I suggest that all the wisdom humans are likely to obtain has already been discovered. Further, I suggest that all of this wisdom can be stated in a handful of aphorisms or proverbs and that most of us are aware of these. If these two propositions are correct, then the problem of wisdom is very different from the problems of science or scholarship where one anticipates the next discovery will bring to light something new. Rather, the problem of wisdom is to understand what is in front of us in plain sight.
For example, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is about as stale and trite as it comes. Yet for all that, some of the most basic aspects of wisdom resides there: i.e. we need not be passive to our fate; we have the ability to reinterpret our existence; we have the power to turn negatives into positives; we have inner resources and the use of these resources can make all the difference between living a sour life or a sweet life.
Another: “ever to admit you are bored means you lack inner resources” — so a mother chides her child in a John Berryman poem. “Inner resources,” a term I used above, is seldom heard anymore. When children are bored today, usually they are directed to some product (often with a rectangular screen) or driven somewhere — they are directed to external resources. A book filled with wise sayings is an external resource. The ability to uncover the wisdom that hides in these sayings is an internal resource. A three acre wood is an external resource; the ability to find the beauty and wonder that resides there is an inner resource. One who can find the wisdom residing in a common book and the beauty residing in a three acre wood, will seldom be bored.
Another: “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” The ability to set a goal, develop a strategy for achieving it, and persisting unto success is a particularly human ability: intentionality; it is key to both practical and spiritual wisdom. As a practical example, organizations create mission statements to remind them of what they seek to achieve (unfortunately, they often veer anyway). As a spiritual example, “living intentionally” suggests a path toward a richer, more engaging life, and yet also suggests the destination — those who live intentionally are those most likely to find the wisdom and beauty residing in plain sight.
Another: “persistence in a righteous course brings reward.” This saying, which appears frequently in the Chinese classic I Ching, reminds us of the power of intentionality, as listed above. But it also asks us to consider how much we really care. That for which we deeply care is that toward which we will steadfastly persist. The I Ching suggests we ponder carefully how much we really care before we start a venture. To be willing to ponder carefully already requires that we care deeply about the quality of our life and the quality of the lives around us. Caring is at the foundation of inner resources and of wisdom.
Another: “the best things in life are free.” Many think this aphorism is merely folly parading as wisdom. To the person who is ever bored, who sees nothing but brush and weeds in the three acre wood, it likely will seem so.
Finally, from Swami Costanza, “always end on a high note!”
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