I wish I knew where wisdom comes from. Then, maybe I’d do a better job of wising up to all the challenges that still dog me… Or rather, wising up to addressing those everyday issues in smarter, more effective ways.
I’m revisiting this subject — what comprises good, broad-based judgment — in light of a few personal goals.
I would like to think that age automatically makes us wise. If not age, how about a momentous ‘light bulb’ moment or two… or ten?
Why does it take some of us so long to master key life lessons? Why do we repeat our mistakes so many times before finally changing perceptions and as needed, direction?
And the Proverb Says…
“Early to bed, early to rise… makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
I remember hearing these words as a child, skeptical of their applicability to anything I cared about, especially then.
Now you might argue that the sole purpose of this saying is to encourage a full night’s sleep, especially in the case of a kid with a preference for staying up past midnight. But what about the notions of “healthy, wealthy, and wise?”
Dismissing the gender bias (as all things were gender biased in the 60s), let’s hop, skip, and jump to the heart of the matter, and for me, that’s the issue of wisdom.
Wisdom is a formidable topic, isn’t it? Don’t we make all sorts of assumptions about what constitutes wisdom, not to mention who is wise and how they got that way? What truly lies at the source of wisdom? Why do some people seem to possess that mature “knowing-ness” even when young? Why is it that some never do?
Early to Bed, Early to Rise… What Makes Us Wise?
I’m not denying the “wisdom” in sleep; it helps us learn, process, renew, and maintain perspective. We know a good deal about the importance of sufficient sleep to our physical and mental health. However, I doubt that the schedule by which I lay my head to rest (and pick it back up again) has much to do with any sagesse that I may have on hand.
If you ask me, experience grants wisdom – but only if we have the ability to transform that experience and infuse it with awareness, context, and a very honest eye.
This New York Times column, “The Science of Older and Wiser,” explores the concept of wisdom, in particular with regard to age and the quality of information that appears in the “older brain.”
Of note in the article, first and foremost:
… wisdom consists of three key components: cognition, reflection and compassion.
Older and Wiser? Not Necessarily
And I find myself nodding my head, in particular at the willingness to examine the life we’re leading and yes, the compassion with which we can apply our lessons to others in helpful ways. Yet we must also be able to discern when our experience is irrelevant.
While this article delves into the science of wisdom as its title suggests, the element of compassion is compelling. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take compassion to mean sympathy for and sensitivity to others.
When I consider my mother, a woman with a brilliant mind and a life rich in experience, I nonetheless remember her as lacking compassion. Instead, she was more likely to be unduly critical, self-aggrandizing, and in surprising ways exhibited a very narrow perspective. This was her norm — despite travel, study, and a hunger for knowledge that she fed by going to school For most of her life.
Admitting that I’m not an objective source in this matter, I can nonetheless think back on her inability to move beyond her own frame of reference. Consequently, she was older and more knowledgeable, but not necessarily older and wiser.
Wisdom by Subject Matter
After taking my own stab (above) at what wisdom means to me, I venture into a more official definition, which is:
… knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot… good sense or judgment…
Knowledge? Sure, we buy that. Knowledge by way of experience suggests the ability to discern subtleties and, we tend to assume, compassion.
So what about wisdom having to do with specific subject matter? Again using my mother as an example, could she have had wisdom to share with regard to subjects such traveling over 40 or navigating the educational system? Could she have had personal experience to share about marriage, but no wisdom on that score, as a result of that experience and an absence of something else?
When Does Experience Become Wisdom?
Knowledge is not the same as the ability to apply it. Experience doesn’t automatically endow us with the ability to interpret nuance. “Good judgment” in one area may imply a broader sensibility, but in my mother’s case (for example), she recognized subtlety in some areas while insisting on a woefully black and white view in others.
In contrast, an 80-something-year-old woman with whom I have spent time offers none of the overbearing declarations that were part of my mother’s psychological makeup. If anything, my octogenarian companion’s experience seems to leave her wide open – to humor, acceptance, and a gracious absence of judgment when it comes to anyone but herself.
The Older Brain is a Potentially Wiser Brain
While the article in The Times helps us understand that the older brain is more capable of recognizing the subtleties acquired through experience, age alone doesn’t yield wisdom. Not by a long shot. And of course, some young people seem to be “wise beyond their years,” innately empathetic and capable of seeing beyond the obvious.
Citing Ursula Staudinger, psychologist and professor at Columbia University, wisdom is far more complex than the simplistic dictionary definition would lead us to believe.
True personal wisdom involves five elements… self-insight; the ability to demonstrate personal growth; self-awareness…; understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and an awareness of life’s ambiguities.
Are You Wise?
Considering Professor Staudinger’s five factors for wisdom, my mother fell down on the first, third, and fourth, this last being, in my opinion, the most fundamental when it comes to establishing connections to others and also, essential to personal growth.
Clearly, psychological makeup is critical to one’s ability to gain or impart wisdom – appreciating situational subtlety, knowing when to speak up and when to keep silent, and exercising judgment along with compassion.
So here I am. Perhaps like you. I find myself pondering aspects of my own experience and personality, wondering if I’ve gained wisdom as a result of the former and facilitated by the latter. I also wonder if wisdom can coexist with knowing that one is making (the same old?) mistakes. I’m guessing the answer to that one is… yes.
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