One of my favorite holiday tunes is “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” but this year, amid a global illness surrounding us with fear, being merry while others struggle for life and a return to health seems a bit superficial.
Instead, perhaps we want to wish each other the gift of wisdom. Perhaps in 2020, we want to sing, “Have yourself the wisest time at Christmas.” When I talk with clients, I talk about knowledge and skill, but rarely speak of wisdom.
Sadly, wisdom does not sit comfortably in an age dominated by science and technology. It is too mysterious a concept, requiring time to sit back and ponder what matters most in life, but with our eyes on our smartphones, we rarely take time to contemplate wisdom's meaning.
Perhaps this holiday season, a gift to yourself can be to consider what wisdom means to you, and how you can make your definition of wisdom a driving life goal. After all, “wisdom" is the source of our species' name - Homo sapiens, which signifies "wise man."
What exactly is wisdom for you?
Intuitively, it seems that wisdom ought to be closely related to “knowledge,” but is it solely knowing a lot about many topics, or does wisdom imply the modesty of knowing what one does not know?
Many moons ago, Socrates, the philosopher, questioned several politicians and poets that professed wisdom and concluded that “I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent that I do not think I know what I do not know." The Bible tells us, "When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom," so we can consider Socrates to be wise in admitting how little he could be sure of. His writing illustrates his ability and wisdom to differentiate what he surmised and what he knew, therefore we learn from Socrates that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates adds modestly that “I may be wise, but it is hard for me to use words to teach others my wisdom."
Later philosophers will pick up the thread of the brilliant thinker who preceded them in our world. Confucius will state that “real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance. Buddha will chime in that “a fool who recognizes his own ignorance is thereby, in fact, a wise man.” Shakespeare said, "the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."
Aristotle gives us another important clue in metaphysics when he says wisdom is the understanding of causes. None of the senses are regarded as wisdom because although they give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars, they are unable to discern the distal causes of anything. Similarly, we suppose artists to be wiser than people of mere experience because artists simultaneously live in their world and create beauty for others from their perceptions and sense of design. Artists introduce us to the wisdom of a blend of intellect and the senses.
Instead of being a type of knowledge, perhaps wisdom is a way of seeing. When we take several steps back, we see that wisdom involves an understanding of life's values and goals, the means of achieving those goals, the potential dangers to avoid, and so on.
In cultivating a broader perspective, it helps, of course, to be knowledgeable, but it also helps to be intelligent, reflective, open-minded and disinterested, which is why we often seek and pay for "independent" advice. Above all, however, it helps to be courageous because the view from up there, though it can be exhilarating and ultimately liberating, is at first terrifying, not least because it conflicts with so much of what we have been taught or programmed to think.
To Consider: Courage, Aristotle said, is the first of the human qualities because it is the one that guarantees the others. Might courage be the foundation of wisdom?
ED. NOTE: Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochercenter.com.