What is wisdom?

I must have glared at the complete stranger and she sharply asked me why.

I was walking behind her and her male companion neither of whom had I seen before. We were going across the car park at my place of work ? a tidy new public building set near attractive woodland and playing fields. A place I suppose I was rather proud of. I happened to notice her popping something into her mouth and tossing aside a tiny piece of what I took to be a sweet wrapping paper. Although the car park was well swept, any litter she had made was so tiny it could be barely seen!

Being challenged, I voiced my indignation — not rudely — but admittedly with a strong note of irritation in my voice. Immediately her companion launched into a hostile volley of foul language at me. Not wanting to escalate the confrontation, I said nothing and walked away, steaming inside.

Thinking about the incident later, when I had calmed down, I started to wonder if I could have responded more wisely to what had been the most trivial of misdemeanours. I’m afraid I do tend to jump in where angels fear to tread. Or perhaps a bull in a china shop might be a better way of putting it. Clearly I had over-reacted and I could have spoken differently. But no, I had to respond on impulse without any thought.

In contrast, when an Asian friend found herself on a crowded train, she noticed some kids dropping litter on to the carriage floor. She felt anxious about saying anything but reflected that unless someone did the youngsters would never learn proper conduct. So she spoke in a reasonable tone of voice saying to the lads ‘You might not have noticed ? actually there is a litter bin here.’ And was pleased to see them pick up what they had dropped and place the bits into the bin.

Of course sometimes it’s wise to keep quiet. On another occasion she told me that on the rush hour train there was a group of college teenagers ‘effing and blinding’ and she looked at them and decided it would be futile to say something to them but when she got to work, as she had overheard what college they were at, she telephoned the principle to describe their inappropriate behaviour asking him to raise this with the students.

We all put our foot in it from time to time, some of us more than others. I’m thinking about social gaffs, ill-judged decisions, or reaching an unfair conclusion about someone. When we do unwise things, we usually have to pay the price. Our foolish mistakes often seem to bounce back at us.

I imagine wiser people are less likely to make such errors of judgement. So how can we acquire more wisdom?

Do we need to gain more knowledge? This is often what people assume. They may turn to scholars with academic learning for the right answers. Or seek understanding from professionals such as psychotherapists, personal skills coaches, or religious advisors who have psychological or spiritual knowledge. The British shadow chancellor of the exchequer got into hot water by joking about his ignorance of economics. Clearly appreciation of the working of banking, the business cycle and the tax system is important for wise political decisions regarding the economy. The same is true for all walks of life – you can’t expect wisdom from those who lack knowledge and understanding.

In these materialistic times, the world of commerce and government emphasise understanding about competitive performance and efficiency. Likewise the media emphasise information concerning the arts, science and technology. In this climate, wisdom tends to be dismissed as something ethereal. But I would suggest it is really needed if we are to solve our personal and social problems.

So what is this intangible thing we call wisdom? Foolishness is often associated with youth who lack knowledge of the world and its ways. But I would suggest wisdom involves something much more than mere knowledge, understanding or skill – important as these are.

In ancient cultures wisdom was often associated with old age, not just because older people have more experience of life, but because they have had the chance to learn from their mistakes and develop virtues of character. We only reach our potential by making a spiritual journey.

According to this view, true wisdom is not the same as intellectual reasoning. It is a spiritual gift that comes to those who are good at heart. How can we hope to be wise if we do not have sympathy for others and the humility that enables us to laugh at ourselves? I believe that when concern for oneself doesn’t come first, then there can be an opening up of a spiritual consciousness; a higher level of the human mind that can receive clearer light.

How could I hope to wisely respond to people who drop litter without giving offence, unless I have a friendly respectful attitude based on concern for them? If you really want to put your foot in it, not only point out the misconduct of others, but also be sure in your indignation to set yourself up in judgment over them.

“Wisdom ceases to be wisdom when it becomes too proud to weep, too grave to laugh, and too selfish to seek other than itself.” (Kahlil Gilbran)

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

First published as Putting your foot in it in January 2011 Edition of New Vision magazine.