Sometime during my sophomore year of college, I realized that being smart and speaking well were not perfectly correlated. One of my good friends–who has since had the most surprisingly adventurous life of my college gang–was pulling steady Bs without really trying. Grade inflation might have blunted that accomplishment, but this friend was taking a fairly serious slate of biology and Japanese classes. At a selective liberal arts college, you’re not supposed to be able to get away with that. This buddy of mine, though, was managing it even though he talked like a dairy farmer from Wisconsin (which he was). He was plenty smart.
Around the same time, I began to seriously think about wisdom. Being “smart” has always been easy for me. I’m particularly good at clever. (It’s the one way I feel like I’ve actually made an impression on my students so far.) I think fast. I mostly respond to new and changing situations with workable solutions.
Clever kept me afloat in grad school. I was good at the necessary half-bluffs of sounding like you know more than you really do. When something truly caught my interest, I could do a reasonable job of getting below the surface and thinking Big Thoughts about it. Day-to-day, though, I relied on being mentally quick rather than being intellectually strong.
Mental agility is pretty damn handy, but clever isn’t enough.
What I have been aspiring to, what I have written about intermittently for years in stuff that nobody sees, is wisdom.
The definition I’ve come up with most recently is this: wisdom is recognizing your feelings but understanding that they don’t have to rule you. This divide between thoughts and emotions crops up fairly often on the blog. Most often, it’s an intellectual understanding that things will get better, that I am capable, that I’ve overcome plenty of obstacles opposed to a feeling that everything will suck forever and I suck, too. When I’m at my most wise, I can recognize that distinction and use it as a source of strength.
Similar principles apply to dealing with people and situations. It’s easy to get angry about things. It’s often even easier to get angry at people. Maintaining some detachment from my emotions helps me control my responses to the people and situations that upset me.
Writing about “detachment” might seem to equate wisdom with coldness. Really, though, when I’m working on wisdom I’m usually able to respond in the best way. That’s most often a warm one–for both practical and ethical purposes. Wisdom becomes a precursor to kindness and humanity. When I act with wisdom, I can do what’s best rather than what I feel like doing.
That’s what I aim for, anyway. I don’t get there as often as I’d like, in part because I’m still working on the more practical wisdom of getting enough sleep and exercise and eating the right food. Wisdom is hard when the body’s playing catch up. It’s hard to be wise when you’re in your third consecutive hour of 30 eighth graders in a small room. Mostly, it’s hard to be wise because we’re still toting around a lot of neurological wiring that kept us alive thousands of generations ago.
That doesn’t stop me from trying. It is, as I tell my kids (and my students) the only way to get better.