Saturday, October 18, 2003

Defining Wisdom... Age is the Lesser Factor

Confucian Hierarchy is Misguided and a Crutch for the Weak

Growing up as a Korean American, you encounter and experience a common thinking within Asian culture that emphasizes the importance of age related to respect and the amount of wisdom a person has. The older a person is the more respect they should command and it is also assumed that they are wiser.

This is derived from Confucianism, a Chinese philosophical and moral system focused on “the correct ordering of society and the proper relationship of human beings.” It was developed by the sixth century B.C. philosopher, Confucius, and spread throughout East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia. The heaviest influences are seen in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures.

With the issue of respect, I have always believed this to be a foolish value for the most part and a crutch used by the weak or a cop out when people have nothing else to stand upon. When Koreans or Korean Americans who are younger than me call me “hyung” (“older brother” in Korean and a sign of respect from a younger man to an older man), I tell them that I prefer for them to call me just “Bernard.” In Korea and Korean culture, some people demand respect even if the age difference is only one year apart with another person. Some even get angry, yell and curse if this tradition is not adhered to. Whether providing security for a person or comfort in being automatically “respected,” it is not a social form or manner that I believe is healthy for any culture.

For me, I believe a person has to earn my respect, so I will not give it automatically to someone that do not know or have enough information to respect beyond a cordial manner. Respect, more along the lines of “honoring,” demands more information and interaction between two people.

An underlying tone of this cultural behavior is Confucianism’s emphasis not only on age but on rank in society. Even today in conflicts on the street, you’ll hear people yell, “Do you know who I am?! I’m president of so and so and such and such… Do you know which family I’m from? Yada, yada, yada,…”

So again a crutch for the weak. A system to artificially prop up someone’s position above another without any real merit. This also occurs between genders in Korea. Men using their higher social positions against women.

Overall, I think this Confucian hierarchy that is prevalent throughout East Asia is unhealthy, inefficient, and based on some incorrect assumptions about age. To be honest, I can really only speak about its influence in Korean culture since I don’t know how this thinking specifically developed in other Confucian cultures.

One incorrect assumption about age is that you develop greater wisdom as you get older. Before continuing, let’s first define wisdom. A dictionary definition defines it as: accumulated philosophic or scientific learning; ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; insight; good sense; judgment.

The first definition “accumulated philosophic or scientific learning,” which can depend on time but also the intelligence of the person and their ability to remember the accumulated information or knowledge. A person who has a photographic memory can accumulate hundred times more information in five years versus an average person over 20 years. I also don’t think wisdom is simply having this accumulated learning or information. I think the more important factor is how you process this information and apply it to everyday situations.

This goes down the same line as when you describe some people as “book smart” but without common sense, or others as “street smart” but not that bright. Of course a person can have both qualities. These are just example used to map this definition out.

Another example is in the Book of Proverbs, in the Bible, its described objective is to teach wisdom to everyone, young and old, so here it is not assumed that older people naturally have greater wisdom than younger. Actually, it is not even assumed that older people have wisdom at all.

What is important is the ability to learn from the past, whether personal experience or knowledge from the past, and make a judgment or decision on your present situation. I will assume that most people learn better from their own personal experiences and remember them better, so their wisdom will naturally grow with age to some degree assuming that they have a good ability to reflect and remember situations throughout their life. More importantly, I believe it is an individual’s ability to discern and assess situations based on their personal experience and accumulated knowledge and their ability to be self-reflective that makes them wise.

Age is a minor factor. The mask of wrinkles, a grey beard, long pauses in conversations, or a steady voice does not fool me into thinking a person is wise or wiser than my peers. I base my decision on the words they state, their ability to listen and assess situations in detail, and how they respond to the twists and turns in life. Give me a man in his thirties full of wisdom with the ability to give me practical, insightful advice versus a 60-year old stubborn, old Korean man repetitively chanting about the days of his youth any day.

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