This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a copy of Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.” What a downer! It’s like being given an advance screening of a movie about the train wreck my body and life will become over the next 20 years, presuming I don’t derail before then; eventually this breaks down, then that falls apart, then you can’t do this and pretty soon the combined effects of all this deterioration … and on and on and on. Regardless of the ending, the journey depicted isn’t pretty.

Given our unenviable status as the nation’s oldest state, it seemed that Gawande’s call to action for reform of medical practice and health care policy toward the elderly would be applicable for Maine. But the more I pondered this topic, the clearer it became that the real message here concerns the ultimate product of human experience. Is it fear? Or is it wisdom?

Fear leads to circle the wagons, to shut down, to see the world increasingly as “us versus them.” Fear leads to grasping what we have ever more tightly, because it was so painstakingly acquired and, given the increasingly mysterious and threatening future we face, because it could all so easily be lost. Fear is natural, primordial. It is fight or flight. Fear colors every perception; turns every proposal that may test our comfort zone of understanding into a threat and makes our politics ever more partisan and rigid. Fear produces the same reduction in flexibility, the same accumulation of toxins, the same calcifications, the same loss of connections in the body politic that Gawande projects for the body physical.

So is political and economic “aging” as inevitable as physical aging? Are democracy and free enterprise, as complex systems, doomed to the same inevitable collapse as our physical bodies? Is government “of the people … by the people … for the people” doomed to “perish from the earth”?

My hope is certainly that such an outcome is not inevitable. And my reason for such hope is a belief that fear need not be the inevitable winner on the battlefield of human experience. I believe in the other possible outcome: wisdom. I believe that those who have come through years of experience, both painful and joyful, and have accumulated knowledge, both through the virtue of self-discipline and the blessings of good fortune, can come to see their positions not as foxholes to be defended but as gifts to be shared.

I believe that a predisposition to respect another’s experience can, if reinforced as a desirable social norm, replace the predisposition to fear and disrespect the very person of those whose opinions we find disagreeable. Getting old and facing the unknown are both difficult. But fear and its insidious consequences need not be the only result. My hope for this coming year is that Maine may turn its status as the nation’s oldest state into the banner of becoming the nation’s wisest state.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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