Friday, September 21st, 2018

Once Wisdom Thumps Us on the Head


Personification of wisdom Sophia at Celsus Library in Turkey Once Wisdom Thumps Us on the Head

Personification of Wisdom Sophia at Celsus Library in Turkey

Senior Editor Boomer54 Mark Note: This is a guest post by baby boomer Nancy Werking Poling.

A year ago Barbara Walters announced her pick of the most fascinating people of 2009. All but two, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin, were entertainment or sports celebrities. None was yet fifty.

Which I find discouraging. First of all, because I wouldn’t be able to pick Kate Gosselin, Brett Favre, or Lady Gaga out of a lineup. Second, this must mean that people over fifty, which includes me, aren’t all that fascinating. Third, fascinating seems to apply only to those whose pictures appear on the magazines beside the grocery check-out line, not to people who are actually doing something of significance.

There was a time when I considered knowing about the lives of movie stars and musicians essential to my social status. My list of other important concerns included having thighs slender enough to wear mini-skirts, keeping the frizz out of my long hair, and memorizing the words to popular songs.

Upon reading Barbara Walters’ list, I at first assumed my not appreciating her choices as a clear indication that I’ve become a cantankerous old lady out of step with American culture. On second thought, however, I decided it has more to do with a sense of my own mortality.

In either case, I’m aware that what I once thought was important really isn’t. I hear this from others my age as well, people who have experienced the deaths of loved ones, dealt with serious illness, survived natural disasters, divorced, had their lives fall apart in various ways. How often we hear them say, “It sure makes you reconsider what’s important.”

And now grandchildren are coming along. Something about holding a new generation in our arms makes us aware that the world we’re bequeathing them is hanging by a thread. Wisdom finally thumps us on the head, and we recognize the absurdity of trying to accumulate more, wanting to impress peers, and having a good time.

In her book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 Once Wisdom Thumps Us on the Head, Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot describes her interviews with people who have made successful transitions to life after fifty. No longer restricted by the expectations of jobs and raising families, those she interviewed felt free to take risks, move, pursue a passion of their youth.

I was most intrigued by those who have decided to “‘give forward’…a generosity of service that enlarges them.” These individuals share their business skills with not-for-profits, join international relief efforts, work for justice. Some work in their local communities; others travel to distant parts of the world.

Near my desk I keep an old calendar titled “Biddys.” It reminds me of the kind of woman I don’t want to be: self-absorbed, oblivious to the exciting world beyond the familiar. Yet as a writer I am certainly self-absorbed, choosing to spend my days at the computer, living in my mind with imaginary characters. Hopefully, giving forward doesn’t require ignoring our own passions. (Or maybe I’m deluding myself.). Clearly the people Lawrence-Lightfoot interviewed didn’t feel like they had sacrificed; their new ventures brought them satisfaction and excitement.

My list of fascinating people? Greg Mortensen (Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time Once Wisdom Thumps Us on the Head) and Sheryl WuDunn (first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer Prize) (Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Vintage) Once Wisdom Thumps Us on the Head), both over fifty. And my friend Joyce, who since retirement has managed to nurture her photography skills and stay active in local environmental initiatives. There’s John, who spends most of every day at a food pantry. Kathy volunteers as a court advocate for abused children.

What individuals are doing on behalf of their grandchildren and the grandchildren of others, on behalf of the environment, peace, safer communities—the ways in which they’re giving forward—that’s what makes their stories worth listening to.

That’s what makes them fascinating people.

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman Once Wisdom Thumps Us on the Head and Out of the Pumpkin Shell (Spinsters Ink) Once Wisdom Thumps Us on the Head. She’s currently working on a novel that brings together her concern for the environment and an older woman’s struggle to find something worthwhile to give herself to. Her website is .

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