Ever since I was a young boy I have wondered, what is wisdom? How do I know it when I see it? What do we mean when we call a person ‘wise’?
Such information is denied to young boys, but as a young man I have noticed some patterns that I can report.
The first thing to say is that what I construed as wisdom when I was a young boy and adolescent, wasn’t: it was a form of pseudo-wisdom that I used to protect myself and to conceal the fact that I felt I didn’t know what I was doing.
An example of this ‘pseudo-wisdom’ might be a platitude like, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ By repeating platitudes like this, I achieved the benefit of coming across as wise, while simultaneously masking the fact that I felt I didn’t know anything wise—didn’t even know what wisdom was—and had nothing to offer.
Eventually this dynamic broke, most probably because I found that the platitudes I carried around, actually did nothing to help me lead a life of grace. For instance, if I went around saying ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ I noticed that even if I treated others kindly, this didn’t always mean they reciprocated; this incongruity in our behavior would have led me to despair, and a cynicism that said no wisdom was possible.
In this turn I’ve outlined the first and second of what I’ve come to call the ‘languages of wisdom,’ a set of languages that we tend to pass through as we come to wisdom with respect to a certain topic or arena of life. The first language was what I exemplified through the use of a platitude, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you:’ this is what I call ‘objective-superficial’ wisdom, a shield that we carry around to obscure the fact that we feel we don’t know anything about life, to obscure this even to ourselves. The second language is harder to see, only because it usually arrives in the form of negation or even a refusal to say anything at all: it’s the belief that we don’t know anything about life, and not only that, that no such knowledge is possible; this I call ‘self-denying’ wisdom.
After a time, ‘self-denying’ wisdom, too, gives way to something more, here because we realize that the mantra that we don’t in fact know anything about life, is a defense against the responsibility that would come with that knowledge. For instance, if my original statement of wisdom was the objective-superficial ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and the self-denying wisdom that followed this was ‘It doesn’t matter how you act; people are going to treat you how they treat you,’ or something similarly defeatist like that; this schema would end with the realization that I can, in fact, outline the possible responses another person can give to my action, that the way I show up in the world has meaning.
It’s no coincidence that I wrote the preceding sentence in the first-person, because my name for this third language of wisdom is ‘subjective:’ it’s the kind of wisdom that arrives when we state the effects we have, either on ourselves or on the world, through the choices that we make as individual beings. Going with the founding example of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ a statement of subjective wisdom might go as follows: ‘I can only control how I treat others, not how they respond to me in kind. However, I feel better about myself when I am nicer to others.’
Rather than throw up my hands at the chaos and lack of control inherent in the world, as I had in the ‘self-denying’ stance with respect to this same topic, my subjective statement of wisdom sees me at once claiming what’s possible within my sphere of control, while at the same time recognizing what lies outside that sphere and as such must be disregarded.
The subjective language of wisdom is a significant one because it’s usually the one which enables healing from past trauma, which is also what makes it an ‘attractive’ language that ultimately reveals its own end. The more I remind myself of the power I do have, as well as disassociate from those things I can’t control, the more I start to create a healthier, empowered life for myself, and what tends to happen in this trajectory is that others notice me—they notice the health I’m cultivating—and they come to me asking for guidance.
This is what leads to the fourth language of wisdom, which is what I call ‘objective-deep:’ this is similar to the founding language of ‘objective-superficial,’ in that it is grounded in a larger perspective rather than in a single subjectivity, but it differs in that it remains specific rather than abstract, and derived in the moment rather than handed down from on high: it is an articulation of what we feel and the consequences of our behavior, rather than a hollow maxim that lacks a subject.
For instance, an articulation of ‘objective-deep’ wisdom on the same subject of altruism might run as follows: ‘We tend to behave kindly to others because we want to enhance our self-image. However, others can tell our motives when we extend our help to them, and we will precipitate their response based on whether we are genuine or disingenuous.’ A statement like this leaves the ground of the ‘subjective’ language of wisdom, which fails to grasp the ‘why’ of the whole picture; but it also remains within the bounds of what we can do with our agency: both subjective wisdom, and objective-deep wisdom are action-oriented, which again is why they are languages of empowerment and healing.
As with the preceding three languages, objective-deep wisdom eventually and naturally gives way to its successor, this time because objective-deep wisdom ultimately reveals itself as failing to grasp the ‘whole’ picture. With objective-deep wisdom, we always suggest that we are in control of some aspect of our behavior, and what ultimately becomes suspect is just what this ‘we’ refers to. Do we mean white people, black people, young people, old people? Do we mean men, women, gender-non-conforming people? Do we mean the whole human race? Do we extend our ‘we’ to include plants and animals, or even things that appear to ‘have’ no subjectivity such as rocks and stones?
Eventually, we must confront the fact that there is no cause of our behavior, at least not one that we can see or control. Even within our own spheres of knowing, ‘we’ are not responsible for what we do; things happen, and happen through us, almost of their own accord and in a way that creates our awareness of them as an after-effect.
In this realization—and in the previous sentence,—we have arrived at the fifth and, to my knowledge, final language of wisdom, which is what I like to call ephemeral or ‘transcendent’ wisdom: this is a language that, like the founding ‘objective-superficial’ language of wisdom, lacks a subject, but where this one differs is that it arises in the moment—rather than in the abstract—in response to a specific circumstance that births the wisdom. For instance, with respect to the issues of altruism and kindness that compose a theme in this post, an ‘ephemeral’ transmission of wisdom might state that kindness ‘arises in us as a desire not just to love, but to be loved, one that flowers outward with each reciprocation.’ This statement is poetic, carries a feeling, and describes a pattern through which wisdom articulates itself, but it does not make the suggestion that wisdom is something we control or possess—a point of distinction between this and all the preceding languages.
An interesting fact about the languages of wisdom is that they seem to correspond to different roles, as well as to different feelings:
For instance, the subjective-superficial language of wisdom is the language of the student/child, one who seeks to master the tidbits necessary to please an elder or master and to seem ‘good.’ Using this language feels gratifying, but only in a way that touches the ego; the feeling is ultimately insecure, and greater and greater expressions of wisdom are necessary in order to keep the insecurity from reemerging.
The self-denying language of wisdom is the language of the cynic/deadbeat, and it feels despairing, but also slightly good. This is because it allows the person to tell a tale of pity and woe, which attracts others to give them the love they may feel they lack. At a point, this form of love will begin to feel embarrassing to them, rather than sating, and they will shift on to the subjective language of wisdom in order to reach the higher levels of love and actualization.
The subjective language of wisdom is the language of inner healing and individuation, and it feels courageous, almost as though the words emitted through it are sacrilegious. This is because the person daring to issue subjective wisdom has likely internalized the message that suffering is normal, and that wisdom is wrong or impossible, and this language sees the person breaking free of that message. As such, subjective wisdom is a liberation.
Objective-deep wisdom is consoling, though it also brings with it a degree of pride. This is because the person sharing the wisdom in this language gets to feel like a ‘master’ of something, as though they have figured out their listener’s/student’s subjective wisdom before that wisdom had even been articulated. This is the language of teaching, and it often exposes itself when the teacher realizes its connection with ego and realizes his/her/their illegitimate posture as the ‘cause’ of that which they teach.
Ephemeral wisdom is peaceful and lastingly satisfying, although it cannot be employed intentionally, precisely because the language itself speaks through us rather than is spoken by us. In other words, ephemeral wisdom arrives once we realize that, in contradistinction to all we’d previously believed and tried, wisdom is not something we need to work at, but rather is something that always has existed and always will—indeed that birthed us—and that will be there even without us, and that governs our movements whether we are aware of it or not. This is the language of deep spirituality, mysticism, and naked humility, and it happens to those lucky enough to hear and be broken by the calls of the deep.
Like ephemeral wisdom, all the previous languages can be abused. For instance, someone might pretend to have objective-deep wisdom on a topic when in fact they don’t, to get accolades; or they might pretend to have no wisdom on a topic (self-denying wisdom) when in fact they do, in order to hide. The difference will always reside in the eyes and ears of the listener, who will be able to tell whether the wisdom spoken comes from the speaker’s head, heart, soul, or even from a place beyond and through the person, all of which depends on whether the person’s life experience has dictated events such that wisdom could be authentically formed.
Wisdom is not something we work at, or acquire, or form; it happens to us, and happens through the teaching of the teacher who never leaves.