What is wisdom? From my experience wisdom is a glimpse of the eternal. An idea, philosophy, religion, piece of art, speech, that touches most people on a deep level. To put it another way, it’s something or some idea or concept which people across time and space recognize as a higher truth. Wisdom is also not necessarily something that catches on and spreads quickly. After his address at Gettysburg, Lincoln considered the speech a failure and later wrote of being depressed on the train ride back to DC. Van Gogh wasn’t alive when his first piece of art was finally purchased. Even Confucius expressed frustration that no prince or nobleman had appreciated his ideas enough to offer him a position at court. But I think it’s fair to say that almost everyone would now testify to the brilliance of Van Gogh’s artistic vision, the deep insights into ways of governing and moral living found in Confucius’ Analects and the bold vision for the United States found in a short speech by Lincoln.
So how do we know what wisdom is when it hits us in the face? I’ve come to believe that wisdom is to be found in the everyday events of our lives. The Tao Te Ching says, ” You can understand the world without ever leaving your room,” or, ” You can see the entire world in a single blade of grass.” In other words, wisdom is always right in front of us but we don’t acknowledge it, or can’t see it. My favorite illustration of this point is an example from about three years ago. I was talking with a friend of mine at school. We were conversing about the weather and I had just expressed irritation at the constant complaining by people that every day was either too hot or too cold, wet or dry, windy or calm. Pete responded, ” You know Dave, every year my wife complains in the summer that it’s too hot and in the winter that it’s too cold. I told her, ‘For the last 60 years of your life it’s been hot in summer and cold in winter, why are you complaining about something which has always been this way?'”
For me, Pete’s response beautifully illustrates what wisdom is: obvious knowledge which transcends time. My point is that wisdom doesn’t naturally come from the most well educated, the wealthiest, the brightest or the most famous. Our bookstores today are filled with the writings of famous or wealthy or physically talented people offering ideas about how to organize our closets or meditate better or any number of self-help ideas. But Pete’s insight cut right to the heart of our culture of complaining. Why complain about something which is forever? And many would say, ” Well of course, what your friend said is true. Everyone knows that!” To my point-everyone knows what weather comes along with summer and winter but they still complain. Wisdom would preach acceptance of the natural rhythm instead of complaining.
I believe that many people are often searching for wisdom in the wrong places which leads problems. It’s easy to identify people and places which are not sources of wisdom. Talk Radio is one example. I once met famous Fox commentator Laura Ingraham and she taught me a great deal about people who are supposed experts on TV. My school had invited Ingraham and several other people who made their living commenting on the news to a discussion of the 1996 presidential election. Ms. Ingraham was nice enough to meet with the History Department and share conversation after the event. The meeting was one of the most fascinating evenings I’ve ever had. It was on that cool October evening that Laura Ingraham taught me what our culture of talking heads and news wars was really about. That night, Laura Ingraham destroyed my belief that the most logical and well explained argument would win the day. She understood better than I that the future of news was not about being reasonable and thoughtful, it was about winning. During our discussion , I realized that Ms. Ingraham didn’t care at all about finding wisdom, she was just interested in whatever it took to win the day and move on to the next battle. It was an incredible lesson and one that has stayed with me for 25 years.
On a somewhat related note, do you know how long the lead story stays a lead story on the Yahoo news website? Ten minutes. This’s based on my own informal observation of the website, please feel free to gather your own empirical evidence about Yahoo or any other news agency online. How can we expect to find a broader perspective on the world by looking at things which only have an existence of ten minutes? Or gain deeper insights from a person or people ( Laura Ingraham is only one specific example of the type of person who tells us what to think on the news. She’s not an aberration, just a well known example) whose interests have little to do with anything more permanent than social media followers for the next hour or two.
Why do people listen to talking heads on the news, or the angry self-righteous voices on talk radio? I think it’s because those venues offer easy answers which focus on the external problems. This goes back to my definition of wisdom. Real wisdom lies, I believe, in improving ourselves. Through a slow and determined process whereby we look at our own failings and try to make changes. The surface level response to this is to improve ourselves externally: more beautiful or handsome, more awards, more medals, better shape, more followers on Facebook or Twitter. The constant search for external validation, which has also been one of my weaknesses, brings to mind a story told by a teacher I met several years ago in China. He said, “People search all over the world for treasure when they already have a diamond inside their heart.” I know some of you have taken breaks from social media and this is a good stab at problem, but the answer requires deeper reflection.
Inscribed somewhere on the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece was the maxim, “Know Thyself.” Of course we’ve heard this before. It’s nothing new. But I believe relying on others to tell us our opinions is because of a lack of self knowledge. To obtain self knowledge requires a willingness to be alone with just yourself. I believe this is the real basis for developing wisdom. An entire library of books won’t be able to give you self-knowledge. That will only come when you can sit quietly and hear that “lone voice crying in the wilderness” as found in the book of Isaiah in the Bible. When we know ourselves, it’s not so easy to lose our psychological balance. We can’t be rocked because there is a core understanding of what we know to be true. I believe it’s when we either forget or don’t know ourselves that we become vulnerable to those talking heads whose job depends on getting us to accept their voice as the reasonable one.
Where to begin this process? Another friend of mine suggested that we need to get rid of the noise in our lives which prevents us from thinking about God. He challenged me to see what “noise” I could eliminate in my daily life which would open up space for God to make Their presence known. While many of you may not be Christians, I think the message is essential whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah or Krishna or nature, etc. To begin the journey towards wisdom, one has to make room for something else in life than the temporary or the superficial. Whether it’s Bill Maher or Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity, none of those people, and the hundreds of commentators like them, have an interest which goes much deeper than being right. So try finding something to turn off in your day. For me it was sports radio on my daily commute in to work. I can say with a great deal of confidence that action helped me find a much better balance in my life.