“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.” – Miles Kington.
Wisdom has a close relationship with sight-related words: foresight, insight, hindsight, reflection, enlightenment, visionary, etc. The wise person is able to see beyond the small issues and find a larger perspective; that is why they are so fascinating and useful. Telling your problems to a wise person will result in a solution that you might have not been able to think of, because you are too concerned with your own problems (which, in the scheme of things, are small).
Really, isn’t wisdom why we are all here? If wisdom is looking beyond individual things and seeing larger trends, then people on this website can see that their life is made up of all the little habits and traits that make them so individual. Crafting a better life is all about focusing on those small things and hacking them to create a larger effect further on in time.
Here are six uses of this skill of looking beyond the near and the obvious. They all have this one thing in common, but have wide and far reaching effects.
Beginning with Aristotle and Plato, philosophers have argued that emotions interact with reason when we make decisions. Aristotle believed that emotions exist on difference scales, and having an extreme on either side of the scale is a failing. For example, the virtue of courage is the perfect middle ground between the extreme emotions of foolhardiness and cowardice. The way to make this balance, in Aristotle’s view, is by the use of reason. Or, to use a cartoon example, the Green Lantern has to use power rings of different colours (emotions) occasionally to overcome his enemies. Only when these emotions are channelled through the power of his green ring (representing willpower) can Hal Jordan save the day.
The infamous marshmallow test suggests that being able to delay gratification is a cornerstone trait of successful people. But, more than that, it is linked to better physical health, psychological health and social standing. The connection is obvious: it is far easier to sit down and watch TV or eat, rather than going for a walk, having a heart-to-heart with a loved one, or making new friends. It is easy to forget what you want in the long-term when you don’t have clear goals—that is why having them is such an indicator of success.
Life is certain? Are you sure about that? Every living creature tends towards homeostasis: it attempts to stabilise its environment for security, stability and simplicity. The tendency of chance is to create insecurity, instability and complexity, but it is only through chance that living things can evolve. Evolution isn’t just limited to biology—it happens with culture and innovation as well. The wrong chance adaptions can cause an organism to die out (unsuccessful mutation) and this can be true of other evolution. The chance development of fire mutated and changed the race that discovered it; the chance development of nuclear power and rockets did the same, but they may be our end.
With chance, there are no limits to change because there are no restrictions of logic, purpose or morality. Understanding the nature of the dice can shatter comfortable realities, but it can also stop people from living an illusion.
Just like throwing a rock into a lake, your actions create ripples. When you fail to understand the consequences of your actions, there are two resulting problems: if the consequence was negative, you will fail to learn from your mistake and keep on repeating the problem behaviour; if the consequence was positive, you will be unable to repeat the behaviour that gave you your desired results. Either way, you lose out. When you assess different courses of action, understanding the potential consequences is what allows you to repeatedly make the best decision. Remember the carpenter’s proverb; “measure twice, cut once”.
Learning in one area can improve learning in others. This isn’t touched upon much in schools, although some people capitalise upon it and produce great work in their exams. The classic example is that learning a musical instrument can make you better at mathematics. Our brains aren’t good at dividing what we know into subject areas—people just try to force them to do so.
The same can be said of communities: we live in societies that are dependent upon others, and part of accepting that is offering the acceptance we would give to a neighbour across the street to the people of a neighbouring country. Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all humans belong to a single community based on shared respect and morality. It is the reason that Egyptian Muslims and Christians can protect each other as they pray, or that Superman can renounce his American citizenship to show that he is a protector of humanity and not just a single country.
Many of us have our vision obscured by the information presented to us. Media capitalises on sensational and gruesome stories, with little attention paid to the mundane, which makes it easy for us to become disenchanted with the world. When we see current events, there is wisdom in looking into the context and the history behind those events, as well as looking forward to the possible future outcomes. In the history and context lie stories and motivations that are ignored just to give a story a certain spin or to make an argument appear stronger.
The truly wise man understands how far the scope of knowledge extends and how little they know in comparison. Because of this, a wise man would never try to list comprehensively all the ways to become wise, so these are a just a chosen few. Feel free to add to them, in your own time.
Featured photo credit: Piercing owl Eyes via Shutterstock
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