What is wisdom? As a child I thought all adults were wise and my parents wiser than anyone. In junior high school civics class I decided America’s founding fathers must have had the corner on wisdom. During high school I equated wisdom with good grades, high I.Q.’s, and belonging to the “right” religion. In college I realized all adults weren’t wise, the founding fathers didn’t have all the answers, and good grades, membership in Mensa, and correct belief do not necessarily make for wise choices. Still, I looked to my country and religion for wisdom.
I see now that there was a serious flaw in the way I defined wisdom. I thought it was about acquiring the kind of knowledge that the majority of people agree is important. Like knowing scientific and historical facts. Understanding and memorizing scriptures. Having answers to questions on Jeopardy. Following the leads of authorities. Knowing which fork to use at a dinner party.
But does knowing facts, trusting authorities, and impressing everyone really mean we’re wise? Of course not. We all know clever, intelligent people—schools and large corporations are full of them—who we’d never think of as wise. People who are arrogant. Mean-spirited. Impatient. Greedy. Uncaring. Judgmental. Prejudiced. Predatory. Abusive. People who get off on making you feel uncomfortable and inferior. Who enjoy making you squirm. Who don’t care how you feel because they only care about satisfying their unquenchable hunger for feeling worthy, whatever the cost.
Nobody considers people like this wise. Yet if they’re socially adroit, verbally clever, or wildly successful, we still tend to look up to them! Worse, if we’re young and vulnerable we think we must trust and obey them. This is the kind of thinking that makes it possible for the Jerry Sanduskys of the world to scar countless innocents for life. The kind that influences middle management to disown its feelings and betray its conscience while corporate executives destroy the financial security of millions of innocent people.
What has brought humanity to the bizarre place where so many intelligent people tolerate someone’s ability to beat the system by lying, cheating, and doing whatever it takes to win—as long as that person is articulate, attractive, and successful? Why do the media ignore the pain and desperation of those who lack economic stability and social privilege? Why do so many suffer in silence until someone with passion speaks out and turns the tide of public opinion against their oppressors? What brings about a societal mindset that influences a malcontent to retaliate against injustice by killing innocent people who just want to enjoy a night at the movies?
In a world where ignorance, callousness and cruelty are electronically absorbed by the collective soul every moment of every day, we’ve grown so numbed by images of psychological immaturity and social injustice that we’ve become a culture of cynicism. The collective believes it’s foolish to feel or care. It finds perky appearances and clever repartee’ more appealing than character and tender feeling. It considers itself wise in believing that safety lies in hardening the heart and putting Number One first. It assumes compassion is a fatal flaw.
But the individual who listens to the spirit of the deep knows that cynicism is a mask we wear to cover our soul’s devastation at being scorned by the spirit of the times. The collective mind has forgotten how to feel, but the soul remembers. It knows that whenever two people push past just thinking about compassion and actually feel it, the whole hard crust of the earth cracks open and healing new life thrusts through.