We’ve heard a lot about truth lately. True truth, fake truth and, according to Rudy Giuliani, “Truth isn’t truth.” The word haunts us with its shifting shapes.
Yet amid all the chatter about truth, one word we rarely hear uttered is “wisdom.” Odd, because on the ladder of understanding wisdom is the highest rung. First is knowledge, then truth, and, finally, wisdom. While the first two inform us, wisdom guides us, calling us to live a good life, showing us how to do this.
One reason we may have forgotten wisdom is because it is often associated with the old whose long experience with life and tradition has supposedly taught them wisdom. Today, though, change, especially technology, which seems to dominate our lives, happens rapidly, and the old seem out of it and left behind. “Grandma and grandpa don’t even know how to Google or tweet, so what can they teach us?” Thus, we make the mistake of identifying wisdom with knowledge and ignore it when it calls to us.
Some might say that the highly educated, the prosperous, the prominent professionals, politicians, business leaders, the rich and famous are wise. But this confuses economic, political and social attainment with wisdom. Yet those like Socrates, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, Juliana of Norwich, and in our time, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and Dolores Huerta have all taught that wisdom is none of the above; it is not how to achieve social success and esteem, but how to live a good life.
Of course, the question remains: What is wisdom? Wisdom informs three aspects of our lives: the practical, the moral and the transcendental. According to the Book of Proverbs, a classic source of wisdom, the practical relates to our daily activities, “A joyful heart makes a cheerful countenance, but sorrow of the heart crushes the spirit” (15:13), and, “He who brings trouble on his house will inherit the wind” (11:29). Courtesy, for example, is a form of wisdom, as is not cutting in line or falling to road rage. How we treat others brings us to moral wisdom. Moral wisdom teaches us that we should respect and have compassion for others. We do not lie, steal or harm another. Moreover, we care for the poor and those who suffer from illness or disaster. Practical and moral wisdom are not abstractions, not simply sayings; rather they are guides to actual situations in the moments of our lives.
Transcendental wisdom is our belief in something that overarches daily life, something that connects us with each other and our world, nature, art and beauty. These beliefs may be religious or non-religious, as exemplified by those mentioned above, but they are all a vision of what a good life is, and, in a sense, they all require a leap of faith, a serious commitment.
Attaining wisdom is not easy; it does not come from simply reading books or memorizing slogans. Nor is it instantaneous. It requires a lifetime of gaining knowledge and seeking truth. Even more, it takes a lifetime of reflection. Within the bustle of our daily lives, setting a quiet time for self-examination and contemplation, of conversations with others and of a willingness to change and grow. In this time of intolerance and strife, wisdom calls us to fulfill the highest with us, calls us to follow.
Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Normaln Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College. He can be reached at email@example.com.