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Wisdom – what is it and how do you acquire it?
According to Professor Barry Schwartz, Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swathmore College, wisdom means having moral will and skill.
Wisdom means having the moral will to do right by other people, and to have the moral skill to figure out what doing right means.
This is not a new idea; it is something that Aristotle taught that in ancient Greece.
In his must-see TED video The Real Crisis? We Stopped Being Wise, Barry Schwartz gives an example of how the dimension of wisdom is disappearing from our society. It’s the job description for a hospital janitor. The job description is a long list of tasks and responsibilities, from mopping the floor to cleaning and waxing furniture. Schwartz points out that something significant is missing: there is not a single point on that list that involves other human beings! He says:
“The janitor’s job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital.”
Luckily there are some janitors who take no notice of such sterile restrictions, and will actually interact with patients and their families. They see part of their job as being caring, kind, and helpful – even though their job description doesn’t say a word about other people. Schwartz said of them:
“These people have the moral will to do right by other people. And beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what doing right means.”
In other words, such people are wise.
According to Schwartz, a wise person has four aspects:
- A wise person knows how to make an exception to every rule.
- A wise person knows how to improvise.
- A wise person knows how to use these moral skills to serve other people.
- A wise person is made not born.
Wisdom depends on experience – but not just any experience. Schwartz lists three important points that are crucial for learning to be wise:
- You need the time to get to know the people you are serving
- You need permission to improvise
- You need to be mentored by wise teachers
Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, wisdom comes with age. So I’ll just wait a while and then I’ll finally be wise.” But is that true?
Does wisdom come with age?
I think the answer is, “Yes, but…” It’s true that with each day and each year we can learn to become wiser. However, we often ignore the teachings that life offers us. Here is one unforgettable teaching that I nearly ignored – because the teacher happened to be my son who was seven years old at the time.
It was a bitter winter in Wiesbaden, a beautiful but rather stuffy city in Germany. Sebastian and I were visiting my mother. On that particular day – just a week before Christmas – darkness had fallen early. I was hurrying through an underpass to catch the bus home. Suddenly I felt Sebastian tug at my coat sleeve. I looked down.
“Mum,” he said, “why didn’t you give that lady any money?”
I looked back and saw a woman sitting on a threadbare blanket, begging.
“Oh,” I said, shaking my head, “she would most likely use any money for drugs or alcohol.”
Sebastian took my hand and looked up imploringly.
“Only someone who is very unhappy would sit in the cold and beg, don’t you think?”
I blushed. Then I walked back and gave her some money.
In this story you can see that wisdom isn’t necessarily related to age. I was the adult and Sebastian was the child. But in that moment he was the wise and compassionate person – and I wasn’t.
What is the secret ingredient of wisdom?
I think there is one key ingredient. And it’s not one on Professor Schwartz’ list.
A wise person takes the overview.
The story of Sebastian and the woman begging illustrates that point perfectly. When I walked past that woman, I was pre-occupied with getting the bus. My mind revolved around my anxiety and I wasn’t open to anything that was happening around me. In contrast, Sebastian took the overview. He could sense that I was anxious and in a hurry, but he could also see the despair and suffering of this woman sitting in the bitter cold and begging for money.
Compassionate action – the outflow of wisdom – happens when we stop being the center of our concern .
Then we can open up to a wider view of reality that includes the suffering of others, as well as our own – and respond with compassion.
What teachings of wisdom have you stumbled across in your life?
Mary Jaksch is a writer, editor of the Zen journal, Bright Water, a researcher, a Zen master and psychotherapist and blogs on Goodlife Zen.
Shutterstock has given the rights to the Compassionate Action Network to include the top photo, "Wisdom" in this article.