Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What Does It Mean to Be Wise?

by Troy Chapman

Prison is a place where the lack of wisdom rules. It’s a place where people believe in violence as a way to solve problems — not just prisoners, but many staff as well. Many here believe they are victims and so live from their anger. Many honestly can’t see how their own thinking and behavior is creating their situation. They blame others and stew in their misery all the while recreating it day after day.

Some of this may sound familiar. It’s certainly not unique to prisons — concentrated here perhaps, but not unique. I know it sounds familiar to me. I used to live my life from this same place.

As I think about what it means to be wise, the first thing that occurs to me is that I didn’t lack intelligence at that time of my life. I had the same native intelligence I have today. Neither are the others I see living unwisely lacking intelligence. Contrary to popular images, prisons are, in fact, filled with intelligent people.

So being wise and being intelligent don’t necessarily go together. No, it seems being wise (to whatever degree) is something other than being intelligent. I think it’s what might be called life intelligence — intelligence about the inner workings of life. So, wisdom is a form of realism. It’s about understanding and submitting to what’s true, as opposed to living in conflict with, or even waging war against what’s true because we happen to wish it weren’t. Wisdom is a respect for reality.

This also implicitly includes taking a big-picture view as opposed to a small-picture view. Reality is a big picture and we can never understand the parts without pulling back first to get a sense of the bigger picture. I think of the story of the five blind men who went out from their African village to see what was tramping around out there. They followed the source of sound and when they reached it each one tried to determine by touch what it was.

One came back to report it was a pillar; another that it was a wall; another that it was a sail; another that it was a rope; the last said it was a python hanging down from a tree. In fact, they were each describing parts of an elephant. With no grasp of the whole, they misconstrued the parts.

I’ve seen men turn their short sentences into life in prison over a two-dollar pack of smokes. Someone who owed it to them wouldn’t or couldn’t pay, so they tried to kill the man. That’s small-picture thinking, but again, it’s not unique to prisons. We all get caught up in small thinking, personally and socially.

When we ask ourselves questions like “how does this serve humanity?” or “how important will this be in 100 years?” we move toward the big picture and toward being a little wiser.

Do you live from the big picture? Do you have life intelligence — an understanding of and respect for the inner workings of reality? Reality being so big it’s hard to say how much I have of either of these in any objective sense, but I know this: I have more than I used to. It might be a pittance, but it’s a slightly larger pittance than I’ve had in the past. That’s enough.


Anonymous said...

I thought your article on Wisdom, and the lack of it, was so well
written .... Yes that is what is missing in our lives, and in society
.... I liked your summation, that you know that you have more Wisdom
than you used to have, and though it might be a pittance, it's a slightly
larger pittance than you had in the past. That's enough (you say) .....
To me, that shows a little more than a pittance, for it encourages one
to put that little to practice .. Best wishes ........ Richard

Claire said...

I agree about the difference between intelligence and wisdom. But that
question of "how important will this be in 100 years?" applied to what
is happening around the world because of the Milton Friedman's "Chicago
Boys" with their IMF, WB, and Free Trade treaties doesn't give me any
reassurance. Same with the way we are destroying the biosphere with our
20th century lifestyle that is totally not sustainable. Claire