Summer 2004

Philosophy and Ideas

Wisdom: The Pauses Between the Notes

Michael McKinney

Opinions come naturally to us. Wisdom does not. Opinions are common. Wisdom is not. We can form an opinion quickly, but wisdom takes time to develop.

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 mental shortcuts can help us reduce our complex world to something more manageable, they can also result in critical errors in thought and behavior. The consequences can be monumental, both for individuals and in the collective lives of organizations, communities and nations.

The pressure of this challenging situation has created a society that encourages decisive and sometimes dismissive thinking; a society drawn to sound bites, summaries, and the plausible opinions of others. But information needs context—the context that only critical, reflective thinking can bring.

The persistent nature of this problem is suggested by a comment attributed to U.S. president Calvin Coolidge: “Some people are suffering from lack of work, some from lack of water, many more from lack of wisdom.” James Howell, a 17th-century writer, put it even more 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.

Opening the Loop

We might think that with adulthood would come wisdom, but this is not automatic. When people are not trained to think or encouraged to grow up, it isn’t uncommon for them to get stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood, functioning as adults yet holding on to 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. Chronically self-centered people cannot be wise; their outlook is too narrow. Selfish people are closed-looped in their thinking, and closed-loop thinking perpetuates immaturity, often leading to frustration, shallowness and misplaced anger. The selfish let in little that would conflict with their view of the world. Lacking the perspective that an outward-looking person possesses, they can’t perceive reality. The selfish see life and situations only as they affect themselves. Thus their actions and thinking tend to be unreasonable—and short on wisdom.

Isn’t it time we all deepened our perspectives and brought some form of balance into our lives? We must rescue ourselves from superficiality and the automatic thinking that blindly guides us. 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.

Wisdom in the Balance

Sometimes we confuse not only opinions but intelligence for wisdom. It’s easy to assume that abundant knowledge results in 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 a 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.

As Nobel Prize–winning German novelist Hermann Hesse said, “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 is what makes knowledge effective. Without it we cannot benefit from what we know.

Wisdom seeks to know how life works. It can provide us with the moral direction to determine specific actions. It is concerned with consequences. More specifically, it seeks to know what is right. Thus, the means to the end are critical.

It might be stated that the ultimate goal of wisdom is to help us make better choices and, by our example, to encourage others to do the same. This is why understanding consequences is so important. 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. Cause-and-effect, however, rules our lives, so we would be wise to be guided by it. As American essayist Norman Cousins put it, “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.”

A Word From the Wise

How do we use 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 this vital quality becomes even harder.

It might be wise to look at what King Solomon had to say about wisdom. After all, he has been called the wisest man who ever lived. He certainly was a powerful man—not only a king but also 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. In addition, Solomon was a real estate magnate. He undertook the greatest building program his nation had ever seen. He even built an extensive system for bringing water into his thirsty, growing capital, Jerusalem. Under Solomon, money and finance were introduced into society like never before. Israel was obsessed with them. Jerusalem 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: the biblical book of 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.

Solomon continued with some thoughts on the attainment of wisdom. “I thought that maybe money was everything,” he said. “But 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. Worst of all, after working all your life, you don’t know whether the person you leave it to will be a fool and squander everything you built—your life’s work down the drain.”

He went on to comment: “You may think climbing the ladder is great, but it’s not so great. There’s always someone above you.”

So,” he continued, “I tried women. I tried food. I had all the best entertainment. But these things aren’t the best things about life.”

He described a world turned upside down, where things made no sense and common sense wasn’t so common. Sounds familiar. By the end of the book he revealed, “Finally, I discovered what the best thing about life is.”

He then boiled down all of his experience to one 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. In this world of complex questions, we may not feel we’ve got the real thing unless the answers are also complex. But there are other thinkers who would seem to find at least some truth in Solomon’s conclusions.

The Search for Truth

In August 2002 at the Alhambra, the beautiful palace overlooking the ancient Spanish city of Granada, secular and religious scholars 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 concerned with the search for truth.” But he noted that there is a dimension to our encounter with the world in which “true knowledge can be found only through trusting rather than through testing.”

At the same conference, astrophysicist and Islamic scholar Bruno Guiderdoni took this thought further. He said, “True knowledge brings us back to God.” Given such a bold assertion, perhaps it isn’t 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 superhuman. In that we are human, such a perspective is something we can only hope to approach, but perspective is the key.

Wisdom requires a higher perspective. It requires a deeper understanding of the commonplace. Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas thought that only God truly possesses such a perspective; to be wise, one would align oneself with God so as to be touched by His divine wisdom. Aquinas remarked in his magnum opus, Summa Theologiae, that “wisdom considers higher principles than science does, and consequently is distinguished from it.”

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 whole story, the overview, the universal. Psychologist William James reminds us that “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

Austrian-American concert pianist Artur Schnabel was once asked how he was able to handle musical notes so beautifully. His answer can teach us an essential element of wisdom: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.”

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. It is equally to see the holes between the threads in the fabric of life. As we look deeper we see that all life is connected to everything else. That, in turn, causes us to take in more, to see more widely. Wisdom requires that we arrange what we observe and know, and create meaning from it. It embodies the kind of integrative thinking that can successfully guide and direct our lives.

Think About It 

If we say that wisdom changes how we look at the mundane, the common, the daily, we must also conclude that it is 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. And as knowledge increases, we are faced with ever more specific issues to challenge even the wisest among us.

Of necessity, then, this is a process that takes time and thought. Coming to understand how a principle connects to events and the resulting consequences is the chief aim of meditation. The concern, of course, 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 realize that it’s happening? Before we even have time to consider the consequences?

It would behoove us to meditate on the issues that face all humanity, with the goal of determining what is wise, so as to add constructively to the dialogue. It is easier, however, 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 own lives and the events happening around us. This process involves understanding that we may have much 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.

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, King David, who wrote that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear to which David and Solomon refer is a proper respect for God’s law. God’s wisdom is reflected in that law. God’s laws connect principles and behavior and thereby place everything in the proper relationship and perspective.

The correct connections can be made when they are grounded in a right foundation. By understanding or knowing God, we are able to make the connections that the attainment of wisdom requires. God knows the beginning from the end, as He created humans for a purpose that includes giving them the gift of His perspective.

Most of us are rushing around so fast that our lives lose significance. Gandhi was correct when he said that “speed is not the summum bonum of life.” If we slow down, ponder, contemplate and connect, we can develop wisdom. 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. In the constantly changing context of our lives, a Godly-based wisdom provides us with the answers, guidance and stability we need to live lives of significance and meaning.