01 June 2017

Sharing wisdom: reflections on the road to the country for old men

M.C. Escher
Not everyone is lucky enough to journey into the "country for old men" (and women). And even among those who are lucky enough to reach old-age, not all learn as much from the journey as they might. Some arrive at the destination having missed the journey.
Growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional.

Is practical wisdom valuable?

Even in a society which is increasingly technical and technological, there is some sense that wisdom is a worthy goal, a knowledge worth attaining. Adapting the words of Aristotle in Nichomacean Ethics only a little, we can see that his observation applies still today:
"Although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics [and technology and computers] and similar sorts of knowledge, they nonetheless lack practical wisdom. Such wisdom is gained from experience which the young do not possess, for experience is the fruit of years." (adapted from Nichomachean Ethics 1142a).
So even while we may rely on our children, our grand-children or both to help us download apps to our mobile phone, to show us how to connect our "smart" television to Netflix and how to stream music through Spotify to our tablet and other devices, there is still a place for wisdom.

Most people understand and even value wisdom at some intuitive level. Elders and ancestors are revered in some cultures and wisdom seems important in cultures high on Hofstede's cultural dimension of power-distance.
More generally, it appears to be appreciated most by those who have lived longer. Perhaps this reflects that today, there are more people around who have lived longer. In Australia (and reflected in western cultures around the world), 16% of the population are aged 65 years or more. Up from 8-9% in the 1960s and 70s.
More pertinently, those who have lived longer are presumably those that have done the right thing – or at least, less things wrong. Those who have a long life not only have time during which they may have developed wisdom, but in a kind of natural selection way, they represent the ones who necessarily were in some ways wiser than at least some of those who exited earlier.
However, it is unclear whether age is sufficient or even necessary for wisdom. The more pertinent element is to have learned. Some learn sooner, some learn later. Age provides more time to learn, but it is the activation of learning that is the critical factor, not simply lived experience.
A distinction might be made between intentional and unintentional learning. A pre-sentient child or a circus animal can learn that a repeated behavior will reap a reward (operant conditioning). Conscious awareness of the lesson is not necessary – but this we might exclude from wisdom.
“A learning experience is one of those things that says, 'You know that thing you just did? Don't do that.” (Douglas Adams, Salmon of Doubt).
Or even more, the learning that contributes to experience which is aggregated into wisdom is a product of meta-learning. It is learning from the learnings. It is the learning that allows one to see that their own view is just one perspective among others, even many.
What is this notion of "perspective"? It is the ability to view my own life, my own experiences, my own learnings dispassionately. Or even better, to be able to laugh at them for laughter, in response to a joke, is an acknowledgement of two or more conflicting perspectives:
"Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon." Woody Allen
Age provides the potential for learning, and learning provides the material of meta-learning. Wisdom is the kind of learning reflected by good teachers, those who "learn from the learner" (Kirkegaarde). The notion of learning being evoked is that reflected in the French verb, apprendre, meaning both to learn (as in English), but also to teach.

The getting of practical wisdom

Practical wisdom does not require age. Experience and perspective seem jointly necessary. Rather curiously and ironically, the value of practical wisdom is perhaps most evident to those who have it.

Some people can develop practical wisdom fairly naturally. In a psychological sense, they have a trait that ensures they gain wisdom. For people such as this, Socrates' words (as written by Plato) ring especially true: "an unexamined life is not worth living." For others however, the gaining of wisdom is not assured, it is perhaps not so naturally acquired. It may be gleaned, but only by dint of considerable effort. And for yet others, practical knowledge is perhaps beyond their reach.

The characteristic (virtue?) that underlies the development of wisdom appears to be a capacity to self-reflect. Not just to be able to see oneself, but to process such self-reflections deeply – like looking into the eye of another, and seeing oneself. Like looking into a mirror, and seeing not just oneself, but seeing into and beyond the superficial self that stares at you.

Wisdom comes not from having lived a long life, but from having reflected on the reasons for why that life has been long.

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." (Kirkegaarde)

Above all, it will be argued that wisdom is to be shared. One obvious reason is for the benefit of others – even if they seem ungrateful or unaware of the value of what is shared. The others – like the elder herself – are on a journey, and sometimes it takes a while for us to learn our lessons.

But a less obvious reason for the sharing is to benefit the teacher (learner). Sharing with others necessitates precisely the level of self-reflection that is required. Moreover, in the sharing, the comments, the challenges, the feedback of others dynamically shape the identity of the speaker.

Self-reflection is an endless rabbit-hole. So wisdom is to be shared, not just for the benefit of those with whom the wisdom is shared, but also for the benefit of those who do the sharing, for this is how wisdom develops.

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