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Life Lessons

The Pressure to Be Wise

It's unsettling to be dubbed a Wisdom Keeper, says the noted novelist. First you must figure out where you stashed the stuff. Then comes the job of passing it on.

Earlier this year I participated in an unusual video series called Wisdom Keepers. It's planned as a number of short interviews with older people of accomplishment, from dancers to environmentalists to writers such as me, and is intended as a motivational tool for an audience of teenagers (now known as "young adults").

Over the years, we adults have found ourselves dividing into subgroups: the young adults; the less-young adults; the moment of despair when we turn 30 and believe we've kissed our youth farewell; the thirty-somethings, worried about their first mini-wrinkle; the middle-aged in denial; those who are what the French call "a certain age"; and the truly mellow, sagacious, and mature.

The last category is the part where you're supposed to have acquired some wisdom. It's also the part where you keep wondering when the stuff is finally going to turn up, because you don't feel any wiser than you did at age 20. If anything, less wise: At 20 you know everything; at 70 you're not so sure. And if you don't know where you've put the wisdom, how can you be expected to be a keeper of it? That was my first reaction on being asked to be a Wisdom Keeper.

I have felt a little wise on occasion. "Grandmother, how did you get to be so very old?" my five-year-old grandson asked me.

I lowered my voice as if imparting a valuable secret. "Through not dying," I said. "That's the trick!"

"Oh," he said wonderingly.

It's not such bad advice. Nonetheless, the thought of being featured in Wisdom Keepers made me panic. "When you were young, who was your favorite hero in real life or in history?" the questions began. It would be poor role-model behavior for me to say, truthfully, "Long John Silver, the ruthless and bloodthirsty pirate in Treasure Island." I considered Batman, but a man—however virtuous and musclebound—who'd climb into a skintight bat costume and then into a Batmobile in order to do his good deeds lacked a certain seriousness. "Sherlock Holmes" would have been an honest answer—but he was an avowed cocaine user, and might be looked at askance by the high-school boards of today.

And as a woman, wouldn't I be expected to produce an admirable female? Who would do? There were a lot of woman writers I could have proposed—Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning—but why wish a scribbler's fate upon the young? I ducked the question by saying, not inaccurately, that I wasn't much good at heroes.

The other questions for Wisdom Keepers were equally perilous. "What do you mean by leadership?" provided an opportunity for snide jokes about politicians, but (believing as I do that everyone should vote) I didn't want to encourage cynicism. To "What motto or belief guides you through the tough times?," Gone With the Wind's "Tomorrow is another day" seemed barely sufficient. "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," though succinct, is not a thing the young need to be told: they'll discover it all too soon.

You may ask, as I asked myself, "Why not say no? There's no law that says you have to be a Wisdom Keeper. Why not declare yourself a Stupidity Keeper instead, and opt out?"

The answer has to do partly with the man behind the idea.Wisdom Keepers is the project of Dr. Joe MacInnis, the physician turned pioneer of deep-sea-diving techniques in the Arctic. Dr. Joe has led more than 30 expeditions, developed many new techniques for use in extreme conditions, and explored many a sunken wreck, including the Titanic. For dealing with life-threatening conditions he stresses such characteristics as resilience, courage, a sense of humor, and the ability to think as a member of a team. He also happens to be a very nice person, and, as you get older, it's often to the person rather than to the project that you find yourself not saying no. Your grandfather was right: character does matter.

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