One of quickest ways to check the age of a horse is to pry open its jaws. Though the horse-dealing business rife with human-spun stories and fabricated pedigrees, the topography of a horse’s gums doesn’t lie: The dark vertical grooves in the front teeth of a 15-year-old look nothing like a 3-year-old’s milk-white, rounded ones. The number and pattern of equine teeth are also a giveaway—the presence of certain pointed canines and a steepened angle of the incisors means that a horse is 5, rather than 2.
Teeth—both horse and human—operate on a reliable timeline, according deep genetic programming. It’s incredible, really, how independent of outside input, the animal body marks the passing of time. We all lose our milk teeth and tuck them under our pillows before we hit puberty. Throughout adolescence we get several new sets of molars that nudge their way to the surface sometime around the age of 20. The body ages and matures reliably, predictably, whether we will it to or not.
There’s nothing like last-minute wisdom tooth extraction—and a week spent sitting with gauze pads chomped between your gums to stem the oozing from four giant mouth holes—to get you thinking about how little control you have over the body’s aging process. Dribbling onto my shirt, I have also been pondering the irony of these final sets of molars being called “wisdom” teeth, when at age 23, the most I can hope to say is that I’ve stumbled onto the path that winds vaguely towards wisdom.
Chronological age and wisdom may be related, but it’s certainly not a perfect correlation. When I was small, (as a sheltered kid with loving parents and no major life catastrophes that made me realize otherwise), I assumed that anyone over the age of 20 knew exactly how the world works—that they were wise, all-knowing. Only now that I’m heading towards age 24 do I realize that just because you have all your teeth and have romped on this planet for 20, 30, 60, or even 70 years, it hardly guarantees you are becoming wiser. How much is wisdom a thing passively earned through experience, and how much is it an achievement that must be actively, patiently sought and fought for?