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How Will We Know When We Have Become Wise?

Photo by Simon Migaj from Pexels

March 8, 2020

We will know we have become wise when we’ve learned to sit on the edge.

Wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. It is the combination of the first two that allow for the third.

Experience is a given with the passage of time, and we have limitless knowledge at our fingertips, 24/7. It’s figuring out how to combine the two, allowing them to work together in a way that results in good judgment, that gives us trouble.

Brandon Dean Lamson teaches literature and creative writing in the honors college at the University of Houston. In his book, Meeting Violence with Kindness, he says, “Wisdom, which includes skillful action, arises when we can hold our views lightly and continue to question the basic assumptions that underlie our truths.”

Insiders and Outsiders

Intellectually, we know that together we stand, divided we fall. But our tendency to side with groups that divide us into insiders and outsiders is a reflection of how complicated life is. “Taking a side” is an indication of not having mastered the skill of holding our views lightly.

Either we identify with the insiders—core members of a group sharing the same beliefs and values we hold, or as outsiders—people who reject the beliefs and values of the insiders. Sometimes we switch roles, identifying as an outsider who feels excluded from the group and at other times imagining that we are insiders.

Insiders can become complacent or self-righteous, and lack empathy for those outside their group.

On the other hand, outsiders may feel disenfranchised, and either start their own group or disregard the well-being of others and act in ways that intensify their isolation.

On the Edge

The Zen tradition suggests we can inhabit a space that is neither on the inside or the outside, but rather, on the edge. On the edge, we can see both sides. We transfer our attention from what we are against to what we are for.

Polarization keeps us from considering the needs of the entire community, much less the world as a whole.

Both insiders and outsiders breed polarization if they haven’t found the edge. Lamson also says, “On the edge, we can affirm the values and beliefs of the community while also questioning those values and beliefs. We can empathize with both sides in a conflict, yet still cultivate compassion and nonviolence.”

The edge is where wisdom resides. But what does it take to sit on the edge? Here are five starting points.

  1. When we’ve made our peace with not knowing as much as we thought we did.

A post-it note sticks out on the left side of my desktop computer. I think it’s a Socrates quote. It’s been there for years and I hardly notice it anymore. I don’t know if I copied it word-for-word, but this is what I scribbled: “When you know you don’t have wisdom, that you don’t have the answer, is when you can learn, and not before.”

For some of us, the need to be “right” comes from somewhere deep inside and takes over, wiping out reason or compassion. It’s when being right becomes more important than being kind, thoughtful, or even honest that I don’t like myself.

  1. When we’ve learned to rein in the horse.

In communication, what matters is whether or not the next thing that comes out of our mouths, or pens, or keyboards, will get us closer to what we want, or further away. Being right has seldom brought me closer to what I want, which is to connect with other human beings.

Before I open my mouth, asking the question–“Will what I say get me closer or further away from what I want?”–has saved many of my relationships or at least made them less disagreeable.

Reining in the horse can involve thoughtfully presenting something as an idea to contemplate rather than as a fact. It can mean putting off a discussion that will get a better outcome when things are less heated. A few extra minutes might allow me to see that what I was going to say wasn’t all that important in the first place. Or all of the above, and then some.

  1. When we can trust ourselves.

Clients often come in for a first session with the idea that the world—the earth, together with all of its inhabitants and natural features—is an untrustworthy place. And in some ways, they’re right. How do we put our trust in something that offers impermanence as one of the few things upon which we can count?

We find the perfect car, but it’s a lemon. The ideal partner turns out to be a self-absorbed, irresponsible goofball. Or the once-in-a-lifetime job that was going to carry us through to retirement abruptly says, “Thank you, goodbye.”

We find wisdom when we realize our task is to learn to trust ourselves and stop the endless search for someone or something outside of ourselves that will guarantee our safety and comfort.

When we have learned to stay grounded, see clearly, and use good judgment, we don’t need to worry as much about the world.

  1. When we are no longer creating problems where none exist.

Left to their own devices, our brains on autopilot tend to create problems where none exist or take what is an invisible (to anyone except us) tiny pimple and imagine it into a raging case of adult acne. We’ve all made significant life decisions based on crazy thoughts that, in hindsight, we see as touchingly absurd. Each and every one of us has at some point let our molehill-gone-mountain run wild.

As always, groundedness to the rescue. Bringing myself back to the present moment and not ruminating about the past or awfulizing about the future, I can see the difference between a little bump in the road and a full-blown tragedy.

  1. When we know what we stand for but hold it lightly.

Most of us want to stand for integrity and honesty and growth. But our intentions, and where we actually stand, can morph like the weather.

I have the intention to work hard and accomplish something meaningful, but my mind and body respond with lethargy. Committed to attending a sitting meditation at the end of the day, suddenly it’s eight p.m., and the class is over. Someone disagrees with me, and in my head, I think, “What a moron!”

It’s more complicated than I’d like it to be. I’d like a nice tidy answer that makes me feel comfortable—that would allow me to say, “Here, this is who I am, and this is what I stand for.” But this is where taking ourselves lightly, and sitting on the edge, comes in. If we did get to the point where we finalized our purpose and values, how would we continue to grow?

Taking ourselves lightly, changing our minds when we receive information that our previous ideas were incomplete—or completely off the rails—and recognizing how much we don’t know, IS the better part of wisdom.

Back to the Edge

We are living in a time of reactivity and uncertainty, not just in the United States, but around the world. Many of us are struggling to even see the edge, much less sit there. Taking one step back from any situation that makes our bodies tighten and our minds whirl can give us a fighting chance to find the edge. We can’t take ourselves lightly when we are on autopilot, in the midst of the fray.

If there is one change I encourage each of us to make, it is to find that edge where we can see both sides, and continue asking and exploring the questions, rather than believing we have found immutable truths. Making our peace with not knowing is its own wisdom.

Much love,

2 comments

  1. Richard Mills says:

    I heard this from an old-timer, “Wisdom comes from good judgment, good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment.”

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