Understanding wisdom may be an easier process if we first realize what it’s not. Wisdom is not defined by a powerful intellect or strong health or happiness or wealth or a high level of education or emotional intelligence or harmonious relationships or a good sense of humor or a high position in society or having followers or being well traveled or having a lot of good stories to tell or success in any area of life. Any of these qualities or circumstances may accompany wisdom, and a few may be natural fruits of wisdom, but none of them define wisdom. And not one of these attributes is essential in order to be on the path of wisdom. This is good news because it means every single one of us has the capability to fully pursue wisdom.
Wisdom is also not something we “get” and then we’re done. It’s not like the myth of the hero’s journey where we go out in search of the Holy Grail of knowledge and then return enlightened. Wisdom is more about contemplating the big questions of life than about having sure answers to those questions; in fact, thinking that we have final answers is often a quick detour away from the path of wisdom. And wisdom is definitely a lifelong journey because if we’re doing life well then our understanding evolves through every stage of life.
Most of us probably think of wisdom in terms of deep understanding or insight into life or good judgment or the ability to make good decisions or the lived experience that enables us to give sound advice or some combination of these. Yes, these characteristics tend to be natural fruits of wisdom, but they are not sufficient to define wisdom, and they can be misleading as ways to understand wisdom. No one, no matter how wise, has perfect understanding or flawless insight into life. And those who are wise will definitely on occasion fall short of good judgment and make poor decisions or give poor advice. The true beginning of our own pursuit of wisdom may be the realization that all of us without exception make mistakes and misunderstand some of the important areas of life.
How, then, can we define wisdom? Like everything else of inner value, wisdom resists the attempts of our intellect to define it. This is why mystics often resort to poetry to describe their experience of something beyond ordinary consciousness. Rather than resort to poetry, let’s try to understand wisdom by recognizing that all of us have a longing for deeper meaning and purpose in life. That longing can easily be silenced by the responsibilities, possessions, and distractions that tend to occupy our daily lives. But all of us have felt that longing at some point in our lives, and it’s always there waiting silently to be nourished. No matter how outwardly successful, a life that ignores this quiet longing will be lacking in an essential kind of fulfillment. Wisdom is this fulfillment. Wisdom is the fulfillment of nourishing our inner longing for deeper meaning and purpose.
We have a real and immediate need for the fulfillment of wisdom, just as we have a real and immediate need for the fulfillment of food, water, warmth, shelter, safety, intimacy, and belonging. We need deeper meaning and purpose in our lives. If we lack any of the other human needs—food, water, warmth, shelter, safety, intimacy, belonging—we show clear signs of deprivation and our very survival may be compromised. The same is true of wisdom. Signs of wisdom deprivation may include selfishness, cynicism, inner emptiness, narcissism, anxiety, depression, addiction, materialism, radical religious fundamentalism, unethical behavior, intolerance, aggression, destructive behavior, and disregard for nature. Certainly each of these detrimental tendencies has other causes, but the absence of deeper meaning and purpose can be a significant and often overlooked factor. Given the negative power of these possible signs of wisdom deprivation, our individual need to pursue wisdom may be essential not only for ourselves but also on a larger scale for the positive development of society, for the protection of nature, and perhaps even for the survival of humankind.
Pursuing wisdom is therefore a healthy combination of nourishing our individual inner fulfillment while at the same time serving the well being of our larger context: human society and the natural world. This is a path worth exploring.
© 2015 Gary Stogsdill