Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor tells the story about an out-of-bottle genie offering a professor the choice of extremely good looks, a million dollars, or wisdom.
The professor chooses wisdom and is instantly imbued with brilliant insight into the purpose and meaning of life. But he quickly bows his head in quiet disappointment. More than two minutes of silence passes. Hesitatingly, his wife asks, "What's wrong?"
"I wish I'd taken the million dollars," he laments.
In the autumn and winter of our lives, there is time to look back upon the opportunities life presented us with, and the choices we made. Why did we make the choices we made? "Is there," as Law School Secretary Stephanie Bonaiuto contends, "a reason for everything?"
Is wisdom delivered, not by a genie, but gradually and painfully, through success and failure, happiness and sorrow, good decisions and bad decisions? Do we listen more intently at 70 than at 40? Do we eventually see the impulses of our youth for what they were: hollow, ego-driven self-deceptions?
Most of us, most of the time, opted for the pursuit of financial well-being, rather than for the self-discipline of wisdom. Much of our response was driven by gut-level survival; but more frequently we chose to be competitive, to jostle for a position in the lead pack of whatever pack we found ourselves in.
When restless, when anxious, we turned to the tried-and-true distractions of accumulation and feathering our nest for a fantasy retirement on a sun-drenched beachfront. However, at 75 or 85, we learn that beachfronts and sailboats are illusory. Rotator cuffs protest when pulling a tiller; lower backs strain when raising the mainsheet.
The professor made the right choice. Wisdom trumps money. Wisdom delivers peace to a soul, whether housed in a captain's body, or in the body of a wheelchair-bound observer peering from the window of a one-bedroom HUD-subsidized apartment.
All souls are created equal. Their inequity lies not within their circumstances, but within the choices they make.
If you had it to do over, would you make the same decisions? You would? Are you sure?
(Pro bono legal information is available to persons 55 and older through the USD Senior Legal Helpline, 1-800-747-1895; firstname.lastname@example.org).