Norman Cousins made the statement, “Fortunately or otherwise, we live at a time when the average individual has to know several times as much in order to keep informed as he did only thirty or forty years ago. Being ‘educated’ today requires not only more than a superficial knowledge of the arts and sciences, but a sense of inter-relationship such as is taught in few schools. Finally, being ‘educated’ today, in terms of the larger needs, means preparation for world citizenship; in short, education for survival.”
There is a difference between acquiring knowledge and information and possessing wisdom. You may acquire knowledge from a university, your travels, your relationships, the books you read, and other activities in which you participate. But are you also gaining wisdom?
Webster’s Dictionary defines “wisdom” as “the quality of being wise . . . implies the ability to judge and deal with persons, situations, etc. rightly, based on a broad range of knowledge, experience and understanding.” In other words, a wise person is one who has the ability to look for the deeper meaning of things. But in order to acquire wisdom, it seems logical that one must have lived enough to have developed a certain depth of philosophical reflection in order to be in a position to evaluate our experiences and learn from them. Epictetus may have held similar thoughts in mind when he wrote, “On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.”
Some of our mistakes—or as Maria Montessori called them, “learning opportunities”—are clearer than others! Sometimes it seems as if the world is filled with people who gladly inform us of our mistakes. The person who is willing to hear another’s point of view and admit there may be other approaches that could be taken is the one who will grow in wisdom as the reservoir of knowledge is expanded.
The Talmud asks, “Who is a wise man?” and answers, “He who learns of all men.” To become wise, we must be willing to suspend our personal beliefs about something, set aside prejudices, and think with an open mind. It is important to branch out eagerly and learn in many different areas, even at the risk of being embarrassed or looking foolish. Are we able to admit that we don’t yet know everything and are willing to learn? Learning is a desirable process that may include making mistakes along the road to knowledge. Can we allow the learning process to be important? True wisdom acknowledges that the more we learn about a subject, the more interesting it becomes and the more there is to learn!
Many of us have heard someone say, “I learned my lesson! I’ll never do that again!” But all too rarely do we hear, “That was a wonderful lesson. I’m glad it happened just the way it did, even though I was uncomfortable going through it. I now understand why I experienced the pain. With this new awareness, I can change my behavior so I won’t make the same mistake in the future.” This person is bravely acknowledging his responsibility for creating the situation. He recognizes he has choices, and that he can choose differently as long as he stays alert to each challenge, whether the situation seems to be positive or negative.
The wise person is also a courageous person. We often think of courage in terms of outer forms of bravery—physical prowess and fearlessness in battle or in sports. Yet there are many inner forms of bravery that are not recognized by anyone but ourselves as we struggle to overcome shortcomings. By fearlessly confronting the role you play in the experiences you may have judged as mistakes in your life, you can make future experiences fruitful and increase your wisdom. This sincere willingness to look at ourselves honestly and courageously can be the first, and perhaps most important step we can take on the road to wisdom.