What Is Wisdom?

What Is Wisdom?
image: Getty
March 26, 2013

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us.- Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time Vol. II: Within a Budding Grove, 1919)

Proust was on to something.  I think there is profound truth to the notion that it is only through our own experience that we gain wisdom.  I also believe that there are certain kinds of experiences that are particularly suited to the development of wisdom. 

Take a moment and think of someone whom you consider wise.  Perhaps it is a revered spiritual or political leader, a grandparent or one of your high school teachers, maybe a pastor or a college professor, or perhaps, as one medical student expressed, it is the person who cleans the hallways of the hospital at night.  What qualities or behaviors make you think they are wise?  Finally, how do you think that they got so wise?

Then, let's back up for a minute.  What exactly is wisdom?  Truth be told, wisdom is not so easy to define in the abstract.  Why is that?  It may be, in part, because we understand wisdom in the context of a life, of decisions and actions, so it is difficult to define in the abstract.  This is, in part, why psychologists and sociologists have done research on wisdom by studying people who are exemplars of wisdom. This is not as easy as it might seem, because one of the characteristics of wise persons is humility, so a wise person is unlikely to say that they are wise.  Often, then, we identify these people by having other people nominate them, and it is interesting who gets on those lists. It can range from the Dalai Lama to Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey.

The other reason wisdom might be difficult to define is that wisdom actually has many dimensions.  I imagine that if I polled all of you about what qualities you selected as wise, we could create a long list of answers. Researchers have actually confirmed this, and the list includes things like compassion, ability to see the big picture, to put things in perspective, to see things from many points of view, to be able to reflect on and rise above one’s own perspective.  Wisdom is different from intelligence.  Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity.  Wisdom on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge. (Sternberg).  Monika Ardelt is a modern wisdom researcher who has put all of these into a 3 dimensional model of wisdom: cognitive, reflective and affective.   The cognitive dimension includes the desire to deeply know and understand things, including the limits of our knowing.  The reflective dimension represents the capacity for self-reflection, and the capacity to see things from many perspectives.  The affective dimension of wisdom is empathy and compassion.  So, a wise person is one who desires to deeply understand things, who is humble and aware of the limitations of knowing, who can see things from many perspectives and avoids black and white thinking, and who radiates compassion.

Does Adversity Make Us Wise?

But how do we become wise? Think about that person that you identified at the beginning of this essay.  How do you think they got wise?  This question takes us back to Proust.  If no one can hand us wisdom on a silver platter, and we must discover this for ourselves through our own experiences, our own journey, what kind of experience might be the best teacher?  I would argue that for all the downsides of adversity, just like necessity is the mother of invention, adversity is the seedbed for wisdom.  What better teacher of compassion than one’s own experience of suffering?  How better to learn humility than to make a mistake?  And what better to discover the deeper meaning of one’s life than to face a circumstance that forces you to focus on that which is of most value to your life?  An unexpected turn of events is likely to help us to understand the ambiguity and uncertainty in life, and the limitations of our own perspective. But what evidence do we have that adversity can lead to wisdom?

When researcher Judith Glück and colleagues asked subjects to describe a situation in which they acted wisely, compared to a peak experience, they found that the wisdom situations more often involved difficult or negative events, implying that wisdom perhaps develops through the experience of adversity. Pascual Leone and colleagues described these challenging situations as “ultimate limit situations,” circumstances that “cannot be undone and are nonetheless faced with consciousness and resolve…situations like death, illness, aging, …absolute failure…uncontrollable fear.”  Psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun have been studying this positive response to trauma for the past ten years, a phenomenon they call post-traumatic growth.  We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress, but these researchers noted that when asked about how trauma might have changed them for the better, people began to describe the positive ways in which they had changed because of what they had lived through.  This complex set of changes fall into five domains: increased appreciation of life, warmer relations with others, recognition of new possibilities for one’s life, a greater sense of personal strength, and spiritual development. 

Tedeschi and Calhoun suggest that trauma induces a disruption in our understanding of ourselves and the world (our schema) and that disruption forces us to re-work our understanding of ourselves and the world, resulting in learning and growth with the potential for wisdom as the final result. In the Wisdom in Medicine project we were interested in this question of whether moving through a difficult circumstance in a positive way can result in wisdom.  We studied patients who had coped with chronic pain, and physicians who had made a serious medical error. When asked what they had learned and how they had changed for the better because of their experience, they used the language of wisdom.  They talked about having increased compassion for others, increased capacity for forgiveness and humility, an increased desire to understand things, but also a deeper understanding of the ambiguous nature of things, and becoming more aware of the limitations of our knowledge.

Wisdom and Courageous Choices

Of course, not everyone who suffers through a difficult experience comes out with something positive.  In fact, you could argue, adversity is just as likely to make someone bitter, angry, cynical and entrenched as it is to make them compassionate, humble, more able to see things from other’s perspectives. So I will argue that it is not just adversity, but rather adversity plus the right matrix and the inner capacity to use that difficult experience in a positive way that leads to wisdom.

We asked the Wisdom in Medicine exemplars  “what helped?”, what made it easier for them to move positively through their difficult experiences?  Here’s a summary of what they told us.  Having a community, someone they could talk to, to tell their story, was importantCultivating gratitude and positive emotion, quiet reflection (whether meditation, mindfulness, prayer) was helpful.  Doing something positive, which often involved doing things for others, was helpful.  And having a moral or spiritual grounding helped to guide them through this process and helped them to “do the right thing” when it was hard. 

There was something else surprising in the data.  As researchers we experienced an ah ha moment as we painstakingly combed through the data.  All of the exemplars had at one point made a choice, a conscious, deliberate choice to pursue something that was hard.  It may not have been what they really wanted to do, and certainly not something they thought would necessarily end up well.  But it was something they felt they had to do to set things straight.   They chose, in many cases, the harder course of action.  They chose to face their circumstances face on.  We say, they “stepped in”.  They may have decided to apologize to a patient or family, to go into a room full of intense judgment.  It might have meant that they had to face their addiction, or take control of their health.  At some point they made a courageous choice to make a difference in their own lives.

But how did these exemplars have the courage and the capacity to make these choices?  I believe that the matrix in which we experience these difficult circumstances has a lot to do with how we move through them.  Researcher John Meachum talks about a wisdom atmosphere as being one in which doubts, uncertainties and questions can be openly expressed, and ambiguities and contradictions can be tolerated, so that individuals are not forced to adopt the defensive position of what he calls “too confident knowing”.

So, the next obvious question is, assuming that we think wisdom is worthy of pursuing as an individual, or a society, how do we foster wisdom?

I believe that we can, if we are intentional about it, foster an atmosphere of wisdom, in ourselves and in each other, and I believe it will help us along the path to wisdom when we face difficult circumstances.  When we foster compassion, empathy and forgiveness, in ourselves and in others, we are opening up the possibility for wisdom.  When we foster the capacity for self-reflection in our children, or our community, we are creating the matrix for wisdom to develop. When we foster gratitude, wisdom is likely to follow.  When we accept the complexity and ambiguous nature of things, and refuse to accept a simplified black and white explanation, we are increasing the likelihood of wise decisions.   Wisdom does not arise out of the easy, simple parts of our lives.  Wisdom lives in the most messy, hard, complex and painful of our experiences.

Rumi has some important advice.  In his poem The Guest House Rumi suggests that “this being human is a guest house”.  We need to welcome each guest, “even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.”  He implores: “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond”.

(Note: References are included in links in the article.)

Questions for Discussion

How might our educational system change if it was wisdom rather than knowledge that we were trying to develop in our children?

For those who are parents, how might your parenting foster wisdom in your children?

Can people be wise in one context and unwise in another, or is wisdom a deeper attribute that, once gained, is visible in all contexts?