by Dr. Norris Frederick
We took a trip to visit our friend Flo recently. She still lives independently, at age ninety-four, in her house, with the help of a community of friends and neighbors.
A while back, a woman who lives in Flo’s 55-and-over community rang the doorbell. She told Flo that the ornament in the front yard was out of compliance with the community regulations: it was too tall and not the right color. Anything in the front had to be either brown or dark green.
Flo smiled warmly at the woman, and said, “That’s a bottle tree. Do you know what that is?”
The visitor looked vaguely put upon, as if with her magisterial powers she had far better things to do than to carry on a conversation with this outlaw. “No,” she replied, “I’ve never heard of a bottle tree,” exploding the “b” sound with disdain.
“It keeps away evil spirits,” said Flo. “And I think it would keep away evil spirits from you too. So it really would be better for us both if it could stay in my yard.”
The woman looked stricken, and she turned around, scuttled to her car and drove off as fast as possible.
Flo solved the problem by moving the bottle tree to the backyard, pictured below, a beautiful area bordering on a canal, and full of plants and wildlife.
Flo has a great deal of experience and a great deal of wisdom. (Some people who have much experience still have little wisdom). She has loved and outlived two husbands. She’s a witty and engaging person who very much enjoys a social life with her many friends. She’s not a saint: like all of us she sometimes get anxious or angry or speaks sharply to someone, and she does indeed appreciate a good vodka with sparkling water. However, she is remarkable in the ways she’s forged wisdom from her experience.
It’s challenging to capture all of Flo and her wisdom. She has so much of what Aristotle called “practical wisdom,” the ability to choose both appropriate goals and appropriate means to reach those goals. In the case of the community enforcer above, I think Flo knew that the woman needed to be made aware of her hubris — and therefore of the virtue of humility — and Flo accomplished that beautifully. With someone else in another situation, Flo might realize that what this person needs is comfort rather than a challenge.
Wisdom is more than knowledge, and it’s more than knowledge about a particular activity or field. It’s an ability to apply a deep knowledge to the aspects of life we all face as human beings. That deep knowledge encompasses a vision of the good life and the aspects of it that are most worthwhile, and about kind of person to be in order to realize that vision.
Flo is like Socrates in that she continues to search for wisdom, which means that like Socrates she realizes that she is not fully wise. Socrates’ mission in life began when a friend went to Dephi to consult the oracle of the god Apollo, the Greek god of order and beauty, knowledge, care for the young, and music among other things.
Socrates’ friend went to the oracle to ask a specific question: “Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?” The oracle answered, “No one is wiser than Socrates.” Socrates did not know how this could be true, so he set out to interview people held in high esteem in his society – including poets, politicians, business people, and religious experts – to understand their wisdom. He found that none of them had true wisdom, and he was confident he did not have true wisdom. He concluded that “I am wise in realizing I am not wise.”
Socrates’ view of wisdom conveys a paradox for us who think we see wisdom in others, as I do in Flo. If my own wisdom lies in realizing I’m not wise – and after all why would I be struck by a “wise person” unless I was searching for wisdom? — how do I know when I’ve found someone who is wise? Doesn’t claiming to have found someone who is wise imply a kind of wisdom?
My answer is that I can’t claim to know with certainty whether I’ve found a wise person. The best I can do is to watch, listen, think, read, and try things out. Ultimately, to use Kierkegaard’s phrase, I deem someone wise through a “leap of faith.”
Finding someone whose wisdom is helpful to me is an existential concern. In trying to answer the question of “How can I be an authentic and worthwhile person?” I make a wager of sorts, a wager that this person’s model will help me in my own quest.
Let me tell you a little more about Flo, and perhaps you will see in her the wisdom that I see.
The Comfort of Home, and the Journey toward Wisdom
Flo arises every morning in the dark, wheels her walker to the kitchen where she makes a cup of coffee, and then goes to the den where she sits and watches the sun rise. During this morning time she meditates, prays, reads insightful books and posts, and writes in her journal. This quiet time prepares her for the day, which sometimes is quiet, but more often involves friends and family coming to visit or to drive her to a doctor’s office or a store.
This sounds like an admirable and good life of someone who stays in her comfortable routines. But while Flo does love home, even at age 94 she continues to search and to learn. A few years ago her Episcopal church split off into two churches, over the roles of gay members of the church. Flo went with the group who supported equal roles for all members, gay or straight. She has a group of gay friends who regularly come to dinner at her house.
For years, Flo has hosted at her home a dream group, women who talk about and think about their dreams. As Flo told one of my philosophy classes at Queens University of Charlotte (from which Flo graduated in 1948), “I was in Jungian analysis for about eight years, and dreams are very much part of the unconscious which is so important in Jungian analysis. So I’m in a dream group where we meet once a week and explore our dreams, and I’m in a collage group which is sort of like a dream group where we sit around and tear out pages of magazines and form a collage and then we talk about it. I feel there is so much good in our unconscious that we sort of sit on and don’t let out and these are two ways that I work with my unconscious.”
Flo is courageous in continuing to explore her unconscious. If Jung is right there are some scary things there, including our “shadow self,” which is the dark side of the public self we’ve carefully constructed and wish to present to the world. It’s noticeable that Flo, nonetheless, sees the good in the unconscious and the knowledge she’s gained of herself.
She travels once a month from her home near the South Carolina coast to Lake Waccamaw to work with a spiritual adviser. She told that person recently, “I’m getting to the point where I don’t like the term ‘spiritual adviser.’ Can we instead be ‘spiritual companions’?’”
The dream group recently read a copy of the book Grounded, and the members talked about the church of the future, connected with the earth, where church members would work a plot of land on which they could grow vegetables and flowers. On Sundays the group would worship in the space of the greenhouse.
After a year of Pandemic
Early one morning on our visit I sat with Flo in her den, and she told me about the effects of the pandemic on her. “It’s been a hard year not getting out, but now I’m grateful for the opportunity. I feel like I have grown a great deal this year.”
When I was in my 20s or 30s, if someone had told me that a 94-year-old would talk about how much they had grown in the past year, I would have thought they were joking. Adults were supposed to be fixed in their lives, never changing. Even now that I’m past 70, I find her statement remarkable. And admirable. I would like to think I’ll still be growing as I approach Flo’s age.
“How have you grown?” I asked.
She replied, “One way is that I don’t fear death anymore. I think death will be some kind of transition. I don’t know what that transition will be like. I remember years ago, the night before I got married, thinking about the transition to being a married woman, and I wondered what it was going to be like to become this new version of myself. And that turned out all right.
“That’s the way I think now about death. I’m not ready to die yet, but when it comes I will be ready.”
Flo Speaking on her Philosophy of Life
Rather than my talking more about Flo, listen to her, in this video clip from her talk to my Biomedical Ethics class at Queens University in 2019. She came to talk during a part of the semester when the class was considering what it means to have not only a good death but also a good life.
My thanks to Flo for letting me share this video and for allowing me to write about her.