(About a 5 minute read)
My favorite explanation of what wisdom is goes like this: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is biologically a fruit. Wisdom is knowing to not put a tomato in a fruit salad.”
Of course, looked at that way, wisdom should be easily teachable. Just how hard can it be to teach people not to chop up tomatoes for fruit salads, eh? But in life, wisdom proves to be nearly impossible to communicate in such a way that it is adopted, turned into action (or non-action).
Of course, by “learning wisdom”, I mean cases in which someone is consciously aware of both what to do (or not do) and why. I’m not talking here of that common substitute for wisdom — time tested tradition. You can follow genuinely tested traditions all day long without understanding why they work, and you won’t ever weigh an ounce more in wisdom by the end of the week. “Wisdom” here means both how to behave and knowing why.
Back in my early 40s, when I hung around with dozens of much younger people than me, I was surprised to see the young people committing not only the same mistakes as my generation had committed, but also to see the same mistakes committed by the same sort of young people.
The Christian jock and cheerleader couple opposed to abortion once again got pregnant.
The romantic young “flower-child-girl” once again tries to save the leader of the local tough kids, only to end up in a relationship being abused by him.
The roommates take in their friend, the heroin junkie, only to anger their landlord when their share of the rent goes missing before it can be paid.
It’s not like in any of the cases, the kids had never heard the warnings growing up, “Don’t trust junkies to not steal from you.” “Use birth control.” “Avoid violent boyfriends.” The kids had been told what was wise and what was folly a thousand times — it just had not sunk in.
But the same lack of learning applies to politics too. Santayana famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But to me, the most telling thing is that even those who remember the past often enough seem condemned to repeat it.
Today, how many Americans who know a bit about the Cold War currently pretend Putin has not re-started the War?
How many hard-nosed thinkers who laugh at the absurdities of creationism harbor outrageously ridiculous political opinions?
How many wars do you think the world will see between today and when the youngest member of your extended family becomes an old man or woman? Even when one side is justified in going to war, the other side never is.
It seems to me that — regardless on what level one is discussing the matter — wisdom is quite difficult to teach and learn. In fact, I can only think of three ways in which there can at times be some benefit to trying to teach wisdom.
First, it seems to me a good teacher and a motivated student can conspire to speed up the student’s learning process. That is, they can work together to cut short the time it would otherwise require the student to learn a bit of wisdom.
Beyond that, the two can work to get the student on the right track. That is, they can work on the way the student approaches a problem or issue. For instance, many foolish people cling to the anger they feel towards someone — perhaps on the theory that they are thus ever ready to hurt the person they’re angry at.
However, such a pose almost always hurts the angry person far more, and more deeply, than it hurts the other person. A good teacher/student pair can get the student to approach the issue from the angle of looking to see how being angry hurts whoever is angry. If the student does not immediately see the point, they are at least now on the right track to eventually seeing it.
Last, a good student/teacher team can expand on — broaden out — bits of wisdom the student learns. They can progress from specific instances of something to generalizations that cover a million instances of the same thing.
For instance, they might notice a few instances of sexual objectification and from there proceed carefully to the realization and understanding of how sexual objectification is — on it’s most profound level — the same means or mechanism by which racists operate to characterize their victims. That might lead them further to genuine wisdom in the matter when they not only see the underlying causes of such things, but why and how they are wrong.
So those seem to me the three ways teaching wisdom can help with learning wisdom. By speeding up how long it takes to learn a bit of wisdom, by getting the student to approach an issue in the right way to solve the puzzle of it, and to see more broadly and/or deeply into something.
In my opinion, just about everyone is wise about some things, and blessed is the person who can learn merely from listening to or from observing others. Yet, I believe what even when we do learn from others, we are not likely to learn in a perfectly straight-forward or wholly comprehensive at once manner.
No, so far as I can see, we don’t learn wisdom like we learn arithmetic — linearly. It’s more of a gestalt process, more a matter of epiphanies. As such, there is only a comparatively modest amount of teaching that can be reasonably expected — even with an outstanding teacher and student team.
Please Note: This post was inspired by an article published on Miriam’s blog that you can find here.