Some thoughts on age, wisdom, passion, and (of course) Atticus Finch.

I love talking with educators. I was sitting last week with a group of professors that train and direct teachers and future leaders in education. It was interesting to watch the dynamic. I was preparing to talk to a group of graduate students and doctoral candidates in their program about The Mockingbird Parables and communication, so To Kill a Mockingbird was on my mind. As I listened to the insight of some of the more senior professors of the group I remembered Scout’s complaints about her father’s age. She says that he couldn’t play tackle football like the other dads; he was old and didn’t do anything that would draw the admiration of anyone. We know Atticus had something more important to offer.

Our culture is obsessed with youth. We don’t seem to celebrate age at all — except in ads from drug companies. When people get to a certain age we generally send them away to homes (or to communities in Florida). I think there has been a segregation happening in our culture for a long time now. We don’t view our elders as wise, but tend to see them as inflexible and set in their ways. We almost devalue what they have to say. There are many reasons for all of this, probably a book’s worth of writing for someone smarter than me. Just in an hour or so of listening to that group of professors — many of them public school retirees — I was able to learn quite a bit. It had me thinking about wisdom and age.

I remember a bright professor, a retired Superintendent, telling me once that he believed most educators wanted to be effective at their jobs. I sat with a group of young professionals recently as they discussed work. One particular very bright young person, who was on track for leadership, was talking passionately about the issues at his school. In particular, he was complaining about several co-workers. It took me back a little that his solution was to fire these people. Maybe he was right. He was zealous about fixing the problem, so much so that he did not consider teaching these misguided employees — redirecting them — equipping them to be successful – as a viable option. I went to a church once where I observed a similar situation. A group of younger pastor’s, all of them close to my age, made some dramatic decisions to fire their lead pastor and restructure the church. I talked to one of the decision makers who seemed genuinely passionate about changing things. I guess you could say their intentions were good, but it was handled very quickly with unsettling precision. It bothered me a bit to notice the people making those rash decisions all seemed very young.

I suppose I am finding it more and more essential to seek out elders for advice. To find people who have seen some life, and can add some perspective to my decisions, my problems, and my passions. I think in To Kill a Mockingbird we often take for granted Atticus’s age and how it informs his decisions — from the way he parents to the way he interacts with his community. At that lunch table last week I was sitting with a group of professors that had weathered every situation — both the good and bad in their professions and lives. They had come out on the other side with perspective and a willingness to offer that view to young people. It was refreshing. I walked away with some profound advice. It reminded me of the elders I used to see involved in church, the ones that taught my Sunday school classes — the ones that aren’t as involved in our churches much anymore. It also made me realize that while passion is good — sometimes zealousness is an admirable quality — those drives are most effective when they are tempered with wisdom — and wisdom is something that can’t always be bought or hurried up. Wisdom mainly comes with experience and age.

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