Wise and Otherwise
December 20. The 20th free gift of the month is something that can be acquired, but cannot be bought. I don’t think that it can be given, either. The gift is Wisdom. According to Wikipedia, “Wisdom is a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgements and actions in keeping with this understanding.” In other words, “To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) However, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” (George Bernard Shaw) And finally, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” (Mohandas K. Gandhi)
It would seem, then, that wisdom is something that can be acquired in living with awareness and engaging humbly with experiences. It seems to me, though, that you can’t give someone the benefit of this process. You might point out the process and talk about its benefit, you might set up the beginning of the process, but you can’t impart the journey or the result. It has to be lived. I’m a mother; trust me on this. I wanted to give my children wisdom more than anything, probably for selfish reasons. I wanted to be spared the pain. I wanted to spare them the pain. I asked God to give them wisdom…like on a magic platter descending from heaven…but spare them the pain. Can’t be done. Wisdom is born of pain and suffering and effort and failure. You have to be awake through it all as well. You can’t gain wisdom while you’re anesthetized. I’ve made a great discovery, though. This process is a great equalizer. Keeping Gandhi’s wisdom in mind, my children and I are fellow travelers on this path. We share our stories as friends, we perhaps contribute insights to this process, but we cannot assume the roles of provider and receiver. I try to remember that as I talk to them. It is too easy for me to slip into the “teacher” role and begin to spew language about what they “should” do and what is the “right” way to do something. I often issue too many reminders and begin to sound like I’m micro-managing them. They notice. They mention it. I have to challenge myself to be wiser and trust them to be wise.
I remember the day my father told me that something I said was wise. It felt like a great victory for me. I was 19 or 20. I had been talking to my oldest sister about some article I had read in an evangelical Christian newsletter taking issue with science and carbon dating. My father was eavesdropping from the breakfast room and jumped on the subject by voicing some objection to the fact that the money he was paying for my college education hadn’t stopped me from discoursing like an ignoramus. I was scared of his strong emotion, ashamed of myself, and angry at his insult. Embarrassed and hurt, I fled. We didn’t speak for 3 days. I realized that he wasn’t going to apologize to me or mention the event on his own, so I decided I needed to take the initiative to talk to him about my emotions, clear the air, and try to restore our relationship. I’d never talked to my father about our relationship very much before. He was always right, often angry, and anything that was amiss was my fault. I also knew that he would not show his emotions, that it would be a “formal discussion” on his part, but that I would probably not be able to contain my tears, making me feel foolish and not his equal. I decided to brave the consequences and approach him with Kleenex in hand. I began to talk, and cry, and tell him how I felt. Then he asked me if I wanted an apology. “What do you want me to say?” I told him that part was up to him. My dictating an apology to him would be meaningless. That’s when he said, “That is very wise.” Suddenly, I felt I had grown up and been respected as an equal to my father in some way. What I understood or didn’t understand about evolution and carbon dating and creation didn’t matter to me any more. That I had been able to navigate emotions with my father and repair a broken relationship was far more significant.
Dad & me in 1992. Photo by my 8 year old daughter.
Wisdom isn’t easy to get, but it is available. If you pursue it, you’ll probably get it eventually. It’s completely avoidable, though, if you so choose. I know which way I want to go, so I’ll keep paddling my canoe and checking the horizon. For those of you heading the same way, STEADY ON! I salute you.