For better or worse, I like to hand out spiritual advice: by writing occasional articles; by speaking at 12-Step recovery meetings to share my experience, strength and hope; by offering my considered opinion on important life issues when my friends ask me; and by dispensing my accumulated wisdom to friends and slight acquaintances as the whim takes me whether they’ve asked or not. It’s something of a calling for me. In fact, I wonder if this isn’t sort of what people mean when they speak of a spiritual calling, a calling to some kind of ministry.
There is a glow of peace and satisfaction that comes from having helped a person in time of need, having provided the soothing words or positive reframing or psychological insight that allows a troubled soul to emerge from confusion or despair into clarity and optimism. Those with a gift for this sort of thing can become accomplished spiritual leaders, motivational speakers, newspaper advice columnists, therapists, self-help authors, maybe even moral philosophers. But we all get our moments to shine in this way, for our kids or siblings, our friends, or the sad sack at the end of the bar.
When a person’s desire to dispense wisdom exceeds the opportunities available to a private citizen, when a person decides to offer this peculiarly intimate, sometimes intrusive, service on a public scale, as minister, guru, therapist, writer, etc., one might hope that she acknowledges some responsibility to assure the quality of her wares. If I pointlessly suggest an attitude of serene acceptance and patient turn-taking to my wailing daughter after her brother objects to her yanking toys out of his hands, who would hold it against me? But with professionals or those who put themselves forward as experts in the wisdom business, one hopes they can provide wisdom in a way that serves the recipient’s needs; that they have sufficient self-awareness and decency to keep their own needs from steering the transaction.
On the other hand, how much can the dispenser of wisdom really know about the recipient – especially in the case of writing where the recipient may be entirely unknown? The wisdom I have to provide, in writing or in person… what is it? It’s some creative amalgam of the wisdom of others as filtered through and tested by my own experience and reformulated into my own frameworks of understanding. It arises and finds expression according to my own needs and predilections.
The desire to help others and the glow of satisfaction that comes from having used the fruits of one’s own suffering to lighten the suffering of another, these are decent reasons for offering advice – reasons that should also motivate one to offer good advice. But can we always tell the difference between that glow of satisfaction and the smug superiority that can come from knowing the solution to another’s travails? And if that smug superiority serves as a compensation for or defense against one’s own conscious or unconscious sense of inadequacy, is that anything other than a negative characterization of Alcoholics Anonymous’s promise that “no matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others?”
But the valence of that characterization is necessarily essential for the recipient: how much can you trust the advice of someone who offers it to puff up his own sense of superiority? However good the advice might be in some abstract context, don’t you think some subtle dynamic of the transaction might work to keep you in an inferior position?
Even at much greater length, I doubt my ability to do justice to the all the facets and complexities of this topic. I’d like to consider further questions: How should the dispenser evaluate her own fitness for offering wisdom at any given moment? What features of the transaction determine the impact of the offering on her own spiritual or psychological state? What criteria should the recipient use for gauging the fitness of a piece of wisdom? Do the motivations or the spiritual state of the provider largely affect the value of a piece of wisdom, or can the wisdom be considered on its own merits? And why don’t we hear more about this kind of concern from the public dispensers of wisdom? Is it like countertransference in psychoanalytic psychology – a matter for the therapist to handle in his own therapy or supervision, not to burden the patient with?
What I’ve produced and offered here seems to me a messy little deposit of mostly unprocessed wisdom, maybe more pre-wisdom than wisdom, but I present it to you with all my sincerest good wishes. If you’re able to do anything useful with it, I’d be delighted to hand over my place at the pulpit and learn from your experience.
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Born-again atheist, Sigfried Gold, author of tailoredbeliefs.com, invented a non-existent God to serve as his higher power in a Twelve-Step recovery program. He prays fervently, consults his non-existent deity for guidance, respects religious people, and does other things that, in his words, “unfortunately and unintentionally mystify and piss off many non-spiritual atheists”. He agitates for a world in which every person, no matter how skeptical or idiosyncratic, can find a suitable community to help her live according to her own values, and where religious difference sparks curiosity, not animosity. Professionally he designs information visualization software to help people understand complex data. He has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Biomedical Informatics. He lives in Takoma Park, MD with his wife and two children.
4 thoughts on “Dispensing Wisdom”
Thanks for sharing your insights and questions. One question I ask myself: As one who is inclined to share my experience, strength and hope, am I also willing and open to receiving the wisdom of others?
Thanks, Valerie! I wonder if there’s some tension between the two. I think what led me to write this was noticing that maybe I was somewhat open, or at least wanted to be — felt some need for wisdom beyond my own. And realized that this openness, which I consider to be a sign of spiritual fitness, was getting in the way of my writing on spiritual matters. It’s so much easier to write or offer advice when I think I know the answer. Right now, all I’ve got are a bunch of murky questions.
What do you think? Can the two faculties, for offering wisdom and for receiving it, co-exist in harmony? Or does the presence of one tend to eclipse the other?
Thanks for bringing up this important issue Sigfried. These are great concerns we should all share, since any of us could find ourselves in the position of teacher or student. These are issues that I’ve struggled with too, and two things I’ve instituted to try and address them are: (1) I set aside time to continually learn – from other writers, discussions with others, and reading traditional wisdom sources; and (2) I try to work on my patience and listening when others share their thoughts. Many times I feel I’ve messed up has been from lack of the latter. I’m always interested to hear how others handle these issues, so I look forward to hearing how your explorations go too. Thanks much 🙂
Siegfried, your piece shows considerable conscientiousness, which is a good quality for anyone who would try to help others to possess.
Back in December of 2012, I published an article here titled “Wisdom Hides in Plain Sight.” This article was, perhaps, attempting to dispense a little wisdom about wisdom (a rather presumptuous thing to do). One of the ideas that I was trying to convey in that article is that one cannot give out wisdom — one can only give words. It is up to the person receiving the words to penetrate to the wisdom the words potentially contain. To put this into another of those trite little adages, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” (In the context of the 12-Step Program, of course, it isn’t at all easy to lead a horse to water if they’ve used to bourbon.)