The saying goes that with age comes wisdom. So, when the young display wisdom, it’s questioned: In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, student activists have been accused of being too young to speak about gun violence and have been painted as pawns of the media. Some have even been charged with being “crisis actors”. But unlike much of America, these young people are coping with a crisis by organizing marches, school walkouts, and speaking passionately and publicly about reform.
Is there evidence that the young cannot be wise? According to research published February in the Journal of Gerontology, wisdom is most distinctly shaped by how a person responds to a difficult life event, rather than how many years they’ve acquired. Wisdom, the researchers from Oregon State University write, is developed when people are forced to question the world around them and search for personal meaning in the aftermath of a strenuous circumstance.
“The adage used to be ‘with age comes wisdom,’ but that’s not really true,” explains co-author Carolyn Aldwin, the director of OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research, in a statement released Tuesday. “Generally, the people who had to work things out after a difficult life event are the ones who arrived at new meaning.”
Aldwin and her team interviewed 50 adults, aged between 56 and 91. The participants were asked to talk about a specific challenging life event, discuss how they coped with it, and divulge whether or not the experience changed how they act or their outlook on life. Three patterns emerged: A group of 13 said the event didn’t cause them to question the meaning of their life, while a group of five said that the biggest repercussion of the life event was that it helped them clarify a belief they couldn’t previously describe.
However, the remaining 32 respondents said the difficult event prompted them to reflect on themselves, their beliefs, and their understanding of the world. Doing so, they pointed out, disrupted the way they looked at their lives. They also noted that receiving unsolicited emotional support during their time of crisis also helped them develop wisdom rooted in compassion and humility.
“Wisdom is often studied as an individual characteristic, but this study highlighted the relevance of a social-ecological perspective to understanding how wisdom development is also facilitated through social transactions,” Aldwin and her team write. “Wisdom is thought to develop from the accumulation of experiences and knowledge, yet not everyone who has experience is wise.”
It’s important to note that these results are collected from adults, not teenagers. But it’s natural to expect that a person between the ages of 56 and 91 have already encountered moments of strife. Unfortunately, the reality of the world today is that teenagers, like those from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and at schools around the country, are encountering terrible things adults hope to never experience over the course of their lives.
These teenagers have been forced to experience the sort of crisis that forges wisdom — and they are already in the process of rumination.