one man’s opinion.”
I nodded eagerly.
He sighed, shaking his head, then began, “Well, I believe that wisdom doesn’t come from experience, from books, from positions of authority. The wisdom that is out there, it comes and goes. Everyone has insights, ideas, feelings. And these are all parts of wisdom. We gain, we lose, we grow, we digress. Wisdom does the same. I was once a wiser man than I am now. Perhaps I will be wiser at some point in the future, though I don’t know how much of that I have left. My point is that wisdom isn’t relegated to one person or one time; it belongs to everyone in some way or another. There is no “wise” man or woman, there are just millions of people out there with wisdom in them. And really, they won’t know when they’ve found it and they won’t know when it’s gone. It just is.”
I sat speechless. Because if this man was right, then my lifelong search seemed like folly. All those people, books, places, things, the years of alternating despair and hope. And all that I had to do was stop looking?
Suddenly the old man laughed, less airy, more strong and throaty. His eyes twinkled as he laughed, caught up in his own personal joke. A tear rolled down his cheek as he collected himself and said, “Well, what do I know anyway?”