You’re in the kitchen, slicing vegetables. Four-year-old Henry, curious as always, reaches for a knife. Naturally, you say, “No, Henry. No!! you can’t have that!! You’ll hurt yourself….. NO!!”
Henry’s insatiable wonderment is piqued. With his lower lip in a sly pout, Henry asks the oldest question in humanity’s ageless vocabulary: “Whhyyy?”
Protecting Henry is the natural reaction, the intelligent response, a truly glorious instinct. No right-thinking person (well, almost none) would willingly injure a child.
But … as we examine the moment … there’s much more involved!!!
The Universal Journey
Your cautionary response is the first step in Henry’s life-long journey of wondering, asking, learning, becoming. It’s a universal journey all human beings take as we search for meaning, for the “why” and the “what” and the “who” at the very core of our lives.
Our journey immerses us in life’s most essential human enterprise, i.e., the process of learning how to become rational, intelligent human beings, how to bring order and coherence out of random, often chaotic, events, how to find meaning and purpose and the point of it all. It is a journey safeguarded by Nature’s sometimes burdensome but beneficial rules which dignify human existence -- when the rules are honored.
In our journey, we move from raw instincts to self-restraint, from simple curiosity to depths of understanding, from rudimentary tics to reasoned insight, from shallow frivolity to hard-won maturity, from frigid conceit to altruistic concern, from mastery of a specific craft to the gift of insight beyond knowledge.
And as we search, we will – hopefully - recognize and embrace the beginnings of True Wisdom, a state of understanding that reveals to us that Nature – and Nature’s Creator -- is not an arbitrary or uncaring guide.
Steps Along The Way
Over the years, as we move into adulthood, we learn to follow our natural yearning to make sense of life’s unscheduled events. We learn to read and to write, to ride a bike and drive a car, to balance our checkbook, to get along with others. We pick up some street-smarts and stretch our natural abilities. We acquire information useful to our work … and, once in a while, we stop and wisely ponder: “What’s it all about?”
Hopefully, one day we begin to see that the end-point of our journey, the goal of all our learning and experience, the explanation of life’s ambiguous, often contradictory, events rests in our understanding and acceptance of the fact that a transcendent Intelligence (far more impressive even than our own) has Creation under control.
That slight insight is actually the humble beginning of wisdom … or, rather, the beginning of True Wisdom.
The ideal of wisdom as a human trait appears in many cultures. Buddhist and Hindu believers are philosophically borne to a sense of wisdom as fatalistic inevitability, with little concern for a personal afterlife. The agnostic non-believer moves in-and-out of zones of uncertainty which defy definition. Even the kindly atheist's worldly-wise view offers nothing beyond the quickly fading now.
From the perspective of the blasé nihilist, wisdom means calculating one’s strategies and plotting one’s end-game with the sort of amoral shrewdness which winners possess and losers envy. Winning is all.
There’s also the secularist’s “practical wisdom” which acknowledges that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, hopes and ambitions, talents and limits. Psychologists call this sort of practical wisdom “the right way to do the right thing.” It’s a respectable recipe for ordered civility and inclusive, tolerant mutuality. For the generous person, it is motivation to goodness and sincerity. For the cynic, however, it is a useful gambit for getting people to like you … while you gain favor or power or an ego rush…
Then there’s the Judeo-Christian view of True Wisdom, stated in the regal writings of Solomon and, centuries later, updated in the first and greatest principle of transcendent virtue and goodness, the Law of Christian Charity: ”Love God, then love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
True Wisdom’s first instruction is that we become a loving, giving human being. True Wisdom starts with loving one’s self -- not in the manner of the haughty narcissist or the self-serving egotist, but with disciplined humility inspired by solid faith and eager, trusting hope.
In this Judeo-Christian context, True Wisdom aims at transcendent moral maturity based on the First Principles of balanced, virtuous behavior. It asks simplicity of faith and honesty with one’s self and others. It seeks selflessness and inspires an abundant sense of gratitude. It entwines our minds and hearts in attitudes and dispositions which our suave, urbane modernity so often disdains. It advises us when prudence is called for, and, by fostering within us a generous heart, True Wisdom insists that we give more than we are asked to give, and that we take less than we are allowed to take.
True Wisdom necessitates Empathy for the pain and travail of others, as if these sufferings were our own -- because True Wisdom recognizes that, at some point in life we, too, will endure the same.
True Wisdom does not back away from confrontation and, when necessary, it accepts conflict ... but it seeds these moments of discomforting necessity with Temperance and an abiding sense of Justice, with a readiness to clarify and go beyond conflict, then to reconcile with alacrity and gentleness and decency.
True Wisdom nurtures Patience, knowing that human foibles are universal. It abhors pretense, shuns hypocrisy, and pursues Truth with avidity and consistency. It knows that falsehood and a deceptive heart sour the soul and bring ruination to human affairs.
True Wisdom is radically different from shrewdness or business acumen or the manipulation of others to get ahead or to impress. Clearly, it is never found in hypocritical persons who knowingly deceive with evil intentions and cruel actions which, sooner or later, reveal themselves.
True Wisdom’s Traits
True Wisdom functions as an abiding intuition, a state of educated insight resulting from the cumulative revelations of our life experiences. It honors people’s achievement (however seemingly small) but never uses its influence as a weapon against others. It remembers that human dignity may be obscure or hard to see in some people, but it must never forgotten or demeaned.
True Wisdom teaches us to recognize the power of transcendent truths and unchanging principles about life, about human behavior, about relationships and about Creation Itself which exceed the limits of our logic; truths and principles which we can neither explain nor control because they are from God, our Creator.
True Wisdom brings clarity beyond words, insight beyond knowledge, so it does not require miracles to justify itself to the unbeliever or demonstrate its validity to the skeptic. It does not, for example, demand that water be turned into wine because it recognizes real miracles already exist all around us. It knows the very existence of water -- in and of itself -- is sufficient to reveal the transcendent power and vitality of our Creator … and the utter dependency of the created.
True Wisdom transcends logical reasoning and is willing to admit that we cannot control ambiguity and unpredictability in this world. But True Wisdom goes further and perceives life through an inner vision, a vision which resides not only in the reasoning mind but in the spirit of each of us --- provided we do not refuse to acknowledge our reliance upon our Creator or tarnish our conscience by nourishing lies and deceit which, as Solomon points out, deal death to the soul.
Changing Life’s Rules
Our Creator has infused Nature – including human nature -- with a kind of “logic” which reveals to us the laws and limits by which humanity is -- or should be -- guided.
When we deviate from the demanding benignity of Nature’s subtle call, we risk consequences of incalculable gravity. Yet, our culture’s excesses regularly ignore Nature’s inherent cautions. Our disregard of Nature’s basic moral limits may well mark us as an age in history which elevated the seductive folly of superficial feelings above the laws and limits of Creation Itself.
For example, as we disregard the nagging wisdom of virtue and as we replace respect for life with a specious “right to privacy,” we forget the principle that a fleeting appeal to feelings dishonors life’s fundamental purpose and denigrates human nature’s intelligence.
Thus, in our Judeo-Christian worldview, True Wisdom originates in our relationship with God. It is a relationship begun in an era before history, refreshed and inspired by the life and promises of Christ. It is a relationship founded on love and reverence; a relationship intended to elevate the human condition, to unfold the potential of human reason and celebrate the God-given dignity of all human life.
Christian Wisdom is special because it rests upon the reality of a relationship with our Personal Creator, with God Who - no matter what happens - is with us, all around us, enlivening creation and revealing to us the endless beauty of the world in which we live, the world of His Creation which includes all of us, even those who try to deny all of this.
True Wisdom is, therefore, not merely an intellectual exercise but a spiritual reality which begins with, and rests upon, our relationship with God. But it is a relationship which requires our freely-given assent, a relationship in which God patiently awaits our humble “Yes.”
As we grow and mature in that relationship with God, we receive various insights which a secular, restrictively rational approach cannot give. Why? Because True Wisdom comes from God as an ever-evolving gift which rests wholly on faith in Him, on His laws and His limits, on His love and loyalty – all this, despite the conflicts and doubts and distractions and hesitations which every human heart endures in our universal journey to Him.
And when our moment comes and we give ourselves to God and utter our humbled “Yes” to His care, then does True Wisdom involve us in a gradual change in our spiritual insights, a change which takes us beyond reason and logic, beyond the bounds of rational cause-and-effect, beyond human knowledge, beyond the lesser urges which have held us back.
Indeed, True Wisdom introduces within us new categories of knowing and understanding which become the core of our growing interior life, our life of Faith in the Spirit. There is no dramatic “Aha” moment, no sirens or whirring red lights or trumpeting Seraphim alerting us to all this … just the quiet, slowly growing sense that God is here, in our midst, in us, close … as a Father to His children, inspiring us to goodness, ever close in heart and mind and spirit and soul and all that makes us most fully and truly human.
This is the awareness that transcends the comprehension of rigidly fixed people who judge these realities as simplistic and hollow. In fact, there are some persons who cannot (or will not try to) understand their own capacity for True Wisdom’s grace-filled insights. There are some persons who seek fleeting explanations for life’s vagaries: explanations which satisfy only their need for superiority, their compulsion for control over others, their penchant for a quick-fix of quixotic self-indulgence – none of which will ever satisfy our yearning hearts nor ease our thirsty souls, nor sustain us in tranquility for life’s long haul ….
… unless, one day, True Wisdom prompts us to extend kindness and a smile to another needy person – and then follow through for the rest of our days in such a giving fashion in this grand and gracious world, a world brought alive with hope, a world which we all now honor with our inspired awareness and our journey into goodness … just as God has been asking of us from our earliest days.
In this way do we love ourselves with humility and quiet dignity.
In this manner do we love our neighbor, our family, our loved ones, our Beloved --- and our enemies. For no matter where we seek happiness, we are always brought back to the realization that caring for one another is essential if we are to honor Wisdom’s call.
And, in this fashion, do we finally say to God, “… It is You I have sought to love. When all is said, and when my life is truly done, Dear God, I realize that it is You I love .. and it has always been You, all along …”
Spero News columnist Daniel Boland PhD is a psychologist and author.