By Qin Sun Stubis
If you are seeking a wise man for advice, who would you pick: A sparkly-eyed youngster with his whole life ahead of him, or, a white-bearded one, having lived more than three quarters of a century? For those who believe that “wisdom comes with age,” your choice would be quite apparent.
By tradition, cultures value their elders’ viewpoints, especially in Asia where I came from: If I didn’t know what to do, I could always ask my parents, or someone older for help. The assumption is that as we age, we accumulate the experiences to make better judgments and decisions.
Raised in China, I was taught to listen and obey those senior to me, whether in school, at work or home. I witnessed many older people winning arguments simply because of their age. “I can’t be wrong,” the older one usually shouted with pride. “I’ve consumed more salt than the rice you’ve eaten!” While we don’t normally brag about getting old, we certainly don’t mind becoming wiser and more respected.
Before long, it was my turn to become a mother and be a giver of wisdom. But I had little time to enjoy my new status before I realized that my accumulation of salt didn’t turn me into a savant of any sort. On the contrary, by staying home, I was learning a lot from my children. “The world has more than three dimensions,” my son once told me with confidence when he was just three. “I’ve counted. I think it has twelve….” Honestly, I had never contemplated that subject. Maybe he is right. Maybe we’ll discover the other dimensions, I thought. His young mind stretched my imagination and I felt somehow wiser through him.
In recent years, I’ve observed more and more youngsters around the world gaining national and international fame in math, science, medicine, and art before they reach puberty. Some were barely 13 when they graduated from college, composed a concerto or created theorems–things that a lot of us can never imagine achieving during our lifetime.
Will these child prodigies get smarter with age? What if they stop learning one day? How can we accurately assess and compare human intelligence? I have more questions than answers. I’ve also thought about smart people making poor decisions, which happens pretty often. Does that make them less intelligent?
Maybe being modest while keeping a keen and open mind is the key with which we can all grow older and wiser. I thought about my late friend Shirley Asnis who took classes until the end of her life. She was in her mid 80s and never stopped pursuing knowledge. She was definitely growing older and wiser. We may not be able to change how smart we are, but we can certainly improve our minds with time and effort at any age.
You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Qin Stubis is a regular columnist in The Santa Monica Star.