What is wisdom? How to develop it.
Our society is continually on the hunt for new knowledge. We want to understand the physical world, harness it’s energy, create new technology, and delve into the secrets of the universe. Those lucky individuals, who have lived for a century, have seen huge scientific advances.
But what about wisdom? How do we understand that elusive concept? We have the ability to create vast new technologies, but do we have to wisdom to know what to do with them? What do we know of the purpose of life? How do we employ the knowledge we have for the benefit of others?
These questions live in the realm of theology, philosophy, and psychology. A recent essay in The New York Times, March 12, 2014, “The science of older and wiser” by Phyllis Korkki addresses these broader questions.
What is wisdom? Some psychologists view it as a combination of positive well-being and kindness exhibited in the face of life challenges. Another researcher feels that it includes cognition, reflection, and compassion. Ursula Staudinger, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University thinks wisdom is composed of five elements—self-insight, demonstrated personal growth, awareness of self and others, understanding that priorities and values are not absolutes, and awareness of life’s ambiguity.
We often think of seniors as having more wisdom. Yet cognitive function declines in older age. Young people can retrieve information far more quickly than older adults. But aged individuals show “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences” in knowledge. Since they have more life experience, they can detect familiar “patterns” more readily that younger adults.
When I was young, some of my teachers and mentors thought that I had “early wisdom”. I don’t know if I did or not, but I was always trying to understand the “big picture”. I was naturally curious and interested in the world around me. Along the way, I managed to find some extraordinary mentors who took me under their wing. They had a huge impact on me. I studied with a rabbi and psychologist, Joseph Gelberman, Ph.D., for several years. He lost his wife and child in the holocaust. He experienced, what he called, “the dark night of the soul” and like a butterfly, he emerged as a man filled with light, love, and life.
Below are my thoughts on how to develop wisdom:
Learn from your experience. I had a student once who wanted me to know she had ten years of experience as a therapist. I thought to myself—“No, you have only one year of experience which you repeated ten times!” Really learning from your experience is not a given. It requires that you have what Zen Buddhists call a “beginner’s mind”. Leave your past experience at the door and approach everything as if it is entirely new to you. Don’t be concerned about demonstrating to others what you know. Think about what you can learn.
Be a student of your own life. Study your life—What can you learn from every experience you have. Ask yourself how you might handle that situation differently next time? What did you like about how you handled that challenge?
Nurture self-awareness. Coming to know yourself as you are, not as you would like to be enables you to become the person that you hope to become. Seek to understand how others view you, rather than how you view others. Come to see yourself more clearly.
Think about other’s first. This doesn’t mean that you don’t think about yourself too! But sometimes we are overly focused on ourselves—what I want, what I need, what I feel, or what I think. Bring your gaze up, look around you, beyond yourself, and upwards.
Keep what’s important in front of you. Don’t forget to remember what is truly important in your life. My mother at her 91st birthday, a few days before she died, made a speech to her friends. She said—“What truly matters, is the love we feel for friends and family. I love you”.
What has helped you develop “wisdom”?