What Happened to Wisdom?

(Artwork the courtesy of Karla Jean Gallagher.  See more at www.missprintsandmasterpieces.com,)

This past weekend we attended a large party for a friend’s 75th birthday.  It was a surprise party and about 60 people were there to celebrate this man’s life.  Many of the people there were former students who showed their respect and appreciation for his teaching acumen and his knowledge.  Even though I had known him for only about five years, my partner and I were invited to join the party.  Perhaps, the invitation came as a consequence of us inviting him and his wife to my 75th birthday party about a year earlier.

At my party, we had provided a red blend wine called F.Y.I.  At the party, when I showed our friend the bottle of wine, he asked what F.Y.I meant, and I explained it meant “For Your Information.”  He chuckled at that and accepted a glass of wine.  Later, I went around offering additional pours for our guests.  Knowing our friend was an academician who genuinely appreciated learning and sharing new information and knowledge when I came to him, I asked, “Would you like more information?”  This time, he laughed heartily and readily accepted the pour.  I joked with him, declaring, “You can never have too much information, right?”  This exchange of “information,” became an amusing connection between us at parties over the next few years up until his surprise birthday party this past weekend, when I told this story to the guests at his party.

The next day I began thinking that I may have missed an opportunity to share something a little deeper.  I started thinking about the differences between information, knowledge, and wisdom.  Gathering Information is purely an accumulation of facts, dates, statistics, and data.  History is often taught this way, and frankly, is quite boring.  Knowledge is a deeper understanding, integrating, and connecting of various pieces of information.  But what is wisdom?

We can talk about information and knowledge without referring to a person or persons.  Can we speak of wisdom without a human reference point?  I do not think so.  That suggests wisdom is a character trait–some quality or aspect of a person.  Do you know anyone who you consider wise?  Does a particular person, contemporary or historical, leap into your awareness?  I hope so, but sadly, there seem to be way too few wise people in contemporary society.  There could be at least three reasons for this: 1) not that many of them exist; 2) they exist but do not make themselves known; or, 3) they exist but we are not listening to them.  Whatever the reason or reasons, humanity always seems to be short on wisdom.

Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson in their pioneering book Character Strengths and Virtues (2004) devoted a great deal of attention to wisdom and prodded psychological researchers to conduct extensive studies of the origins, components, and consequences of wisdom. They identified 5 elements they believed to be integral to the development and expression of wisdom: 1) creativity; 2) curiosity; 3) open-mindedness; 4) love of learning; and, 5) perspective. I agree wholeheartedly with their assessment, and I refer you to previous articles I have written on creativity (The Simplicity of Creativity), curiosity (Did Curiosity Really Kill the Cat?), and open-mindedness (Are You Grown Up?).  However, I believe there is another very important aspect of wisdom, and that is acceptance.

Like all powerful concepts, acceptance has cognitive and behavioral components.  The cognitive component is having a readiness and willingness to acknowledge and face whatever is unfolding in one’s life at any given moment.  This readiness and willingness is the foundation for clarity of purpose which spurs effective action.  The opposite of wisdom is the refusal to accept what is, which gets expressed as denial, blame, or rationalization, all of which are psychological defense mechanisms to avoid facing the truth.  Not facing the truth of a situation or outcome is always unwise.  

The behavioral component of acceptance is acting only from clarity and with the purpose to do no harm.  Wise people will act spontaneously from non-fear-based states of mind (gratitude, compassion, joy, wonder, appreciation, etc.), but they do not act impulsively from fear-based states of mind (anger, bitterness, hatred, anxiety, etc.).  Consequently, their actions bring about harmony, unity, understanding, resolution, or collaboration in difficult situations.

There are people who just seem to be wise even though they are very young.  When you meet someone like this, you might think “She or he must be an old soul.”  That is because most people seem to become wise by living long lives filled with challenges, upheavals, losses, disappointments, and setbacks.  In a way, life forces us to become wise, because if we don’t we suffer  Nevertheless, there is a great deal of bitterness, resentment, jealousy, rage, hatred, vengefulness, and violence embedded in the human condition, so neither a challenging life nor a long life are guarantees to wisdom.

That raises the question “Can people learn to be wise?”  I believe the answer is “yes!”  This brings me back to my birthday friend.  I have not known him long enough to say he is wise, but I have interacted with him enough to see he demonstrates many of the components that comprise wisdom–curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, and perspective.  If you make a conscious decision to practice these components, plus choose to approach life with acceptance you are on the road to wisdom.  The next time I know my friend will be at a party, I am going to look for a bottle of wine named F.Y.W.–For Your Wisdom!

6 Comments

  1. Paco Macías Velasco

    Interesting article you wrote about WISDOM my friend.
    And it’s all interesting, but I stop at the question at the end “Can people learn to be wise?
    And although certain traits can be classified as denoting a certain wisdom, I prefer to believe that wisdom is a sum of intangibles.
    This brings me to Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, whose precepts have been with me for decades like a small bedside book and whose greatest precept is that the Tao is everything and nothing and is also unpronounceable and therefore indefinable.
    Some phrases of Lao Tzu:
    “Whoever is not happy with little, will not be happy with much.”
    “Being deeply loved gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
    “Whoever does not want does not get frustrated. And whoever doesn’t get frustrated doesn’t degrade. Thus, the true sage waits quietly, while everything happens and desires do not rule. Thus peace and harmony take place and the world follows its natural course.”
    And I want to quote another wise man, this one is an ancient emperor of Texcoco (near. Tenochtitlan,Mexico city), his name was Nezahualcóyotl, poet, scholar and architect.
    Among many poems he wrote this:
    “I love the song of the mockingbird,
    bird of the four hundred voices.
    I love the color of jade
    and the enervating perfume of the flowers,
    but what I love the most is my brother,
    the man.
    Or this other one, which for me in particular is my favourite;
    “How should I go?
    Shall I leave nothing behind me on earth?
    How should my heart act?
    Did we come to live in vain,
    to sprout on the ground?
    Let’s at least leave flowers
    Let’s at least leave songs”
    My friend, I do not pretend to reach wisdom, but at least through wise people they have been my beacon, my guide to the highest goal of my ephemeral existence in this life.

  2. Kathy Lewis

    What an insightful article! Keeping my eye out for FYW wine. Love you my real good friend.

  3. Steve Johnson

    Excellent! “Wisdom is the ability to learn from SOMEONE ELSE’S experience.” Hence, our groups!!

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