This article originally appeared May 7, 2009
One of the many sad consequences of our preoccupation with youth is that we don’t pay much attention to wisdom. That’s like worrying about what color to paint the garage and ignoring the Ferrari that’s housed inside.
Wisdom, per Merriam Webster’s is “accumulated philosophic or scientific learning: KNOWLEDGE” or “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships:INSIGHT” or “good sense: JUDGMENT.”Roll it all together and you get “a wise attitude, belief, or course of action.” Wisdom is a key to living well. But aspiring to it is not typically on our lists of New Year’s resolutions or personal goal statements.
That’s probably because to acquire it, you have to accept you’re getting older. We don’t like to go there.
First, let’s face one unavoidable fact. Every single day of our lives, we get older. It’s the normal course of events. The only alternative is to die—and I’m not voting for that option. So if we’re going to get older anyway, why not do it gracefully? Why not do it in a way that makes the reality more compelling? Why not work on becoming wise?
Going back to the definition I started with, there are three pieces to this—and then the decision to live that way (which is the attitude part).
Jokes about hiring a teenager because they know it all have been around forever. And we’ve all met precocious ten-year-olds who could go on for an hour on a topic they found interesting. But the knowledge that serves as a basis for wisdom has to be more comprehensive than the knowledge of youth. Becoming wise requires an accurate picture of the real world. And that means you need to have lived there a while. And paid attention.
Too often, we live in the realm of what we assume to be true instead confirming what is. Buying a car—or house—that you can’t afford is an example of that. But so is staying in a dead-end job because you’re telling yourself you’re not good enough for anything better. Not believing in ourselves is the stingiest approach of all to life. But it takes wisdom to see that–and to stop doing it.
Gaining knowledge hinges on paying attention to what’s going on around you. People who have learned “what comes next” again and again are more serene about life situations. A wise person knows the bad times will end and can work patiently toward that day. She also savors the good times because they, too, are temporary. What we learn of the ebb and flow of life—by living it consciously—gives us a more solid foundation.
Knowing about life is important, but you need to find the patterns in it, too–even when they’re hidden in the shadows. Insight is combining information from the disparate sources you’ve observed and drawing astute conclusions about what’s going on.
One of my dearest family members reacts intensely to overwork. Until I understood that pattern, I found myself in the middle of emotional upheavals that left me baffled and hurt. Without a conscious assessment of previous episodes and an effort to extract what was common to them, I believed—as she was prone to insisting in those moments—that I was inadequate as a person and a loved one. Now, I just find the quickest route to the sidelines. Getting out of the way for a bit is a much better solution for both of us. This is wisdom. It’s practical. It’s loving. And it’s not going to show up unless you’re getting older. You have to watch things for a while to see patterns.
Judgment is not about deciding you’re better than someone else. The judgment that comes with wisdom is about choosing an effective course of action.
Sometimes, it’s obvious. If the house is on fire, you get out and call 911. But if you’ve been worrying for weeks about whether to go on vacation in June or August, maybe you need to let go of it for a while. Wise judgment is knowing when NOT to decide sometimes. Ever spend months feeling awful that you weren’t getting to something that “had” to be done only to discover it didn’t need to be done at all?
Wisdom includes intuition when employing judgment. Knowledge and insight are essential, but so is “gut feel” if you want to get it right. As we get older, we become more willing to hear—and honor—that “little voice.” We make wiser choices as a result.
Wise as an attitude
We don’t become wise instantaneously. Wisdom comes in small increments. To get all the way to unflappable, ongoing serenity, we need to decide we want to become wiser. Every day. For a lot of days…weeks…months…years.