The old man was sitting on a rock on the solitary beach when his eyes fell on the youth in the distance. He seemed to be performing some kind of ritual dance – bending down, straightening up again, his hands making repeated movements towards the sea. The old man watched him for a while, trying to make out what exactly he was doing, but failed. Eventually, his curiosity fully awakened, he got up from the rock and walked towards him. As he came near, he realised what was happening. It was not a ritual dance nor was it some kind of tribute being paid to the sea. On the beach were starfishes that had been stranded there as the tide withdrew. The young man was picking them up and throwing them into the sea.
The old man laughed aloud at the stupidity of the youth. “This happens every day. The tide rises twice a day and ebbs too twice a day. Every time it rises, it would bring starfish to the beach, and every time it ebbs, they would be stranded on the beach. And there are tens of thousands of miles of beach. How many starfish are you going to throw back into the water? What difference will it make?’
The boy stood silent for a moment, considering what the old man had said. Then he bent down and picked up yet another starfish and threw it back into the sea. “It made a difference to that one,” he said.
We can all make a difference to one.
This is the difference between the wisdom of old age and the wisdom of youth.
Old age has its wisdom. But youth has its own wisdom too. And frequently, the wisdom of youth is superior to the wisdom of old age.
The wisdom of age is very valuable. But the wisdom of youth is almost always invaluable. When the wisdom of age says you cannot and you should not, the wisdom of youth says you can and you should.
Most of the progress the world has made comes from the wisdom of the youth that old age frequently calls folly. What old age believes is impossible, youth goes ahead and does. And it makes the impossible possible.
It is not that old age is wrong. It is rather that youth has the power to make the impossible possible. And its wisdom tells youth that the impossible can be made possible.
For ages, old wisdom said that man cannot keep on travelling on the seas; if you do, a stage would come when you would reach the end of the world and then you would fall out of the world. Youth dared in its wisdom to challenge this belief and soon ships were travelling round the world.
Not long ago, the old wisdom of Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, made him say, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” This was in 1943.
“But what…is it good for?” This is by an engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip. Old wisdom. The year is 1968.
As recently as 1977, here is the wisdom of age from Ken Olson, President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corp: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” This is from H.M. Warner, of Warner Brothers, in 1927, when ‘talking movies” became a technological possibility.
“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” said the old wisdom of Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society. That was in 1895, just a few years before the Wright brothers flew the first airplane.
Rowland Macy’s first business undertaking, a retail store, was a complete failure and had to be closed down. Then he started a second one, which too failed. Then he started a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth, and all of them failed. Old wisdom would say Macy should have given up the idea of running retail stores. But Macy’s was the wisdom of youth and going by it, he started a seventh retail store. Today, more than a hundred and fifty years later, Macy’s is still alive and successful, with 800 branches and 30 billion annual sales.
The wisdom of age would have said Abraham Lincoln would never succeed in anything, for in so many things had he failed. And yet we know him today as one of the greatest triumphs in American public life. This would not have been possible if Lincoln, or the American people, had listened to the wisdom of age.
In 1982, Tylenol was a thirty-year-old over-the-counter drug in the United States and was widely trusted by consumers. And then someone laced the drug with cyanide and panic spread all across the country, hospitals receiving hundreds of queries and thousands getting admitted into hospitals suspecting they have been poisoned by cyanide because they had taken Tylenol. Sales plummeted and the manufacturers, Johnson and Johnson, stopped sales of the drug and recalled whatever stock was in the market. It was widely prophesied that the drug was dead forever, it could never be revived in spite of the excellent past record. Every expert said any money spent on reviving the reputation of Tylenol and promoting its sales would be a total waste. They were speaking on the basis of long years of experience and the wisdom born of it. However, Johnson & Johnson refused to listen to it and instead, launched what is often considered a powerful public relations campaign investing a huge amount of money in it. Sales began making a steady climb soon, and eventually Tylenol fully reclaimed its previous position.
There are times when the wisdom of age and experience could be completely wrong.
When Bucephalas, the future horse of Alexander, was first brought for sale before King Philip, Alexander’s father, he asked experts to test it. None of them could control it and they declared it unfit for royal use. And yet Alexander declared the horse great and declared he could ride it. And that is exactly what he did, when he was finally allowed to do so. With the intuition of the youth, he had sensed the stallion was indeed a superb one and he looked for clues for why no one was able to control it. And he observed what the problem was: the horse was afraid of its own moving shadow. Alexander went near Bucephalas and turned it around. Its fears gone, the stallion was easy to master and Alexander rode it to the applause of his father and a cheering crowd.
As we grow old, our intuitions frequently dry up, for we grow out of touch with life and with the earth. It is this touch that really what makes us wise.
Old wisdom is like old rubber that has lost its elasticity. And young wisdom, like fresh rubber.
In the Mahabharata, we have Bhishma, full of learning and the experience of a century of living. And yet his wisdom is of age, and not of youth. It has lost its elasticity and is not pliant. It is this wisdom of age that has lost its pliancy that makes him incapable of acting decisively when Duryodhana, prompted by greed, jealousy and intolerance, commits atrocity after atrocity against the Pandavas, including what was done to Draupadi after she was won by him in the dice game played he played with Yudhishthira. It is again this wisdom of age that tells him it is his duty to fight for Duryodhana, even though he does not believe in Duryodhana’s cause, because he has been reduced to a slave by Duryodhana’s wealth, as he puts it.
In the Mahabharata, Krishna represents the wisdom of youth, intimately in touch with life, vibrant, dynamic and plastic. It is this wisdom, the wisdom of vibrant life itself, that he reveals through the Gita in which he gives new meanings to practically every term he uses, whether it is yoga, karma or dharma, or tapas, yajna or dana.
The difference between Bheeshma’s wisdom and Krishna’s wisdom, between the wisdom of age and the wisdom of youth, is that between the rock and water.
Rocks have their use, but it’s water that nourishes life.
Youth and age, though, have nothing to do with how old your body is. It is your heart, it is how intimately you are in touch with life that decides how young you are.
Your wisdom is of age when it is based on the past, on memories; it is of youth when it based on the present, on life.
Kahlil Gibran, the Prophet of Lebanon, said:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
This is as true about the wisdom of youth, as about love.
When the wisdom of youth speaks, listen to it. When it beckons, follow it.
And if you do not know how to recognise the wisdom of age from the wisdom of youth, here is one test: if wisdom suffocates you, makes you weak, it is the wisdom of age, of experience, of memories; if it liberates you, empowers you, gives you wings, if it springs from the living experience of life, it is the wisdom of youth.