Book Distills The Wisdom Of The Over-70 Set

Writer Henry Alford talks about searching for wisdom by criss-crossing the country to interview people over the age of 70. His findings make up a new book entitled How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A clever person solves a problem; a wise person avoids it. That's Albert Einstein's definition of wisdom. Muhammad Ali wrote, wisdom is knowing when you can't be wise. And according to Ecclesiastes, to fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. No shortage of epigrams on wisdom; no scarcity of books that purport to contain it. And the world is full of prophets ready to proclaim it, which really doesn't help.

Writer Henry Alford decided to go to the most frequently cited source. He crisscrossed the country to interview close to 200 people that all had one thing in common - they are senior citizens. We humans, he wrote, are one of the few species with an average life span that extends beyond the age at which we can procreate. Why?, he asked. Maybe it's because old folks have something else to offer.

So, we have an email challenge for you today, whatever your age. Complete the sentence - "Wisdom is…" The address is talk@npr.org. We also want to hear where or who you turn to for wisdom. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation.

Later in the program, how President-elect Obama may try to harness the often unruly social networks that helped him win election to help him govern. But first, Henry Alford joins us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. His new book is called "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They're Still on This Earth)." Thank you for joining us today. Happy New Years.

Mr. HENRY ALFORD (Author, "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you describe wisdom as slippery. How come?

Mr. ALFORD: Well, yeah, it's - writing a book about wisdom is sort of like kind to sculpt with mashed potatoes. It's such a huge topic. It's like trying to write about truth or beauty. And because it's so expansive and because there are so many definitions for it, it's a tricky one to pin down.

CONAN: I imagine interviewing people about wisdom is tricky, too. How do you sit somebody down and say, OK, be wise for me.

Mr. ALFORD: They love it. I have to tell you that it is not that hard…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALFORD: To approach someone over the age of 70 and say, I think old people have a certain kind of wisdom. Would you be willing to talk to me about it? They are highly flattered. So - no, you treat it as you treat any interview. You go into it knowing as much as possible and you try to elicit pearls in whatever way you can.

CONAN: And why did you choose old people? You know, there's the old saw, of course, the wisdom of age. But as you point out, correctly, along with age, and maybe some wisdom, comes lack of memory.

Mr. ALFORD: Yes. Memory loss is definitely a problem and don't get me started about my sciatica. No, it's - the thing about older folks is that I really do think that older folks are like living libraries. There's an old African saying that goes, the death of an old person is like the burning of a library. You know, that they are these repositories of knowledge and information and that, as a culture, as we get more and more technologically advanced, we've lost touch with our wise elders. So, I thought there was really a need to talk to them.

CONAN: It's interesting you say that. To some degree, their wisdom is - may be less relevant than it was before because, well, the world is changing quite rapidly.

Mr. ALFORD: Well, but they've been through so many of these problems. I mean, look at the current economic situation. A lot of these folks have lived through the Depression, so they know what it's like to have to deal with saving and scrimping. So, no, I think in fact, it's just the opposite. And the fact that they've, you know, been through - had many more obstacles in their lives and had to overcome many more mishaps is only going to make them better guides for everyone else.

CONAN: In place of fresher memory, what you suggest old people do have is the ability to recognize patterns very quickly.

Mr. ALFORD: That's something that Dr. Goldberg at New York University - that's his bailiwick - is the pattern recognition. And interestingly, he even ties it to all of the leaders during the 20th century who've had neurological dysfunction, like Reagan's Alzheimer's, et cetera.

And he thinks that people who've - those folks who've been in power have been able to lead because they have seen so many wars, they've seen so many, you know, skirmishes that flare up on borders, and so they know which ones are the ones that need to be paid attention to.

CONAN: We want to get some listeners into - on the conversation shortly. We want to know where and to whom you turn for wisdom. We also have an email challenge going. The sentence begins, "Wisdom is…" And the email address is talk@npr.org.

But I wanted to ask you - a couple of examples. You interviewed your second grade teacher from the school you were at in, I guess, Worcester, Massachusetts. And then you interviewed Phyllis Diller. And neither one met your expectations.

Mr. ALFORD: Well, it wasn't that they met - didn't meet my expectations. It was simply that I found that in approaching people, there were some folks whose life narratives really needed to be explored at depth, and those two were not necessarily ones.

CONAN: But you'd expected the school teacher to - her explanation to be sunny, and it was not. And you'd expected Phyllis Diller to have a, perhaps, darker look at the world, but she was relentlessly upbeat.

Mr. ALFORD: Exactly. No, that was the fun part of this whole quest was that there were so many surprises. My favorite one that I found was the - a fisherman in the Indonesian islands who is a member of the Moken tribe. And these folks can hold their breath underwater twice as long as most humans. And he - they learn to swim before they walk. And he noticed all these forebodings of danger on the morning of the tsunami in 2003. And he told his tribe to climb a local mountain. And in so doing, he saved thousands of lives.

CONAN: Hmm. He could have had no pattern recognition for that once-in-a-thousand-years tsunami?

Mr. ALFORD: Well, right. Nothing of that caliber, but he had seen the tide go out before storms before and he had - he'd heard, you know, the buzzing of the cicadas dim for smaller storms. So, no, he'd never seen a tsunami, but he'd seen other really big meteorological catastrophes.

CONAN: We're getting some emails in response to our challenge. This from Marala(ph). She writes, wisdom is knowing when to hold your tongue. We've gotten several along those lines. From Elias, my father loved to complain youth is wasted on the young. I quickly added to that wisdom is wasted on the old. And this again from Bob, wisdom is mostly wasted. That's from Placerville, California. This from Drew, one of my favorite quotes around wisdom is "believe those who are seeking the truth, doubt those who find it." Doubt - that turns out to be a theme in your book.

Mr. ALFORD: Yeah. The three biggies for me are doubt, reciprocity and nonattachment. Doubt being this idea that, you know, you can say if A happens and B happens, then usually C will happen. However, there's always a chance that a grand piano will come crashing down on our heads.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALFORD: So, you need to know that there's this - that there's always wiggle room. Nonattachment is this idea that you shouldn't fixate on things. And reciprocity, of course, is the "do unto others" kind of thinking.

CONAN: Where and to whom do you turn for wisdom? 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. Marlene is with us from Overland Park in Kentucky.

MARLENE (Caller): Kansas.

CONAN: Kansas, excuse me.

MARLENE: Hi. Happy New Year to you.

CONAN: And Happy New Year to you, too.

MARLENE: I don't know if you equate being smart with wisdom, but I have had a saying that half of being smart is knowing what you're dumb at and staying away from it. But the wisdom that I've gotten, I guess, has been from things I've messed up at and learning not to do them again.

CONAN: (Laughing) That last part, that's the hard part.

MARLENE: Yeah, yeah. But that's probably the best definition I know of wisdom.

Mr. ALFORD: That's a great definition...

MARLENE: One person's wisdom…

Mr. ALFORD: And that's something that you hear a lot is that wisdom is knowing what to overlook. That's something that Edward Albee, the playwright, told me. And it's also something that the philosopher William James has said.

MARLENE: OK, well, thank you so much.

CONAN: OK, Marlyn, Happy New Years.

MARLENE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And part of this book is, well, it's a personal story. But you have some lessons from things that you've messed up in life.

Mr. ALFORD: Oh, sure, yeah. Anecdotal evidence suggests that I'm, you know, someone who likes to put his hand in the fire. I like the smell of burning flesh. So, no, I think you don't write a book about wisdom because you're wise. I think you (Laughing) write book about wisdom because you want to learn. And indeed, I learned tons from talking to all these folks.

CONAN: You also have to be ready to learn. And there're some people who are and some people who aren't.

Mr. ALFORD: Absolutely. Yeah, no, you need to be at the right place in your life.

CONAN: What was it in your life that put you in this place at this time?

Mr. ALFORD: Well, my personal connection to the story was one that was just absolutely flabbergasting. Early on in the process, I interviewed my mother and stepfather. And my stepfather's interview was so dark that I worried, and indeed, he overdosed the next day.

And because this had happened about six years earlier, my mother said to him, I'm so sorry, but I simply cannot go through with this again. And she divorced him, sold him her house and moved 600 miles away. So, that becomes sort of the through-line of the book. And as I follow my mother, who makes a series of very important and difficult and I think ultimately very wise decisions.

CONAN: Wise decisions that eventually lead her into assisted living at the end of the book.

Mr. ALFORD: Well, she's in a retirement community. She doesn't require any care. But yeah, that's part of the book - is that I sort of wanted to talk about aging and some of those choices that people have to make. So, yeah there's a section where we go and look for her next place of residence.

CONAN: We're talking with William - excuse me - Henry Alford about his new book "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People." This in response to our email challenge - "wisdom is…" - if you'd like to send in an entry, go to talk@npr.org. This from Kent in Lynchburg, Virginia - wisdom is a bit like pornography, you know it when you see it. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about wisdom today. Our guest is Henry Alford. His new book is titled "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People." And we have an email challenge underway. Complete the sentence - "Wisdom is..." Send us an email, talk@npr.org.

This is from Steve. Wisdom is the accumulation of mistakes, survived and remembered. But I'm only 56. I could be wrong. And this from Jeff in Fresno. The - wisdom is in short supply. I think we can all agree with that.

There's a story, Henry Alford, that you tell in your book about buying a dozen assorted bagels, one of them a garlic. And when you put them all in a paper bag, you realize after you get home and take them out, they are all garlic bagels. This you define under the category, not so much of wisdom, but as a truism. How do you tell the difference between a truism and a cliche and real insight?

Mr. ALFORD: That's a great question. And it's a really - it's a tough one to define. I think in the end, what I'm looking for in wisdom is things that are universal. And you know, there's this idea that there's practical wisdom and then there's a higher kind of wisdom. And I think the bag of assorted bagels with one garlic bagel in it - that strikes me maybe more as practical wisdom.

CONAN: On the other end of the scale?

Mr. ALFORD: On the other end of the scale would be something like - well, here's a short - here's a sentence that the prophet Muhammad once wrote. Trust in God, but tie your camel. That strikes me as a kind of, you know, an aphorism that you could run your whole life according to that. You could really, yeah, make that your whole program for life, whereas the thing about the garlic bagel, that'll get you so far.

CONAN: Get you out of Zabars.

Mr. ALFORD: (Laughing ) It'll get you out of the delicatessen, indeed.

CONAN: You also talked - one of the people you talked with was Harold Bloom at Yale University, of course, the famous teacher there. And you quote him as saying once famously, "there are no poems, only relations between poems." And you say, it struck you as slightly crazy until?

Mr. ALFORD: Until I was making sugar cookies one day. And I looked up five different recipes for sugar cookies, including one from a cookbook from the 19th century. And they were all virtually identical. And it occurred to me that, yeah, all of these recipes - they were just - they were slight variations on the same recipe.

And that's to me is what's fascinating about wisdom - is that in the same way, there are all of these repeated motifs throughout the ages where people say the same thing. Confucius was once asked, for instance, what is wisdom. And he said, is not reciprocity such a thing? And that's very similar Jesus saying do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, yeah, we see these - you see these repeated patterns throughout history.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. ALFORD: And to me, that's what makes wisdom approachable, in a way that religion is not.

CONAN: Mm hmm. I should point out, Henry Alford also cites a restoration comedy he'd read and came across the line, pretentious moi, and realized that maybe there are no jokes, just relations between (Laughing) jokes. Let's see if we can get some more callers on the line. Emily's with us, Emily from Boise.

EMILY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to comment. I got a card from a 100-year-old lady that I know. And I found what she said so calming. She said, it sure is shaky for some people in the job situation right now. I've already been through a couple of recessions. Every so many years, we have one. And when I read that card, I cried because I'm - (Crying) I've been kind of scared through this money thing that's happening. But, you know, she just said, hey, it's going to be fine. I lived through it. I'm 100. No big deal.

CONAN: And simple survival like that, Henry Alford, you know, I think that qualifies as wisdom.

Mr. ALFORD: Oh, absolutely. No - and that's what is so poignant about, or was so poignant for me when I met some of these folks. One of the chapters is a woman who lost her home and her husband in hurricane Katrina and then found that she - you know, that her insurance was not going to cover any of it. And the optimism of this woman - it, too, made me cry. I just was so moved by her idealism and her spirit in the face of this series of tragedies that life had dealt her.

CONAN: Emily, how's your friend doing?

EMILY: She's fabulous. You know, she's - she has a lot of humor. And every time I see her, she's just incredibly encouraging. And I'm grateful for her influence.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Please wish her a Happy New Years on our behalf.

EMILY: I will. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks for the call, Emily. Let's see if we can go now to - if I can find the right button. There. Joanne, Joanne with us from San Antonio.

JOANNE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Joanne, go ahead please.

JOANNE: OK, I was asked a question - where do I find wisdom? I'm an older person. I have a young married daughter in her mid-30s. And I go to her, you know, I do have history enough to have - you know, I mean, it seems to me as if, when we get older, there's a certain amount of insight that comes our way. And it's not because we're smarter or anything else. I think that we have time to be more reflective in the way that we look at things. We look at more the, you know, resolution, you know, down the road. How is this going to…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

JOANNE: You know, affect whatever it is that we're doing. Right? Whereas kids - well, young married people, now they have to make decisions quickly. You know, right now. What is going to be the resolution to this quickly? So, that wisdom comes from history. And I know you had said - you'd made a comment earlier about, well, so many things that are happening are happening in a different way now. So, how can we know? Not really, you know? They always say everything has already been done once at least.

CONAN: At least.

JOANNE: You know, nothing is new. You know, so we're going through an economical kind of situation right now. But I mean, back in the '20s it was bad, you know? Back in the '60s it was bad. It's been bad before, you know. Different names to it, different situations occurred to put us in that bad place. But this is just different, but it's kind of the same.

CONAN: Joanne, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JOANNE: Sure. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. You also concede, Henry Alford, that wisdom us hardly the exclusive province of the old.

Mr. ALFORD: Well, the irony is that - yes, that it comes at the same time that all of your bodily infirmities come. So, that's a tricky combination. As Joanne was just saying, on the one hand, older folks have more time to be reflective. And indeed, I think that's part of what helps them to be so wise. But it might also be a time when your health has really gone south. So, yeah, that's part of the conflict there.

CONAN: But there're also a plenty of examples of wise younger people - you think of Jesus or Buddha, for that manner.

Mr. ALFORD: Oh, absolutely. No, it's not the sole province of the old, by any means. And - nor am I saying that everyone over the age of 70 is wise. I'm simply saying that - well, you know, what's fascinating to me is that in the last century, we added three decades to the human life expectancy. So, suddenly, we do find ourselves with what some people are calling "the bonus years."

And it is kind of changing things. Look at writers like Philip Roth or John Updike or Joan Didion. These - you know, these folks are all doing some of the best work of their lives. And you know, they're all of a certain age - or the sculptress, Louise Bourgeois. So, yeah, so it really has changed things up. And I think that what I'm trying to do with the book is I'm trying to say that - I think that it's important that we celebrate this fact because more people should be doing stuff with their lives at this age.

CONAN: Here's some more of our responses to our email challenge. This from Peter - I prefer wisdom balances on the edge of a knife, but if you insist on the "wisdom is" formulation, I would make it wisdom is in balance on the edge of a knife. This one from Mark in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Forgive me for not following format, but that I've always found that the wisest people usually are those with the least amount of formal education. They have learned their lessons the hard way, by experiencing them personally and painfully, which leads us to this question by email from David in North Fork, California - what's the difference between being wise and being smart?

Mr. ALFORD: Well, being smart is a quantitative kind of intelligence. That's more about results, whereas wisdom is more about - it's harder to quantify and it's more about being able to understand or perceive universal principles. And interestingly, that's the big divide in the study of wisdom - is between eastern and western ideas of wisdom, because here, in the West, of course, it's - wisdom is about linear thinking. It's more logical. And in eastern cultures, it's a much more intuitive subject. It's more about the process, rather than the result.

CONAN: Let's get James on the line, James with us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

JAMES (Caller): Yes. I'm a professor in oceanography at LSU, and I believe that there are - is perhaps confusing wisdom and experience here, to some degree. I mean, right now I think that - for one of the biggest issues that we're facing right now in the world is probably global climate change. And we are basing our decisions - a lot of our thinking about it on short-term economic issues, when what we really needs to be doing is thinking about making changes that won't pay off for 100 or 1000 years.

And as a species, we're not really evolutionarily well-equipped to deal with that. And I think to me, being able to recognize those kinds of fundamental needs in the way we approach things is true wisdom. It's not necessarily empirical wisdom, it's truly a way of organizing and recognizing a new way of thinking that may be required to move forward in the future.

CONAN: James, do you find that an example of that linear western thinking?

JAMES: Well, I think it's critical thinking. And I think it is somewhat empirical - as a scientist, I'm trained that way. But one of the things that seems to me, as we move forward with the issues, such as ecosystem space management, which is what we're really going to have to do to tackle the global climate issues are we have to start thinking about payoffs that probably won't be realized for 1000 years or 500 years.

But when you actually talk to someone and you talk - and they speak in the long term, they generally say, well, I want, you know, I want it to be conditions like my grandchildren. I want my grandchildren to have the same opportunities I have, or my grandchildren's grandchildren. That's about as far forward as humans seem to be able to think.

CONAN: Yeah, delayed…

JAMES: Think…

CONAN: I just wanted to bring Henry Alford back in. Delayed gratification - easy to think about the long-term, harder to enact it.

Mr. ALFORD: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that that speaks to the principle of non-attachment that I was talking about before - this idea that you can't sort of fixate on the short-term results, but that you need to let go, as it were, and take the long view.

CONAN: James, thanks very much and all of us can wish you nothing but the best of luck (Laughing) in resolving the situation.

JAMES: Well, I think it's going to be a fundamental change that has to occur if we're going to be able to get at some of these longer-term issues, because we're just not equipped right now to think that way.

CONAN: Thanks again. Happy New Year.

JAMES: You, too. Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking about wisdom with Henry Alford, the author of "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And I wanted to go through some more of our email challenge responders. Susan in Patterson, California - wisdom is understanding not only your own limitations, but respecting the limitations of those you love. This from Al. Wisdom is knowing that you are not as smart or as wise as you thought you were. Wisdom is listening, emails Lanie(ph). And then from, well, Scott in Oregon - wisdom is intelligence moderated by experience. And Henry Alford, that seems to be - get a lot of things in a small capsule.

Mr. ALFORD: Indeed, yeah. No, those are some terrific definitions. And those first two or three made me think of the - there have been some psychological tests done with couples who have had very long-term marriages. And interestingly, one of the commonalities amongst those folks were that the spouses were able to overlook their partner's problems, that they had learned how to sort of deal with the background hum of the person they were living with.

So, yeah, I think that's a huge component of this - of wisdom is this idea of knowing that, you know, not only are you yourself riddled with faults, but the other guy is, too, and so you've got to somehow factor that in.

CONAN: One of the people you talked to is sort of known to public radio listeners and that is the father of Sandra Tsing Loh, the commentator and - who's appeared many times on This American life and other things. And she expresses some frustration with this eccentric individual. And they say - they ask him all these philosophy of life questions. They treat him like the Dalai Lama. It really puzzles my sister and me how he always comes across with this folk hero and we're going, no. He's not that. He's a total shyster.

Mr. ALFORD: (Laughing) Yes. That's a little powder keg, that relationship. And I was so flattered that they let me have a peek at it. Eugene Loh is a retired aerospace engineer who uses a frosted flakes box as his briefcase and who harvests a large percentage of his - the food that he eats daily from dumpsters. And he actually took me dumpster diving and we looked for bananas and leftovers at a local Starbucks.

And yeah, that kind of stuff - it's, you know, it's fascinating to behold, but you've got to understand that when Sandra was growing up, you know, she was a teenage girl and her father was doing this stuff, or her father would, you know, he liked to hitchhike instead of drive. So, here was this 13-year-old girl who he had stashed behind a bush while he was trying to pick up a ride for the two of them. And I could see how it would be just totally mortifying for her.

CONAN: Hmm. And maybe for anybody else at that age.

Mr. ALFORD: (Laughing) Yes.

CONAN: And learning to live with that - well, definitely a sign of wisdom. Henry Alford, thank you so much for being with us today.

Mr. ALFORD: (Laughing) Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And we'd like to thank the 100 - more than 100 people who responded to our email challenge. Just a couple more - wisdom is something we want but are loathe to earn, that from anonymous. And this from Terry - finding - wisdom is finding the balance between serenity and courage.

Henry Alford joined us today from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. When we come back, we're going to be talking about how the Internet is redefining politics and now may redefine governments. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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