Is wisdom still a viable concept in contemporary culture? Flip through 500 channels, listen to talk radio, eavesdrop on conversations in Walmart and you’re not likely to hear much. Cleverness is a’plenty and occasionally intelligence, but wisdom is a different animal altogether. Intelligence is figuring out what to do, wisdom asks whether it should be done or considers how to do it so that no one gets hurt.
If you make it to 50, 70, 90-years old and beyond, you get some wisdom for free: “Watch out for the used car salesman. Distrust promises made in the midst of lust. Don’t max out your credit card.” No effort necessary.
But mostly, wisdom does not come from age alone. There needs to be an accompanying practice of reflection, a mirror held up to the daily experience, a habit of sorting through the mail of what happens and put the junk mail, bills and personal letters in different piles. There is a kind of a 3R’s of cultivating wisdom—reflecting, reading and ‘riting. The reflecting part asks what happened, why, how and what it might mean. The reading gives a context for considering it, ideas larger than each thing that occurs. The ‘riting is finding your own way to sift through it all and put it in your own words.
Poets, masters of such 3R practice, often seem wise beyond— or rather before— their years. Shakespeare, Yeats, Rimbaud and countless others have written some extraordinarily wise thoughts before they were 30 years old. But some things you simply can’t know until your arrive there— you need to put in the years.
And so my mathematical formula: Experience plus Reflection = Wisdom squared.
PS Intelligence says “find a way to express these thoughts cogently and coherently.” Wisdom says, “Shut up and go take a walk on the beach.”
I’m going with wisdom.