By Lloyd Den Boer
Search your life and you will find a handful of people who touched it in exceptional ways. Early in my administrative career, Mrs. B. touched mine. Truth be told, if the choice had been mine, I would not have selected Mrs. B. for such a role. With her greying hair pinned back in a bun, her lengthy, shapeless skirts, her worn granny shoes, and her wooden cane, she hardly looked the part. Nor, for that matter, did Mrs. B. have any intention of being my adviser. She merely showed up in my office once a month over a period of eight years to talk to me. Nevertheless, the wisdom Mrs. B. shared — or, possibly better, the wisdom she modelled — enriched the way I approached my work.
Wisdom, we usually say, is a product of experience. Yet each of us has met people who have grown no wiser over many years despite their experiences. Shakespeare’s King Lear is such a character. Insulated from the consequences of his actions by the power of his position, Lear approached the end of his life with his pride, self-absorption, and delusions intact. Once his power is gone, Lear’s advantages are stripped from him, one after another, until he is left a destitute madman, howling hopelessly in the dark at the ravages of a storm. Only after he has experienced himself for what he is, and for no more than what he is, does Lear discover a kind of wisdom which values the truly valuable. The play ends tragically but with some of the tenderest expressions of love between a father and a daughter in all of Shakespeare.
In his self-centredness, self-delusion, and mistaken regard for such things as power, King Lear is a portrait of the lifelong foolishness that we sometimes recognize in others. Lifelong wisdom may be a harder quality to capture. In Mrs. B.’s case, her wisdom grew from living a long, difficult life well. Mrs. B. and her husband were immigrants to Canada. Widowed young, Mrs. B. raised a family on her own. Her grief incapacitated her until she realized that her husband would want her to face the responsibilities ahead with determination. Years later, the fruits of her determination were all around her — her children with thriving families of their own and a crowd of individuals whose lives she had touched and enriched. People like me.
Mrs. B.’s wisdom had many sides. She appraised every person and situation she met with keen insight. Mrs. B. was likely to know you for what you were, not for what you appeared to be. On the other hand, Mrs. B. approached everyone and everything with a patient spirit. She took the long view. Whether a situation was a crisis or a triumph to me, with a chuckle and twinkling eyes, Mrs. B. would remind me that life is long and filled with time for things to end differently than they began. Neither Mrs. B.’s keen insight nor her patient spirit would have touched so many lives, though, if they were not joined to her generous love for the people around her, to her mission to influence others so that they could thrive.
Decades have come and gone since the last time Mrs. B.’s chuckles helped me refocus my perspective on a problem. As those years have passed, you and I have been on a journey from being a young person reaching out to the elders who can touch our lives, to becoming elders who can reach out to touch the lives of others. When we do so, we can remember what made Mrs. B. influential: her generous desire to help others thrive.
Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator. His career spanned every level from elementary school to university level teacher preparation.