Narratives and Wisdom: 
 the lives of women growing older

                                by Sue McPherson 2004

        In times past, as men and women grew older, they were often looked upon as a 
        source of wisdom. Their experience in this world qualified them as experts, giving
        advice on life’s problems, relying on traditional knowledge for solutions. In today’s
        world, however, social change and uncertainty prevail over stability and steadfast
        truths, and progression of the individual’s life span is no longer predictable as it 
        once was, leading to diverse responses to pressing humans demands. “Wisdom 
        does not praise continuity as a value in itself,” suggests Aleida Assmann 
        (1994: 220).

Neutralising traditionalism, she calls for an interpersonal, contextual approach to wisdom, viewing it not as emanating from the wise person but as generated between two or more persons. In this paper, I will explore the relationship between wisdom, diversity, and the telling of stories within postmodern society, drawing on my own research into the lives of women growing older.  

Presented at the Narrative Matters conference (2004). In W. L. Randall, D. Furlong, & T. Poitras (Eds.), Narrative Matters 2004 Conference Proceedings (pp. 774-787). Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada: Narrative Matters Conference Planning Committee.

         The insistence on continuities will make room for wisdom. The difference, 
         however, between wisdom and traditionalism should not be overlooked.  
         Wisdom does not praise continuity as a value in itself. It knows too well 
         the continuity of foolishness, arrogance, and terror (Assmann, 1994, p.220).

Aleida Assmann’s perspectives on wisdom may well be appropriate for a postmodern world in which many traditions, possibly including traditional understandings of wisdom, no longer suit the complexity of society nor the diversity of individual needs and capacities.

On the more experiential side of this subject, the question of wisdom was one I touched on in a project on women growing older, for which I interviewed women and wrote brief life stories about each person. I discovered that they expressed commonly-used understandings of the term when I asked them directly. By this I mean they saw wisdom mainly in terms of someone being a wise person or becoming a wise person, particularly as they grew older and had accumulated more life experience. Wisdom is quite often thought to be a state of being or status associated with adult stages in the later part of the life cycle, for both men and women, and in most instances is seen as belonging to the “wise person,” although the meaning of that is not always clear.

One such traditional view is Erik Erikson’s eight-stage model of psychosocial development throughout the life cycle which includes wisdom as its final stage, well past the mature adulthood stage referred to as “vital involvement in life’s generative activities” (p. 50), instead being a stage of heightened awareness of existential identity, of “involved disinvolvement,” and of grandparenthood within an order of wisdom (Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1986, p. 51). “Wisdom is detached concern with life itself, in the face of death itself,” state Erikson et al. “It maintains and learns to convey the integrity of experience, in spite of the decline of bodily and mental functions” (p. 37). In this traditional model of wisdom the wise person and the stage of wisdom might be seen as synonymous, though whether the ego maintains a sense of reality of the shared state of “communal mutuality” while transcending the limitations of “time-bound identities” to sense existential identity, or becomes a source of militant dogma, probably cannot be known beforehand (Erikson et al, p. 53).

In this paper I draw on the life stories of two of the participants from the project Women Growing Older, while exploring concepts of diversity and continuity in relation to Assmann's article on wisdom. Before explaining more about the project on women, however, following is a brief historical survey of perspectives on wisdom as outlined by Assmann which, it should be noted, she introduced with the admonition that we be aware that “what is praised as wisdom in one context may be denounced as worthless in another” (p. 196).

The history of wisdom

Assmann begins with what is known about ancient cultures of Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures of several thousand years ago, her main example being the Old Testament, in which wisdom is treated in terms of social virtue and moderation. To be wise is not to be exceptional but is “to be moderate and behave according to the social norms; it is to act not on the impulses but on the long-range consequences; it is to consider not only the present but the future” (p. 197). The fully-domesticated, self-controlled man and the good housewife, in modern terms, would be the ideal. This is a standard of wisdom not dependent on status within society but one that can be adopted by anyone.

Later, during the Hellenistic period, 500 years BC, wisdom was perceived as a divine gift, the goddess Sophia being one of its female manifestations in books of wisdom. Now wisdom had become mysterious, sought-after by humans within their different groups aspiring to the divine, “via prayer, faith, initiation, and vision” (Assmann, p. 199). This spiritualization of wisdom was to return again and again through the ages. 
Another step into the middles ages and wisdom came to be related to Christ, received only through Grace - a revelation by God, in other words - not gained through experience, or knowledge, or through searching. Thus, Assmann continues, St Augustine had cleared the theological concept of wisdom of its heretical connotations (p. 200). Another approach to wisdom in medieval times was the idea of wisdom as the crown of learning, in which scholastic theology aimed at bringing together human and divine knowledge, as in the allegorical play The Marriage of Wisdom and Wit. Wisdom appears as the bride for the hard-working, successful student at the end of the play (Assmann, p. 201). 

The wisdom of action and of contemplation in the Renaissance, from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, disputed the previous understanding of wisdom, a common saying now being “Greatest scholars are not the wisest men” (Assmann, p. 201). At this time the multiple approaches toward wisdom included previous themes of worldly success and a “good life” interpreted in terms of man’s increasing power and selfishness, as well as the theme of peaceful coexistence.
The ideal of wisdom declined as science became the dominant way of knowing. As a cognitive ability wisdom would no longer be required, the rationality of science and abstract ideals being more highly valued. Under Kant, Assmann tells us, 

        wisdom became the shelter of debunked knowledge and forgotten lore. Among 
        the aspects that were dropped in scientific discourse are: (a) the regenerative 
        power of knowledge, the relation between knowledge and bodily or spiritual 
        health, and (b) the tie to the concrete demands of human existence (Assmann,
        1994, p. 203).  

There was no further need, according to Nietzsche, for such non-logical modes of wisdom in the age of reason (Nietzsche, cited in Assmann, p. 203). Yet Nietzsche praised wisdom, claims Assmann, despite his own approach discarding more traditional ideas in favour of a virile wisdom asserting the powers of the will. His views opposed the earlier concepts of wisdom that he saw as “effeminate.” Among older men, explains Assmann, wisdom may be associated with a decline in virility, being seen as tinged with “boredom and senility” (p. 219).

What might be seen as the opposite of Nietzsche's approach, or perhaps complementary to it, is suggested in psychotherapist Lynne Morgan's (2000) work on the Divine as female, not as a female representation of the Christian God but starting from images of women from Palaeolithic times around 25,000 years ago, proceeding through ancient Greek myths and current Earth-based and other religions in which motherhood and the feminine are emphasized (p. 97). Charlotte Hardman, Religious Studies scholar, explains that paganism is based largely on the ideals of developing one's self, kinship with nature, and a reverence for the “ever-renewing cycles of life and death,” within which women's spirituality, as described by Morgan, is just one of the many paths (Hardman, 2000, p. xi).  
Wisdom, as we are more likely to see it now, is a type of knowledge that does not proceed along fixed lines, instead flexibly adjusting to different situations. Postmodernity will see the drawing together of wisdom and scientific knowledge in their various forms, Assmann claims, probably in response to the growing necessity to respond to multiplicity and adapt to a less unified, somewhat unstable world. She explains:

Personal capacities once again become decisive: a sense for proportions, sensitivity, alertness, reflection, and judgement that is informed not only by knowledge, but also by intuition and personal experience (Assmann, 1994, p. 204). 

Personal experience was one reason old age had been valued in earlier times. Another reason was the shifting perspective of individuals as they grew older, a developmental shift to an awareness of their mortality and recognition of their finite place within the universe, and their willingness to pass on what they had learned. But in a postmodern world in which technology is fast-changing and the foundations of the past are being rocked to their core, can we count on the wisdom of age to be useful?

Women Growing Older web site

For the project on the lives of women as they grow older I have been interviewing women with the aim of having their stories, accompanied by name and photo, on the web site I created for that purpose, where they could be viewed by anyone with access to the internet. This particular collection of six women came to be titled London Women (McPherson, 2004). What is important to know, at this point, is that I wrote the life stories following interviews, attempting to draw out of the interview material and put across what I felt was most significant about the women and their lives at that point in time. During the research process I took into consideration the sensitive nature of the research, including sensitivities and possible consequences to the participants (see Sieber, 1993), especially due to the fact the identities of the participants would not be confidential. I sent the finished story to each participant to ensure that she approved of it, settled problems relating to wording and what should or should not be included, then posted the stories on the web site.

My aim, first of all, was to place the collection of six life stories on the web site created for the purpose of displaying them, each of them accompanied by the person’s name and photo. The introduction followed, to explain briefly what the site was about. I was not planning to conduct an in-depth analysis of what the women told me about themselves, their families and their lives, a move I considered invasive under these circumstances particularly, where the women’s identities are not hidden and details about their lives have been made public. I added links to other sites and web pages, expanding on the original thoughts and information in the stories. My intention now and for the future is to ensure that the site displays historical and cultural information on the backgrounds of the women, and to further the theoretical perspectives, if it seems appropriate, while adding further collections to the site. 

Although my aim was to have the six stories fit within a framework, including information on families, work, and other interests from early on to the current time, the stories were not alike in the way they were written. The style of each varied depending on the particular experience of life, the current place from which the person was speaking, and the person’s own way of interacting. Although the term narrative is often used to refer to such stories, the word story seems a better fit for the work I do. Donald Polkinghorne (1995) refers to the story as a specific kind of discourse production, in which “events and actions are drawn together into an organized whole by means of a plot” (p. 7). While story carries a connotation of falsehood, the term in its general sense is used to signify narratives that work in this manner, he explains, to “express a kind of knowledge that uniquely describes human experience in which actions and happenings contribute positively and negatively to attaining goals and fulfilling purposes” (p. 8).  

From the group of six life stories I have selected two to illustrate ideas and concepts about life stories and specifically on the theme of wisdom. One of these is Hazel’s story and the anecdote she tells about attempting to walk uphill to reach a particularly beautiful place. Let me turn first, however, to Molly, starting with this brief summary of her life story.  
Molly's story

Molly is sixty-seven years old, married with two children and four grandchildren, is now retired, and a life-long resident of London. She has always worked, but did not have a long-lasting career in any one field of work. After earning a degree in English at a London polytechnic at age forty-one, she started teaching, but ten years later there came an opportunity to join her husband in Palestine where he was working. On her return three years later she taught at secondary schools until deciding to retire, at age sixty-one, continuing then with teaching and related work at primary schools. During this time her children grew up and went on to have families and careers of their own. Their daughter, a single parent, lives with them, though in a separate part of the house. Molly now does quite a bit of volunteer work in various organisations, along with paid work when schools have it for her to do. Her interests in culture and entertainment are last on the list, not due to lack of interest but because of limitations of time and energy.

Jerome Bruner (1987), psychologist, describes what he sees as the two landscapes of narratives, one of action and one of consciousness. This duality, he says, is an essential ingredient of any single narrative and can be understood, fundamentally, as what people do and the internal processes that accompany that or, as he says, describing the actors in way of explanation, “they hope, are doubting and confused, wonder about appearance and reality” (p. 20). Bruner is suggesting that both these characteristics are present in each narrative, although perhaps one might expect there would be more of one characteristic than the other in any one narrative. I discovered that, for one of the life stories of the London women, the consciousness part, which I took to mean self-reflection, dominated the story whereas action, though also an appropriate fit, was less striking. 

A significant part of Molly’s story, as it appears on the web site London Women, was written using her own words. Her way of telling about herself during the interview, and phrases and sentences from the taped interview, became incorporated into the written story. I became the editor, snipping and assembling the thoughts she verbalized into coherence, so that the story would be the proper length and suitable within the overall framework of the group of six.  

Bruner explains a phenomenon of seeing the “omniscient narrator” disappearing into the subjective worlds of the story’s protagonists as it does in literature (p. 21). Thus, rather than an external narrator, researcher, or wise person having command of the truth of the matter there is what Bruner refers to as “subjectivizing,” to characterize “a shift from emphasis on actuality to the evocation of possibility” through subjective discourse (p. 20). 

Thus, the story unfolds.  

The brief account of Molly’s life included here by no means conveys the subjectivizing that actually occurred during the interview and within the written account of the life story. Bruner suggests that “any story one may tell about anything is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it can be told” (p. 32). He is referring to how people put together stories of their own life, and how we can learn from considering how they might have proceeded, but we can also examine our own constructions of the life stories of others, using Bruner's concepts. I am quite sure that the life story for Molly, the final version now on the web site, is the best one for this particular time in her life. It puts across the process of self-reflection she was engaging in - her hopes, doubts, and attempts to have it make sense of her life, and perhaps to have her life make sense for her. It has not been my intention to diminish the active part of her life - her family commitments, her teaching, the volunteer positions she takes on, and other cultural interests, but the emphasis has been on this attribute of Molly that came through in her story.

Assmann speaks of literary texts and what they offer: 

…valuable and more permanent information as to the historically changing nature of human beings, their aspirations and desires, their ideals and illusions, their problems and distresses, and their values and rules for behaviour within different social frameworks (p. 189).

The story of Molly, reflecting her own conscience and experience of life, to my mind brings in several of these features. It seemed to me, however, that Molly offered no great pronouncements of wisdom, that her words offered no sage advice on how to live one’s life or solve a particular problem. Yet her story, or at least the way she told it, as she mulled over ideas and possible explanations for the circumstances in her life, had a certain quality to it. Once again, the question we ask is, What is wisdom?  

Human beings, Assmann says, “are generally neither thoroughly foolish nor exclusively wise. They are odd, irrational mixtures of both” (p. 190), the question of what wisdom is, an artificial one, a scientific question. She sees it as “problematic to treat wisdom as a general topic abstracted from the interpersonal context, where it is generated.” But “validated action, behaviour or attitude” comes the closest (p. 190). In Molly’s story, it was not any one thing she said that stood out so much as the process of self-reflection and the way she expressed herself. The life story online explains the conflict within her life of duty versus self-satisfaction, and tells about her adjustment to retirement. Although officially retired, she has her own feelings about how her life fits into that model; half-retirement, she calls it. Her life story, told to a large extent in her own words, relays some of her concerns and her ways of dealing with them.

Hazel: a story within a story

The second life story from the collection of London women is that of Hazel, aged seventy-two, who came to England from South Africa when she was a young woman, leaving her family behind. Once here, she trained to be a nurse, then followed this up with further training in related areas, one job almost seeming to evolve out of the previous one. Throughout this time she maintained an ongoing open relationship with a fellow South African. More to the point, Hazel seemed to enjoy telling anecdotes about situations she had encountered in her life. Telling such stories was part of her style of communicating, at least in that situation of the interview. She believes her upbringing in South Africa where, she says, older people were respected, has made a difference to her approach to growing older. This is one of the stories she told me:

         In order to get to a really beautiful place you had to go up this little incline, and
         I started going up there and my legs just wouldn’t go - and I just stopped. And 
         she looked behind and realised I wasn’t with them any longer, and she said, 
        ‘Come on!’ And I said ‘No. You go up and I’ll see you later.’ But see, she 
         wouldn’t. . . . Another time I went out and the person I was with just accepted 
         that I couldn’t walk and just went on. And then came back and met me. . . But 
         not everybody can do that (Hazel).

The anecdote Hazel told had been in response to my question about her health as she grew older. The story reflected her acceptance of her limitations, but also suggested something more than that, about how she would have liked other people to be, with her, in that situation. The division between the vitality of youth and the health and mobility problems that affect many of the older generation are in part due to there not being any mutual understanding on how to deal with them in practical situations. While this solution might not be acceptable to all, in all circumstances, it is one that Hazel favoured, at least during that episode.  

         “The achievement of wisdom is to suggest new options at a moment when life
          is paralyzed,” says Assmann, explaining further, 

        They do not lay out the general principles of how to deal with similar problems
        in the future. Wisdom, unlike the utopian spirit, is not driven by the question of 
        how to change the world for the better… It accepts the fact that there are no 
        definite solutions and that the course of life remains always essentially unstable,         threatened by dilemmas and crises. Under these circumstances, wisdom looks 
        for strategic devices to make life more bearable and worthwhile (Assmann, 1994,
        p. 194).

Wisdom, in these circumstances, has a chance when the potential for personal action is not defined by rules and obligations, when problems arise for which there are no institutionalised responses, and where there is “a confidence in an implicit order that supplies orientation” (p. 196). I would suggest that Hazel’s anecdote fulfils the necessary prerequisites to qualify as wisdom, as described in these paragraphs. Generalising her response to all such situations might not be for the best, but in this situation it seemed to be a solution that worked.  

Continuity and change

“The art of storytelling,” according to Aleida Assmann, “is dependent on a chain of generations, transmitting experiences, reflections, and values within a framework of recognisable circumstances” (p. 217). Within this set of values, the theme of continuity is implied also. Whether it is the idea of stories continuing down through the generations, or of the continuity of the lives of individuals where breaks in careers or marriages can stop the flow - necessitating life to be started again another way, continuity has in the past been the norm. In postmodernity, however, the value of continuity, or at least the sense of it in society, may have changed. In the areas of work, for instance, and relationships, the emphasis is on change rather than the long term, although there are arguments on both sides as to the benefits of continuous commitment regardless of circumstances, by employers, employees, and partners in relationships. The life cycle of the individual, rather than being perceived of in terms of stages, as Erikson had, is less certain in its progression, and in terms of employment and relationships is less stable. Do the stories of the past, handed down from earlier generations, have any real bearing on lives like these, of the current younger generation?

There is a devaluation of experience in this world today, Assmann states, referring to philosopher O. Marquard’s view that the acceleration of change in the world leads to a lessening of relevant knowledge rather than a steady accumulation. Marquard’s analysis included the idea that there was coming to be “a growing dependence on the kind of knowledge that is no longer related to experience,” whereby there is “a continuous compulsion to learn as a substitute for experience” (Marquard, cited in Assmann, pp. 218-19). Ideas about learning have changed from being what people did in their youth to prepare for the future to now being seen as needing to be continuous, throughout one’s life, via formal means, the concept of continuing education being extended over the years to include more of the older generation as learners once again. Courses are now offered on almost any aspect of life for students of all ages. A new tradition has begun, whereby knowledge gained from credited sources is considered more valuable than knowledge gained informally, and possibly what that suggests is that knowledge gained through the life experience of the older generation has no part in the education of the young. Joan Tronto (1999) remarks, “Our society thrives on ‘information,’ but knowledge conceived as accumulating greater amounts of ‘useful information’ is very different from knowledge that comes from long practical experience or from serious reflection on the human condition” (p. 273). 

Is there a place for wisdom of age in our society? Polkinghorne (1995) suggests that “Narrative or stories discourse communicates worthwhile and thoughtful knowledge, although the form of this knowledge differs from that advocated in the received tradition” 
(p. 9). The two examples I have included here, from the life stories of Molly and Hazel, together are an example of knowledge that is not in the traditional tradition. As a pair, these two do not fit within the same epistemological framework. Each is distinct, needing to be understood from different perspectives. During the interview Molly engaged in a process of consciousness which I attempted to capture within the life story I later wrote. The life story is her looking at her life, contemplating, out loud, about her life. The other example, from Hazel's life story, consists of one quote - an anecdote she told from her own life about a dilemma she faced and how she thought it could be resolved. We could say that one example illustrates self-reflection over a period of time, the other a one-off strategy for problem-solving. These examples are not comparable, thus together do not fit into traditional patterns of knowledge in that sense. Furthermore, whether what they represent can be seen as knowledge - perhaps wholesome knowledge, or wisdom, is another matter. Whether this kind of knowledge - stories of the lives of women as they grow older, or stories from their lives - is considered to be knowledge, is the question.  

The research process

Given my own position as researcher I believe it is necessary to consider my place within this project, as interpreter of the material from the interviews and writer of the life stories. Rosalind Edwards and Jane Ribbens (1998) discuss problems of doing research into third World and other voices where, even beyond researcher bias, the problem of researcher dominance is always present, they claim. The researcher is in the position of interpreter of data from interviews, but additionally, they state:  

        She cannot evade the necessity to interpret the worlds and understandings of 
        the Other into a discourse or knowledge form that can be understood and 
        accepted within the dominant Western frameworks of knowledge and culture
        . . . Even as the researcher may seek to make herself apparent as the 
        translator, via self-reflexivity, she risks making herself more central to the 
        discourse (Edwards and Ribbens, 1998, p. 3).  

This way of perceiving the relationship between researcher and participant is in contrast to Jerome Bruner’s conception of the disappearing “omniscient narrator,” borrowed from the discipline of literature, tied to the idea of the story of experience, fictionalised. This perhaps explains the difference between his approach and the sociological perspectives of Edwards and Ribbens. Bruner continues to use this term while discussing his study on one family, making a point of announcing the end of the “omniscient auctorial voice” before moving on to the narrative text, to how the four family members construct themselves (p. 24). The research process involves interpretation, from either of these researcher positions.

Dominance, per se, is not a problem, as I see it, but whether it is a problem or not may depend on, first, whether the researcher intentionally misuses her position; second, to what extent the researcher is able to come to understand the life experience of participants throughout their life cycle as well as the historical influence; and third, whether her position and life experience interfere with communication between them. 

The personal framework through which I developed the Women Growing Older project has included my own experience of writing and revising my own life story and exploring how being a member of an earlier cohort has influenced my life. Seeing the participants not only as different to oneself but recognising similarities in experiences can enable the researcher to maintain what Marxist feminist scholar Maria Mies (1993) calls “conscious partiality,” ie. creating a “critical and dialectical” distance between researcher and participant while at the same time widening the consciousness of both (p. 68). It would not be unusual for older women to discover that they have had mutual experiences and hold similar perspectives on some matters, and this project has fulfilled that expectation for myself while providing further insight into differences in women’s lives.  

There are differences, also, in the work of researchers. Catherine Riessman (1993), sociologist and professor of Social Work, raises issues and problems about narrative research that do not apply to the work I am doing but which do need to be addressed. The approach she outlines in her book is appropriate, she says, for oral, first-person accounts of experience, though there is much in it that is useful, in my view, for anyone doing life histories, biographies, or other kinds of narrative research. At the conclusion of her book Riessman states that “Our ultimate goals as social scientists are to learn about substance, make theoretical claims through method, and learn about the general from the particular,” adding however, “Diversity of representations is needed” (p. 70). For my web site project I have approached the life stories of older women systematically, using an interactive research design (see Maxwell, 1996) though for further presentations of the stories, such as the current paper on narrative and wisdom, different ways of approaching their lives and understanding their experience and perceptions may perhaps be even more meaningful, even if substantive points are not made nor the results able to be generalised.  

Riessman’s approach is systematic and intensive, “interpreting their interpretations” (p. 5), “unpacking” speech, and paying close attention to narrative form (p. 70). At one point, critical of the use of the term narrative rather than life stories or excerpts from narratives, Riessman claims that these stories “do not pull the reader into the gritty detail of the past but instead summarize and gloss over past events and actions” (p. 31). I was very much aware that I had glossed over some very complex matters during the writing of the life stories, without giving them the attention they deserved. Instead of structured analysis, comparative research, intensive investigation of story, or searching for themes across stories I had six life stories of women, out of which there were only two I would focus on for the current paper, providing two very different examples of what I perceived to be wisdom.

One reason for this approach to the stories was that the women’s identities are not confidential. However, much of the detail was left out by my own choice in favour of what I had originally referred to as a summary of each person’s life. These are intended to be snapshots of the women’s lives, for the main part, to enable the reader to get a sense of who they are and what their lives have been like. 

At this point I decided that neither “lack of detail” nor “glossing over” provided an adequate description of the project Women Growing Older. The stories stand, as representations of women lives, for others to view on my web site. In one sense, as Thomas Barone (1995), in the field of Education, suggests, some stories can be left to stand alone, without analysis. “Some stories”, he says, “deserve their own space, with inviolable boundaries surrounding the message” (p. 72). Even without analysis, deserving or not, stories offer readers the opportunity to reflect upon their own experiences and the lives of others. “Meaning is fluid and contextual, not fixed and universal,” says Riessman (p. 15). On this, we agree. The significance of what we read may depend on the context in which it is said as well our own subjective reading, based on our own knowledge, and even that may change from one reading to the next.

Diversity, and lives that mesh

In applying Erikson’s life cycle model to three older women’s life cycle journeys, taken from non-fiction and fiction sources, sociologist Natalie Rosel (1988) explains how she compares her study to Erikson’s use of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. She claims that the developmental dimension of ageing is confirmed and the dialectical nature of integrity versus despair is evident in the lives of the women (p. 20). She mentions the phrase “rightness,” which is how one of the women described her life - the rightness of it. To the concept of despair she has added on “the comprehensive level of disappointment in humanity, and the sheer exhaustion of using up one’s seemingly fixed amount of energy” (p 21), which the women in her study also mentioned. Following Erikson’s lead in flexibility, in her study wisdom is represented by several meanings: “mature knowledge and understanding; folk wit; a detached yet active concern with life; and by self-possession” (p. 22).  

The octogenarians in Rosel’s study have pointed out “the importance of frailty, vulnerability, clarity, intensity, and the joys and sorrows of aging experienced on a daily basis” (p. 22). Brief life stories, such as those on the London women, however, have limited capacity for drawing out these aspects of women’s lives, nor were they written for this purpose.

 Nevertheless, the four women I have not yet mentioned - Astra, Firoze, Marj, and Sylvia, all in their seventies, have confirmed one or more of these expressions of emotions in the telling of their lives. For this group, all of whom were women growing older, similarities were apparent in their lives as older women, living in London. “Life stories must mesh, so to speak, within a community of life stories,” explains Bruner, continuing,

        Tellers and listeners must share some “deep structure” about the nature of a 
        “life,” for if the rules of life-telling are altogether arbitrary, tellers and listeners 
        will surely be alienated by a failure to grasp what the other is saying or what 
        he thinks the other is hearing (Bruner, 1987, p. 21).

His example of lives that mesh, and one that he explores in detail, is a particular family, whose ways of structuring experience are discovered to be similar to one another, as he explains:

The ways of telling and the ways of conceptualizing that go with them become so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory, for not only guiding the life narrative up to the present but directing it into the future (Bruner, 1987, p. 31).

All six London women share common factors in that they are older women, in their mid-sixties and above, and are no longer participating in the work force on a regular basis, if at all. Their life experience has been varied, however, and although it might be said that the life stories mesh on the basis of common elements, their individual ways of structuring experience could well differ. In general, women are more likely than men to work part-time and less likely to have long-term careers (Equal Opportunities Commission, 2004, p. 4). Beyond that, the ways women live their lives, managing families or as single women, are diverse. 

Wisdom, the life cycle, and social change

The writing of this paper has been an interdisciplinary endeavour, bring together knowledge from sources in sociology, political science, literature, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, psychoanalytic theory, feminism, social work, and psychotherapy. Although she writes from within the discipline of Literature, Assmann discloses that she has been stimulated by historical anthropology as well as influenced by an informal interdisciplinary group of German scholars whose focus of concentration has been wisdom and the problem of its universality (p. 189).

Expanding on philosopher Walter Benjamin’s ideas on wisdom through to A. Hahn’s perspective from sociology, Assmann reflects on wisdom and continuity: 

        The ancient logic of continuity was contained in the maxim: ars longa, vita 
        brevis. Life is short, fleeting, fragmentary but knowledge and experience 
        persevere. The discontinuity of human existence finds its remedy in the 
        continuity of tradition. The conditions of modernity have inverted the logic. 
        Now the values and patterns of life change even more rapidly than the 
        individuals: ars brevis, vita longa. Today, we are witnessing within a life span 
        a deeper change in the fundamental conditions and pragmatics of life than 
        former generations have within centuries” (Hahn, cited in Assmann, 1994, pp.

The value of experience and age-related wisdom is questionable, if this statement holds true, although if wisdom that lives “below the surfaces of tangible appearances” (p. 191) is able to emerge, coming as it might from “among the group of the population least associated with the prestigious education of the literati” (p. 192), such wisdom might be “linked with an awareness of the immanent laws of life,” the knowledge used “to restore lost balance or promote reintegration” (Assmann, p. 193). 

Erikson’s model of the life cycle and work on identity, in social psychology and psychoanalytic theory, have been vital in developing my own interest in this subject over the years, although I have gone on to delve into ageing and women's lives from many other perspectives also. For Erikson, wisdom was associated with the developmental task of achieving resolution of the struggle of despair versus ego integrity, with the aim of integrating these. The place of the older generation in society once was to teach the next generation, or to leave a legacy by which what they had experienced or had learned through life experience could be passed down. The telling of stories orally has been one means, and writing them down, another. But whether such stories from the older generation in today’s society are seen as having value, and whether they in fact do, is the matter at hand.  

What exactly is this historic, adaptive resource of wisdom? The word cope hints at the role of wisdom in the postmodern scenario. The advantage of wisdom before science and theory lies in its pragmatic imagination. It is a type of knowledge that does not proceed inexorably along fixed lines. Instead, it flexibly adjusts to unexpected situations (Assmann, p. 204).

Assmann suggests that wisdom does not belong to the “wise person” but is generated between at least two people. “Wisdom is generated in the eye of the beholder, and not in that of the observer.” The observer simply observes, but the beholder, Assmann says, “constitutes wisdom by identifying it” (p. 222). The two life stories referred to in this paper are an indication of the diverse experiences of women and the different ways people have of thinking and telling about their lives although not all readers would agree that they represent wisdom. As a whole, the collection of life stories, London Women, is a source of lived experience that readers can turn to in their own way, for information, or as sources of inspiration and reflection. 

The life stories of Hazel and Molly can be found the website, Diversity in Retirement




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