If self-interest, short-sightedness and revenge formed the pinnacle of human aspirations, then we could rejoice that civilization has fulfilled its destiny. But we all know that we cannot continue to wreak havoc on nature and our fellow humans like this without calling forth consequences of the direst sort. And we despair that we possess the collective wisdom to pull back from the brink in time.
Our knowledge has achieved technological miracles that defy our control. Our knowledge of the universe mocks our understanding. Our knowledge of how to extend life is exceeded only by our knowledge of how to shorten it. And our knowledge of how to make use of the resources of our planet threatens to pull the rug of life right out from under us.
But has our wisdom kept pace with the advance of knowledge? Has it even increased a little since our collective ancestors began inquiring into the wise life several millennia ago?
By knowledge we of course mean the intellect's ability to think and reason out problems, create hypothetical questions, make plans, distinguish between things, and, most of all, talk to itself. It's that reliance on self-conscious reasoning that marks much of modern thinking and has brought us both material blessings and curses.
The state of the world around us is little different than our own lives, however. We face a whirlwind of opportunities and challenges that do not seem to produce the outcome we expect when we address them using our intellect. Just as governments cannot seem to make things work in the real world by trying to fix them with reason alone, our own attempts to succeed by thinking creates unforeseen backlashes more often than not.
So how does wisdom differ from knowledge and why have so many creative and successful people warned us away from living a life too rational? If the world we live in isn't simply a series of dominoes falling in nice neat predictable patterns of cause-and-effect, then how should we look at it and what does real-world wisdom look like?
Is it simply the ability to make the right decisions? Or is it something deeper, having to do with longings and purposes more difficult to define? How can we tell if we have made a truly wise move or one that was merely smart?
I offer up these three ideas as a way of getting the discussion going. I'm hoping you'll jump in with ideas and recommendations of your own--
1. Respond to circumstances without preconceptions. It isn't important to get into an intellectual argument about whether this is possible in some absolute sense. What is important is to take it to heart and do our best to enter each moment with fresh eyes and an open mind. When we stop knowing what is right and wrong before we even encounter the moment, we have the chance to see things as they really are and act in ways that are more beneficial to the whole.
2. Focus on how you treat others, not on how they treat you. It's easy to use the intellect to keep score of times when others offend or wrong us, thus justifying our own ill will toward them. Yet their actions are entirely beyond our control--there is nothing we can do to make others treat us the way we want. How they act is their problem. All that we can control is how we treat others. With consistency, however, our actions prove to be the real key to influencing others and establishing mutually-beneficial long-lasting relationships.
3. Be playful instead of critical. The intellect is constantly on the lookout for what is wrong with this picture. This tendency to watch for what is absent or wrong simply amounts to others doing things their way instead of ours. Pay attention to what you are paying attention to--don't trivialize life by attending to meaningless details. Being critical wastes energy and harms relationships. Make a game of things. The person slowing you down or pushing you to go faster may be saving your life by moving you out of harm's way. Enjoy the eccentricities of others. Try them out for yourself. Waste time. Engage in purposeless activities. Wisdom enjoys life and cares that others enjoy life, too.
These are three small and achievable goals that can improve our lives by striking a better balance between acting intellectually and acting wisely. It goes without saying that we need to discover the secret to acting wisely on an individual level if we are to actually achieve that same goal on the global level where so many of our common problems need to be solved.
What is wisdom? How do you balance it with intellect? How do you act wisely? I ask that you contribute to this discussion with your own ideas and recommendations, from the most sublime to the most practical, and I will do my best to incorporate them into upcoming posts in a collective effort to explore this essential topic.
The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.