If you’re looking for wisdom, you will notice that as thinkers, writers and researchers age, they increasingly focus their intellectual energy on consolidating and integrating their knowledge – and applying it to the future. Happily, often their broad, integrative work leads them to develop a wider and more optimistic outlook. We recognize it as wisdom.
There are many examples of this process in our field; Martin Seligman moved from depression/learned helplessness to Positive Psychology, Steven Pinker moved from the study of language and cognition to a broad-sweeping effort to demonstrate that the world is becoming less violent (“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”). Norman Rosenthal, who broke ground with his discovery of seasonal affective disorder and challenged conventional thinking with light therapy treatment some 30 years ago, published two recent books whose titles say it all: One is entitled, “Transcendence” (a book about meditation), and the other, “The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections.” In their own intellectual development, each of these writers and thinkers moved from the particular to the universal. They integrated their work with their own life experience—and grew wisdom.
George Vaillant joins these others with his book, “Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith”. For 35 years, Vaillant directed Harvard’s Study of Adult Development, a longitudinal study that followed hundreds of men for 7 decades of their lives. He has had more opportunity than most to reflect on the way lives work out over time. Despite the privilege of Harvard, the lives of the men studied were seldom straight trajectories, nor could outcomes be entirely predicted over time (although there certainly were commonalities and psychological styles that facilitated or impeded growth). The book is illustrated with examples of individuals from the study, such as Bill Graham (pseudonym) whose childhood was abusive and so bereft of loving attachment the reader wants to weep for the child he once was. Nevertheless, at age 68 he was a compassionate, giving and forgiving man. Bill had been lucky in love, and, late in life, found faith.
Spiritual values are what make a difference, Vaillant suggests. Like Pinker and others, he sees the world evolving toward increasing these vital, life-affirming spiritual values.
In a world that can easily be perceived as spinning out of control, we need to thank these elders for their vision—of overcoming adversity, of lessons learned from hardship, of the triumph of kindness over meanness, joy over sorrow, and ultimately, integrity over despair.