Pic of the day: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." (Ecclesiastes 12:12.)
Time and wisdom
I talked with a fellow Christian mystic, one more pious and dedicated to his faith than I am. I asked him about this conundrum, that the world is rapidly filling with old people but there doesn't seem to be lots of wise old people. In the past, wisdom was associated with old age; these days we get more and more old fools and they just stay that way till they die, most of them. He replied, wisely, that in the past foolish people were more likely to die young.
You know, I think he is right. In the past, if you had random unprotected sex, you got sexually transmitted diseases, and then you died slowly and painfully. These days you can usually survive even if you get these diseases. And if you drink up all your money, the State will provide. If you borrow and spend, you can get protection from your creditors. If you get into quarrels, the courts will settle the dispute without bloodshed. And so on and on. We have built the wisdom into the system, so personal wisdom is no longer required, barely even rewarded: The wise pay for the folly of the fools.
The good thing about this is that it is still possible to become wise, it just doesn't confer an evolutionary benefit anymore. If you want to, it may be even easier than before. Or perhaps not. Let us take a quick look at that.
The reason why it may be harder is specialization. Society becomes more powerful and efficient when each of us specializes in a few tasks, not just in our work (especially there though) but also socially and in our hobbies. Because others need our specialization, we are rewarded for it. As more and more knowledge is unearthed, it becomes impossible for people to hold it all. It is now impossible to know much about even a single branch of knowledge such as physics. In fact, it is impossible even to have an overview of nuclear physics and still know the details. You have to specialize in some subset of it to know something worthwhile. And so on with one thing after another. Knowledge is like an old mine where the tunnels are branching out all the time, and the digging is always at the end of the tunnels, not at the intersections. True, sometimes you can discover something by having different specializations meet; but then it is usually done in a team, where specialists from different faculties get together, perhaps by accident, and discover some common ground.
But all is not lost. There is unimaginably much knowledge out there, and while knowledge is not wisdom, it is a step in the right direction. You need knowledge (preferably experience when possible), intelligence and time, then you can proceed to insight. With insight, you begin to understand the knowledge. How it is connected, why this leads to that and why some things just don't go together. With insight you can see past the surface of things and discern their inner workings. This is not yet wisdom. Wisdom combines the intellectual and the intuitive. Intellect discerns how things work; emotion assigns values to things and intuition puts things in their right place. When you intuitively realize what is important (in your own life, in your work and in the world) and you know how to get to there from here, then you have wisdom.
You cannot buy wisdom. You have to buy the time and use it well, and be born with a brain able to handle the load. It is a horrible thing to say, but if you are sufficiently stupid then you can never gain personal wisdom in the brief lifespan we have on Earth. You can still make use of other people's wisdom, though... if only you have enough wisdom to know who to follow and who to avoid. This is generally less taxing than figuring out everything on your own! This is why we have wisdom traditions in all major religions and some that are not religious. This is probably what Jesus referred to when he talked about the "talents":
There was a king who gave some guys various amounts of money to take care of while he was abroad for a long time. Some of them traded with the money and made it grow. But one of them buried his Talent (originally a large sum of silver) so he could give it back unchanged. When the king returned, he was very angry to see the money had not been used. "Why didn't you at least put it in the bank?" he thundered. He then punished the poor guy.
I believe that to follow the advice of others who have done well with their lives is to "put the money in the bank". You rely on someone else to make the right decisions. This is unlikely to be the most efficient way, because no wisdom tradition is so detailed that it can tell you what to do in every situation in your life. If you could remember that much, you would not need it anyway. But it can help with major decisions so you don't commit much of your time and money to crazy things, even if you're too dumb to figure out by yourself.
The really good news, however, is for those who have some brain and want to use it. In the past you just happened on knowledge, for the most part. Now it is at your fingertips, literally. While most of the Internet's content is trash, there is also a lot of genuine knowledge. And genuine knowledge has the benefit that it fits together with other genuine knowledge in one seamless pattern, like standing out in the open under the sky and wherever you look, everything flows into everything else. But lies are like a wall filled with paintings: Each of them makes sense in itself, but then suddenly it stops and there is something entirely different. In this way can we separate truth and falsehood. Sometimes a painting is so lifelike and placed just so, it looks like the real thing. But when we see things from a different angle as we progress, we see it for what it was and we correct our worldview. It is far better than closing your eyes and not daring to move forward.
For a taste of what can be achieved, I will redirect you to a blog entry
by my online friend Bjørn Stærk. He is an adult, but quite a bit younger
than me. Despite this he has achieved a surprising amount of wisdom, and
in this fairly short essay he explains how. Read this, and you could
gain a lifelong benefit in five minutes. It is kinda like finding a
magic sword, only for the mind.
Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.