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Another Perspective

In Pursuit of Wisdom

Periodically I will identify a theme or thread that has been running through my life without my having recognized it.

One of the first I came to see was the importance of dreams. What are they? Where do they come from? What is their significance? I have spent a good deal of my adult and professional life seeking answers to these questions.

Over the New Year’s weekend this year (2012), I caught sight of another thread in the tapestry that is my life. I came to see how much I value wisdom, which the dictionary tells me is “the effectual mediating principle of God’s will in the creation of the world (Logos).” I prefer to think of wisdom as understanding the essence of things. I want some of that understanding and I have spent a good deal of my life, without recognizing it, trying to figure out how to acquire it.

Looking back it seems this quest began for me in high school. There I was indoctrinated with the belief that knowledge leads to wisdom. If I want to be wise some day, then what I have to do is study constantly and intensely and wisdom will eventually come.

With that belief firmly in hand, I went to college with the hope that upon graduation I would be numbered among the wise. My college pursuit was two-fold: I double-majored in philosophy and history. Everything I’d been taught so far suggested that by studying in-depth the writings of the world’s great thinkers, I’d be exposed to lots of profound wisdom. What a disappointment studying philosophy turned out to be.*

My second path in college was to study history in-depth, to learn from the experience of others. This proved to be the more productive path, but alas, not good enough to make me wise when I graduated.

I went to seminary next. Here I was exposed to the idea wisdom comes one of three ways: through the study of (sacred) texts; through living a painful life and meditating on it; and by God bestowing it freely, often in response to prayer. I was doing the first, had no interest in the second, and the third way wasn't working for me either.

During one of my years in seminary (1969-1970), I was an intern in the U. S. Senate for Philip Hart of Michigan. I quickly discovered working there that the person with knowledge was the person with power. People in the know have the power to influence and/or determine laws and policies that greatly influence the lives of others. As we all know, power and wisdom are not the same.

In seminary I was introduced also to Job 28. This passage teaches about wisdom: “Man does not know the way to it.” This described me perfectly. Nevertheless, I unconsciously persisted in my search.

During my early years of parish ministry I learned a great deal from Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She was the psychiatrist who opened up the field of death and dying. Surely folks close to death would be able to help me identify how wisdom is to be found.

It was from Dr. Ross’s work that I came to appreciate fully the difference between knowledge and wisdom. She taught me knowledge comes from learning and retaining information. Wisdom comes from learning from life’s experiences.**

This distinction arose from her study of people in hospitals who were close to death. Dr. Ross found that doctors and nurses avoided the rooms of these patients. However, an overnight cleaning woman spent extra time in these rooms, talking with these people about their lives and what lay ahead.

The doctors and nurses had knowledge about what was happening physically to their patients but lacked the wisdom to know how to help them die. Instead, it was an uneducated cleaning woman who knew how to comfort them when death was imminent. This was the first time I truly understood that knowledge does not lead to wisdom.

One of the other learnings about wisdom that I acquired during my first years of parish ministry came from C.G. Jung. He introduced me to the distinction between consciousness and the unconscious. This differentiation helped explain to me why some people “get it” and others do not. But being conscious is not the same as being wise. It is just a necessary component of it.

During these early years of parish ministry I also “discovered” creativity. While creativity opens one to the Muses (Spirit of God), it doesn’t always bring wisdom with it. Creativity and wisdom are different also.

These memories and the realization of how I have been (unconsciously) pursuing wisdom came to me when I read a poem by Olav Hauge. Hauge was a self-educated man, a life-long learner. His insight into the origins of wisdom offered me yet another slant on from where wisdom comes. Hauge advocates listening to the heart, not the head, if we want to find wisdom. Here is his short poem, “When All Is Said and Done.”**

Year in, year out, you’ve bent over books.
You’ve gathered more knowledge
than you’d need for nine lives.
When all is said and done,
so little is needed, and that much
the heart has always known.
In Egypt the god of knowledge
had the head of an ape.

My inclination now is to believe that Aeschylus is right (see below). I find that the individuals who enter therapy hurting, not sure of where to turn for relief and healing, who are able to face, reflect upon, and feel their pain as courageously as they can, are the ones who leave therapy with wisdom.

What are your thoughts about wisdom and how it is acquired? What have been threads in your life?

* The one philosopher who helped me gain an insight into wisdom was William of Occam (d.1349). This English Franciscan theologian’s contribution was his “razor.” Occam’s razor states that entities or principles should not be unnecessarily multiplied. The simpler explanation among competing hypotheses will be the most plausible until evidence is presented to prove it false. In other words, simpler explanations are closer to wisdom than complicated ones. This makes sense to me.

** Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.E.) observed:
“And even in sleep pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom to us
by the awful Grace of God.”

*** Olav H. Hauge, The Dream We Carry, trans. by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2008) 115. Robert Hedin translated this poem.

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