Four kinds of wisdom
By Caroline Bassett, PhD, The Wisdom Institute
I have given several examples of wisdom and wise behavior, but they may seem all mixed together to you, minor things with major ones, small deals and big deals and really big deals. There is a difference in kinds of wisdom. In my research on wisdom, I have found four different kinds or levels of it, the difference arising with the complexity and/or the scope of the situation.
Ever After, or predicting consequences. This kind of wisdom derives from life experience and seeing how things play out. Elders are good at this because we have more data than youngers to go on from having seen plenty of events occur or decisions made, followed by the aftermath, for better or for worse. For example, in college I was planning on majoring in biology but my father counseled me not to for two reasons. One, I am not good at numbers, and two, I like to read novels. So I chose a French major instead, which turned out to serve me handily as I used the language in the Peace Corps in Morocco and then in travels in francophone countries. Or, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune of August 26, 2009, the CEO of Sun Country Airlines “publicly apologized and wisely offered the unfortunate passengers a refund” for six hours stuck on board waiting for a flight from New York City to take off to Minneapolis. That was thinking about consequences. If he hadn’t apologized and offered the refund, the passengers would be angry and choose another airline in the future. I expect that you can recall at least several situations where you had an idea of what the consequences might be.
On a broader level than predicting what the results of this or that action might be comes yet another kind of wisdom, the Good Thing. This kind of wisdom applies to situations with greater complexity.
A Good Thing Now and in the Future. This is wisdom on a wider scale than the other two, with more complexity involved. It is a good idea, a thing that is good to do right now and is good going into the future too. Here’s an example: eating locally. A fairly new idea, the concept of consciously eating locally makes sense because we support farmers near us, our neighbors perhaps, and because we spend less money on trucking the fruits and vegetables from far away, thus making a dent in saving the environment. Also, it just plain tastes better. It is an obvious thing to do but someone had to name it and once named, now we can use it. Another example is literacy for all. In the modern world, if you can’t read, you can’t do much or go much of anywhere. If you can read, you can get a driver’s license, and you can buy the kind of soup that you want and know if you should dilute it with a half cup of cream or three cups. It makes a difference! What kinds of Good Things can you think of?
There’s still one more kind of wisdom, the one with the greatest complexity and the widest range. I’m calling it Standing on the Mountain, or long-term perspective. Again, this is a kind of wisdom that we elder can have an edge on over youngers because we have been there, done that — and seen the whole of it.
Standing on the Mountain, or perspective. This means being able to see the whole of a thing and not merely the parts so that you can understand more about what is going on. You can see not only consequences but also patterns. You might be familiar with the Nazca Lines in Peru. On the ground they look like shallow designs made by rocks on the ground, lines that go here and there, with no discernable rhyme or reason. But if you go up the mountain (or nowadays, in a airplane) and look down, you will see figures of spiders, birds, and monkeys. So, from the distance you can see the pattern but close up it looks like random lines.
|I would suggest that some of our greatest leaders have seen the Nazca Lines, so to speak. They have seen a very big pattern and have striven to create or maintain it. For Abraham Lincoln it was his fight to save the Union. That was important to him because in the mid-19th century, a representative democracy was still a relatively new experiment in methods of government. Before, there had been tribes, feudal states, and monarchies. An elected government where the minority had a strong say in what went on was new on the planet, as was a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and Lincoln was dedicated to preserving it. Another example closer to home is Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw that the current discrimination against Blacks served neither them nor the Whites nor the country, and he worked against it.|