“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom”. Francis Bacon
Erick Erickson’s eighth and final stage of psychological development is wisdom, yet many of us have conflicting ideas about exactly what wisdom is. According to Erikson in the last stage of human development, from approximately 65 years to death, individuals must resolve a psychological conflict between integrity and despair, which leads to wisdom.
In the US, the average life expectancy is 77.8 years, which means that we only have 12.8 years to really utilize whatever wisdom we have spent 65 years obtaining. What this means for the large majority of us is that we might be intelligent, we might be smart, but we are not wise.
Erickson’s theory does not guarantee us that with age we will become wise, because wisdom is a process not a right. So how do we become wise? According to Confucius, "By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest."
Reflection is a process of careful thought where we act on situations by reconsidering the results from our previous actions, events, and decisions. Through our ability to reflect we gain clarity in our motives and can expect certain results, which are hopefully more favorable than the previous time we were in similar situations. This is considered the noblest method because it potentially creates high ideals and excellent moral character internally.
Imitation is our ability to use someone else as a model. This is something we are hopefully looking to do on a daily basis; see someone act in a way that we would like to and then copy their methods of operation until we can personalize the actions and make them our own. We all have mentors and role models, and by acting out the traits that we admire in these people, we allow ourselves to gain wisdom by walking in someone else’s shoes. This is the easiest of the three methods because it requires no skill, just observation put into action.
Experience is where we gain knowledge by being exposed to certain situations over time and creating automatic favorable responses through our actions. This involvement over time is where Erickson theorizes that wisdom will not appear until the age of 65. Why is this the bitterest method? Because experience also means that we will have to fail many times in order to see success. Bitterness means that we will have to accept becoming angry and resentful, and bitterness means that we will have to confront hostilities both external and internal.
We become wise because we learn over time, not through just living, but because we ask questions that create awareness. These questions we ask ourselves are what creates the conflict between integrity and despair because if we are asking the right questions we will have to decide between completeness and hopelessness. In some cases we will have to accept hopelessness with the intention of making our hopes complete. In wisdom we will have to eventually choose the difficult path towards enlightenment because the light will not come to us unannounced. Half of wisdom is the prudent question the other half is the prudent action.