Wisdom: The Interval Between the Notes
By: Michael McKinney
From: FoundationsMagazine.com | Return to Web Version of this Article
Opinions come naturally to us. Wisdom does not.
Opinions are common. Wisdom is not.
Given such clear-cut differences, it seems ironic that opinions should so often be mistaken for wisdom. Perhaps part of the reason is that as information increases, it overwhelms us. Making use of the information we need to form sound thinking takes time—time we often don’t seem to have. The frantic pace of our lives therefore encourages us to elevate the value of opinions.
Time and information have become our enemies. Without the time to think about the onslaught of information that is paraded before us each day, we have become, by and large, what social psychologists call cognitive misers, preferring emotional reactions and one-dimensional opinions to considered examination. While these often necessary mental shortcuts can help us to reduce our complex world into something more manageable, they can create enormous errors in thought and behavior. These errors can have monumental consequences not only in our own lives but in the collective lives of organizations, communities and nations.
The pressure of this challenging situation creates a society that encourages decisive and sometimes dismissive thinking. Regrettably, this is often at the expense of reflective thought and wisdom. We must become a more reflective society. We must become more than depositories of information, drawn to sound bites, summaries, and the plausible opinions of others. Our information needs context; the context that critical thinking brings.
The persistent nature of this problem is suggested by U.S. president Calvin Coolidge’s comment, “Some people are suffering from lack of work, some from lack of water, many more from lack of wisdom.” 17th -century writer James Howell, put it simply, “Some are wise and some are otherwise.”
Most people would agree that we need more wisdom, but as already noted, it does not come naturally to us. If it did, we would all have it. So how do we gain wisdom? The answer will help us better define this elusive quality.
We might think that with adulthood would come wisdom, but it is not automatic. Not trained to think or encouraged to grow-up, it is not uncommon for people to get stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood, functionally operating as adults but secretly holding the childish belief that the world revolves around them. With adulthood should come the understanding that the world is not how we first imagined it. Specifically, it is not about us. A chronically self-centered person cannot be wise. Their outlook is too narrow. Selfish people are closed-looped in their thinking. Closed-looped thinking perpetuates immaturity and creates frustration, shallowness and often misplaced anger. They let little in that would conflict with their view of the world. Lacking the perspective that an outward looking person possesses, they can’t perceive reality. They only see life and situations as they affect them. Thus their actions and thinking are often unreasonable—and short on wisdom.
It is time we deepened our perspectives and brought some form of balance into our lives. We must rescue ourselves from the superficiality and automatic thinking with which we too often live our lives. Adulthood is about growing up and looking at things differently. It is only with the expanding perspective that maturity brings, that we can begin to develop wisdom.
Sometimes we confuse not only opinion and wisdom, but also intelligence and wisdom. It’s easy to assume that with abundant knowledge comes great wisdom. But wisdom is not knowledge. Yale University professor Robert Sternberg, suggests in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, that foolishness—defined as the opposite of wisdom—“often results from knowledge acquisition gone awry or poorly utilized.” He suggests that foolishness is the result of lack of balance in our thinking. Wisdom requires that we balance “intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal interests of the short and long term…. Foolishness always involves interests going out of balance.” While this formula can be easily stated, it requires time and practice to make it a part of our thinking.
In Siddhartha, the German-Swiss writer Hermann Hesse wrote, “Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom.” We do not gain wisdom from reading a book. On the other hand, we can begin to develop it from the knowledge gained from careful observation of the lives of others, from critical examination of our own life, and from purposeful meditation. It’s how we connect and employ knowledge that counts. Wisdom makes knowledge effective. Without wisdom we cannot really benefit from what we know.
Wisdom seeks to know how life works. It can provide us with moral directions to determine specific action. It is concerned with consequences, but not exclusively. Wisdom seeks to know what is right. The means to the end are critical.
It might be stated that the ultimate goal of wisdom is to make better choices and by our example, encourage others to do the same. To do this we must understand consequences. We cannot circumvent cause and effect. Sternberg, reveals that one reason smart people are sometimes inexplicably stupid is that they think they have overcome the problem of consequences. American essayist Norman Cousins contended that, “wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” Cause and effect rules our lives and we would be wise to be guided by it. Knowledge and the opinions that spring from it are without much value unless tempered by the guiding force of wisdom. How do we utilize our knowledge to create more than mere opinions? How does our thinking become wise? This is a problem with moral and ethical implications. With so many counterfeits of wisdom in our culture today, the search for wisdom becomes even harder.
It might be wise to look at what King Solomon has to say about wisdom. After all, he is reportedly the wisest man who ever lived. He certainly was powerful man – he was king, but he was also was a successful entrepreneur, businessman and patron of the arts. He had a trading company with its own network of shipping lines that some speculate was worldwide. He was a real estate magnate. He undertook the greatest building program his nation had ever seen. He even built an extensive water system to bring water into a thirsty, growing capital—Jerusalem. Under Solomon, money and finance was introduced into society like never before. Israel was obsessed with it. Jerusalem, where he lived, was a thriving cosmopolitan marketplace.
If a man like this were to write a book today, it would be an instant best seller. It would be hard to get your hands on a copy, because booksellers wouldn’t be able to keep it on the shelf.
Fortunately for us, Solomon did write a book—Ecclesiastes. By paraphrasing his words and so summarizing this book, we can put in a nutshell the most important lesson he learned.
This most wealthy and influential of men wisely began by observing that there is nothing new under the sun. We know from other literature and from history itself that there are recurring themes in life and that only the players change. Harry Truman said that, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
Solomon continues with some thoughts on the attainment of wisdom. He writes, “I thought that maybe money was everything.” “But,” he found, “money isn’t so great. You spend all your life accumulating money and things but you’re never satisfied and when you die, you can’t take it with you. And worst of all, after working all your life, you don’t know if the person you leave it to will be a fool and squander everything you built—your life’s work down the drain.”
He comments after that, “If you think climbing the ladder is great. It’s not so great. There’s always someone above you.”
“So,” he continues, “I tried women. I tried food. I had all the best entertainment. But these things aren’t the best things about life.”
He describes a world turned upside down; where things make no sense and common sense isn’t so common. Sounds familiar. By the end of the book he reveals, “Finally, I discovered what the best thing about life is.”
He then boils down all of his experience to one final thought, “After all my observing, trying, testing and sampling of everything that life has to offer, I learned that the best thing about life is to fear God and keep his commandments.”
That’s it, simplistic though it might sound. Of course this is a complex world and we often don’t feel like we’ve got the essence of a thing unless the answers are complex. But as we move through time, there are other thinkers who would seem to find at least some truth in Solomon’s conclusions.
In August 2002, at The Alhambra, a beautiful palace overlooking the ancient Spanish city of Granada, secular and religious scholars from the world’s major religions came together and formed the International Society for Science and Religion. Its first president Sir John Polkinghorne, a mathematical physicist and minister in the Church of England, commented in his opening address, “Science and religion are both searching for truth. We meet reality as a Thou and as an It, and we know reality through trusting and not just testing.” Society member, astrophysicist and Islamic scholar Bruno Guiderdoni takes this thought further in his comments. He says, “True knowledge brings us back to God,” and adds, “there is only one God and only one Truth.” Given such a bold assertion, perhaps it isn’t so simplistic to think our search for wisdom should begin with God.
If we could see the end of all things, we would be considered all-knowing and all-wise. This would require, of course, a perspective nothing short of super-human. In that we are human, this is a perspective we can only hope to approach, but perspective is the key.
Wisdom requires a higher perspective. It requires a deeper understanding of the commonplace. Early church theologian Thomas Aquinas thought that only God truly possesses such a perspective so to be wise one would align themselves with God so as to be touched by divine wisdom. He remarked in Summa Theologica, “Wisdom differs from mere science in looking at things from a greater height.”
When life is viewed from a higher perspective, above the self, we can see that wisdom is not in the details it’s in the space between them—the interstices. It’s in the story, the overview, the universal. Wisdom is not in the fabric, its in the holes. It’s what is going on between the events. “In a sense,” wrote philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows: for details are swallowed up in principles.” Psychologist William James reminds us that, “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
The great concert violinist Isaac Stern was once asked why all professional musicians are able to play the notes in the same order, yet some sounded wonderful and the some did not. He paused and then told those gathered at a public forum of the Aspen Institute, “But it isn’t the notes that are important, it’s the intervals between the notes.”
To gain wisdom we must look at the spaces between events. Only then does a meaningful, complete picture emerge. Wisdom is a quality of mind, a way of looking at life. It is to see life both horizontally and vertically. As we look deeper we see that all life is connected to everything else and that in turn causes us to take in more—to see wider. Wisdom requires that we arrange what we observe and know and create meaning from it; integrative thinking that guides and directs our life.
Wisdom changes how we look at things; how we look at the mundane, the common, the daily. It is of course, easier to obtain in the general and harder as we move to the more specific. Without a great deal of meditation—that deep, reflective thinking that we so rarely seem to find time to engage in—it is more difficult to apply general principles to specific situations than it is to apply those same principles to general issues. As knowledge increases, we are faced with ever more specific issues that challenge even the wisest people among us to address with wisdom.
Of necessity this is a process that takes time. Understanding how a principle connects to events, thoughts and their consequences is the chief aim of meditation. The concern is that knowledge is increasing faster than man is able to think about it. Could we destroy life as we know it before we even know it’s happening? Before we even have time to think about the consequences?
It would behoove us to meditate on the issues that face all mankind with the goal of determining what is wise so as to add constructively to the dialogue. It is however, easier to come to accept an opinion based on the “uncooked” thoughts of others and go marching on without really thinking. But our times call for something more. We must individually pause and take the time to cultivate wisdom.
It seems that Seneca’s young Roman friend Serenus was not wrong when he observed, “Many men would have arrived at wisdom had they not believed themselves to have arrived there already.” Without looking around at others we must begin to think about our lives and the events happening around us. As James Baldwin encouraged, “The hope of the world lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself.” This process, of course, involves the understanding that there may be much we have to unlearn. It involves exposing ourselves to more and analyzing what we discover.
In The Art of Worldly Wisdom, 17th-century Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracián wrote, “So much depends on being a person of depth. The interior must be at least as impressive as the exterior. Some people's character is all façade, like houses that, due to lack of means, have the portico of a palace leading to the rooms of a cottage.” Acquiring wisdom is a lengthy process. Wisdom is cumulative and, like trust, is a matter of degrees. It recognizes and magnifies the interconnectedness of everything.
The correct connections and the resulting consequences that flow from these connections can properly be made when they are grounded to a right foundation. Solomon wrote that the fear of God is the first thing to know for it is the beginning of all knowledge and all else flows from it. He was no doubt echoing the thoughts of his father David who wrote that, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear that David and Solomon are referring to is a proper respect for God’s law. God’s wisdom is reflected in His law.
The source of all wisdom lies beyond the realm of man and the physical world. This is implicit in the late eminent Russian-born Oxford historian Isaiah Berlin's comment that, "If we are to hope to understand the often violent world in which we live (and unless we try to understand, we cannot expect to be able to act rationally in it or on it), we cannot confine our attention to the great impersonal forces, natural and man-made, which act upon us."
Most of us are rushing around so fast that our lives lose significance. Gandhi was correct when he said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” If we slow down, ponder, contemplate, and connect, we can absorb wisdom and create lives of significance. It is a journey that requires less technology and more introspection. Wisdom is a personal quest that must be based on the right perspective. Knowing where wisdom begins is the first step.
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