Some folks are wise and some otherwise

Judging by what we see on TV, our choice of soft drink, underarm deodorant, or shampoo is among the most important of life’s questions. Isn’t world peace more important than a clean head of hair? Why is it that none of the many talk shows discuss the value of wisdom? Take war and peace, for example, if we are stupid enough to hate one another, won’t we end up killing one another? To live in harmony, we need to love our neighbor. Love, then, is more important than wisdom, and those who understand this are on the path to wisdom.

The need for wisdom increases each day. Unless tempered by wisdom, the dizzying speed of our technological development places man at risk. It is not only our immediate environment, but our very own planet that is in peril. Yet, in any global, national, local, or personal crisis there is always the opportunity to discover wisdom. During the cold war, for example, we found the wisdom not to destroy ourselves.

How do we become wise? According to Confucius, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Now we are learning from bitter experience that our water supply is contaminated and our food supply is laced with pollutants. But if we reflect on our mistakes and learn from them, we gain wisdom and protect life. Technology or science organizes knowledge. Wisdom organizes life. And when we are sufficiently enlightened, we will avoid situations where wisdom is needed.

Wisdom is a precious gem with a thousand sparkling facets. Each facet reflects a ray of light which helps to illuminate our path through life. Six of the rays are explained in the following paragraphs.

The ray of satisfaction. A wise man doesn’t remain on a treadmill, chasing an endless stream of possessions. He gets off the treadmill and takes time to enjoy what he already has. He seeks only those possessions that are necessary to sustain and fulfill him. How will those who are surrounded by countless goods find the time to enjoy and reconnect with nature? Those who are not enlightened are dissatisfied and complain to everyone. Those who are a little more spiritually aware complain just to themselves. But those who are wise are satisfied and complain to no one.

The ray of Learning. “Who is wise? One who learns from all.” (The Talmud) How do we learn from all? By listening. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” And when we do speak, we ask questions. For curiosity and questions lead to wisdom. The wise man who knows a thousand things, will ask the man who knows one. We may not always like what we hear. But better to learn from criticism than to be deceived by praise. Although the wise welcome criticism, they avoid offering it to others because they realize that profiting from good advice needs more wisdom than giving it. Proper listening, doesn’t imply that we ignore skepticism or doubt. For to accept everything we hear is gullibility, not wisdom. That’s why the Chinese proverb says, “Deep doubts, deep wisdom; small doubts, little wisdom.”

The ray of action. People of wisdom are people of action. For of what value is knowledge that is not understood and used? Don’t commit knowledge to memory, commit it to life. Read how Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the link between action and wisdom: “Raphael paints wisdom; Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it.” Wisdom is knowing what to do next and doing it. Wisdom is not about doing EVERYTHING, but about doing what is best. Lin Yu-t’ang (1895-1976) explains: “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.”

The ray of living in the present. Consider the profound words of this ancient Sanskrit poem. “Look to this day, for it is life! The very life of Life. In its brief course lie all the realities and truths of existence: the joy of growth, the splendor of action, the glory of power. For yesterday is but a memory, And tomorrow is only a vision; but today well lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day!”

The ray of awareness. Immediately on awakening, we should be aware of the unlimited potential that greets us. Anything is possible. We can make new friends, overcome problems, and perform new tasks. That the day is full of potential is something we can be certain of, so let’s embrace it and anticipate the joy it will bring. It is also helpful to be aware of what we are. And what is that? We are shadows that will quickly pass. If we keep this image in our awareness, it will help us understand how absurd it is to hold grudges, harbor resentment, or take offense at the actions of others. For they too are shadows. In the big picture, there is no room for petty thinking, trivial concerns, or inconsequential musings. Focus on the real and ignore the ramblings and idle chatter of an overworking imagination.

The ray of open-mindedness. Prejudice, unwillingness to learn, and preconceptions slam shut the doors of the mind, preventing the growth of wisdom. Understanding that there are other points of view is the beginning of wisdom. For as Cullen Hightower says, “Wisdom is what’s left after we’ve run out of personal opinions.”

According to Dr. William Menninger, wisdom is one of the six essential ingredients of happiness (the other five are sincerity, integrity, humility, courtesy, and charity). That is reason enough to pursue it. Another reason is our children. For if we don’t have wisdom, all we can teach them is ignorance, so let the voice of wisdom be our own. Parents, when dealing with our children, let’s recall the advice of William James, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” And let us also remember to speak to everyone we meet with tender words; after all, later we may have to eat them!