I wasn’t such a bad looking girl, just overweight so figured I’d never be beautiful. My sister was a lot prettier than I was but I was smart. That was what I had going for me. But I was harangued by my parents for my bad judgement. I they convinced me that this was something I could get better at. How do you make better decisions? I didn’t know. I needed to know.
I have alway had a deep, tender heart. I’ve had to exert control over what I showed outside. I was so easily manipulated by those who knew how much I cared. I had to make sure they didn’t know. But I knew. I had this feeling that good judgement came from wisdom. Since I saw myself as so smart, I figured what I needed was to become wise. How do you become wise?
Anything I’ve ever wanted to know about I read about. This was the 1960s and the rise of the self-actualization movement. There was the women’s lib movement, the rise of the use of drugs like LSD and mushrooms to get in touch with your inner being, the rise in groups that met to support each other in their journeys of self-discovery. I read Hugh Prather, Carlos Castinada, Heinlein, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and all those cool books of the 60s, 70s and 80s. I found them fascinating but wasn’t sure I was getting anywhere with this search for wisdom. It occurred to me that maybe my problem was a lack of clarity about what it was I was seeking. What is wisdom?
I can find definitions of wisdom in every dictionary. Wikipedia says: the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise. OK, but something is missing. When I meet someone wise I know it. I hear it as they speak. I know lots of people with experience who are just plain crazy, not wise. I know people with what is called good judgement who are the most boring people in the world. They don’t make mistakes because they are so afraid of making them they are mummified by their constraints. I know plenty of people who know a ton of stuff but seem a bit out to lunch. So who is wise, how are they different from others with these qualities?
When I meet someone who seems wise they appear to know a lot, their understanding of the interplay of events and feelings is deep. Tell them a story and they can predict the outcome and more importantly, why. They have a special gift of syntheses. Their vision doesn’t make them afraid but curious.
I was about 50 years old when I finally recognized what I was looking for. I had wondered in passing for years and years about this idea but only in my late 40s did I actually make it a priority task, to identity wisdom. We talk about it like it was some fixed point that you could just hike to and it would be yours forever. The idea that I could achieve or capture wisdom was probably the thing most in my way of recognizing it.
What I’ve come to believe is that wisdom is a nexus that creates a synergy. With all the things that happen to us we come to an understanding what those experiences meant for us. I’ve come to believe that everything has some meaning, even the small things. Often that meaning is as simple as that I’ve found something that gives me joy or pleasure or disappointment but there is something to be recalled.
It took me 2 years of some consistent thought about it but I decided the definition that worked for me is, wisdom is the intersection of knowledge and understanding. That means everyone has some if they learn from their choices. Making good choices really isn’t wisdom but the result of wisdom and discipline. It is like the really great doctors who smoke or abuse drugs. They know better but can’t get a grip on themselves. Knowledge becomes wisdom with the addition of acceptance of meaning and consequences. That requires the heart.
Heart-wisdom demands deep listening, deep silence, and space between thoughts and words. It isn’t judgmental, doesn’t stretch too hard to make assumption outside of what it knows. Watching people closely over time is essential to being able to take true meaning of experiences, yours and others. We know from our experience that certain things hurt, certain things are frightening, certain things comfort us, and each of those feelings can manifest in a whole range of behaviors from running and screaming to deep stillness.
At this point I feel like I’ve reached the point of being closer to the heart wisdom I seek. With age one has to hope. No one can be totally wise because we can’t know enough. We can know some, extrapolate some, and guess at some but we never really have the whole picture, even of ourselves. Wisdom doesn’t assure good choices but it can help. It makes you more cautious about hurting others and hopefully yourself. Wisdom avoids martyrdom in most cases. Giving your all is a thing lovers and parents do but that isn’t called wise, only loving or dedicated. It doesn’t keep us from making financial mistakes when we believe the wrong things.
Perfect judgement can’t exist. If perfection is in safety too much is lost. In being perfectly safe perfection is lost because it is in taking risks that we grow and expand. Safe judgement would avoid the decision points, the opportunity to take a risk, situations requiring taking risks. No, taking risks is how we get rich. We take a risks by caring, by competing, we risk loss and pain. But avoiding life isn’t wise. Those who chose to quit taking risks are seen as smart in money, or plants, or some specialized thing. Smart and wise are two different traits. Smart isn’t always wise but wise is always smart. The heart-wise are willing to take the risks, being open to pain and to joy.
Answering the question about what wisdom is has been helpful because I understand what I’ve done was actually exactly what I needed to do to get better at living. Chasing wisdom is useless, like trying to put light into a box to keep it. Being open to everything, taking it all in is the path. Being an active participant and observer is how we learn to use what we experience. The experience and the efforts to understand those experiences is the way.