Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chill'en. A Reflection on Wisdom

In my experience, clients who are torn apart by their own, inner conflicts, or by conflicts with others, often wish for a peace they characterize as being "more Zen"; for the younger amongst them that peace may be described as being "chill", "chilled out" or "cool". Personally, I associate what they are seeking with being more wise, which leads me to embark on what could easily be seen as a pretentious exercise: reflecting upon the meaning of wisdom. Pretentious because it seems to imply that, at the very least, I have some idea of what constitutes wisdom, or that I aspire to wisdom, or, at the very most, consider myself to be wise; the last of which I would definitely consider pretentious.  Were I to propose reflecting upon foolishness, implications that I either aspire to or consider myself a fool would be somewhat less likely to be drawn and less likely to be seen as pretentious.

I suppose that is a reflection of the fact that one of the characteristics of a wise person is that he or she would be unlikely to refer to themselves as wise, which points to a characteristic of wisdom: humility. Someone who felt the need to tell others they were wise would be considered both pretentious and foolish; uttering a statement that self-negates. Wisdom must be recognized and ascribed by another, yet, in many cultures, it is not seen to be particularly rare, but as an appropriate accomplishment of old age. "Listen to the wisdom of our elders" is an oft repeated injunction, especially in societies lacking a written, historical record.

While not all elders are wise, the young are almost never seen as wise; the exception being the young, usually girls, who are seen as possessing "old souls". The elderly, though their memory of fact, especially recent fact, may fade, prevail in their knowledge of how things are done and in their narrative memories; a recounting once crucially important for learning what is to be done; now, in industrialized societies, seen as tedious and annoying. Wisdom has to do with with knowing how things are likely to work in the domain of human relationships and our relationship with the natural world; with knowing how things have turned out in the past and are likely to turn out in the future. It is a weakness of wisdom, as well as a strength, that it tends not to evolve with the rapid pace of knowledge. Remarks by a sage who lived near the beginning of recorded history and in a radically different culture can be experienced as pertinent and resonant to our own, current situations; something remarkable, when you stop and think about it, and explains frequent references to wisdom as eternal.

The resonance of wisdom through different ages and cultures is facilitated by the fact that wisdom is usually conveyed through particular forms of discourse; forms which encourage and enable people in differing ages and cultures to read into its expressions what speaks to their own lives. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, in that regard the discourse of wisdom can resemble that of the horoscope, the fortune teller, the fortune cookie. Characteristically, the discourse of wisdom is not didactic. It is simply put, not complex, but often paradoxical and perplexing. Wisdom is most often communicated through dialogue, parable, metaphor, epigram, poetry and, employing that strange noun, almost reserved for wisdom, "sayings". "Sayings" are particularly associated with words of wisdom, largely due to the fact that the wise often do not record their own discourse, even when the technology is available; another indication of the humility associated with wisdom or, perhaps, that the wise can sometimes be prudent.

Interesting that in both Greek and Biblical tradition, wisdom was seen as feminine; even though the cultures were patriarchal. In the Old Testament, wisdom is sometimes personified as feminine, as it was for the Greeks in the form of Athena and Christians in the form of Mary, Mother of God, and St. Catherine, patron saint of philosophy.

Is that because wisdom is characterized by qualities not usually associated with a virulent masculinity? A wise person does not force their values or perceptions on others, rather, he or she persuades them to see things differently. Consider Salomon, the baby claimed by two, opposing parties and his wise solution. He made a judgment, but it was a non-judgmental judgment. Neither party in the conflict was told they were wrong, but the conflict was settled. A wise person is approached for guidance and counsel and does not impose his counsel on others. While wise persons may be believers in the moral and spiritual values of their culture, they are not zealots; characteristically, they hold to their beliefs and values with a certain humility and look for spaces of agreement with those of differing cultures, rather than focusing on difference.

The gesture of wisdom is a reaching out, a holding, rather than that of a clenched first, a striking out or a wagging, pointing finger. A respect for human life is nearly universal in those considered wise within very diverse cultures and very different historical periods. Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Jesus, to name just a few of the people most regarded as wise,  all taught the value of human life and were either totally opposed to the taking of life or placed very strict limits on it; surprisingly so, given the behaviour of their followers.

Wisdom is not the same as knowledge or intelligence. It is quite possible to be knowledgable, intelligent, and foolish.  Wisdom does, though, imply a knowledge in relation to what is seen to be good and bad in a particular culture and in knowing what means are likely to bring about what is seen to be good and to avoid what is seen to be bad; to be wise is to be skilled in judgment. Wisdom is different from prudence, which is the skill in choosing what is most likely to avoid harm to oneself or those one cares about.  It is not unusual for the wise person not to show prudence; to be seen as a threat within their own society and to pay for it with ostracism and death. In fact, a wise person is sometimes perceived as the opposite of wise, as a fool; the fool on the hill, speaking words of wisdom. The wise person has a certain detachment, is an observer, a seer; when listened to, the wise person can be seen as a treasure or a threat, a source of good or dangerous counsel; when ignored, is often an object of ridicule.

Wisdom might seem to be such a desirable characteristic that we might ask, "what's not to like about it?"; but some like it hot. Just ask someone of a more romantic persuasion. Consider Nietzsche's preference for Dionysius over Apollo, the celebration of the Gotterdammerung, those curious, contemporary French philosophies, which celebrate death and destruction. Even Wittgenstein, whom I greatly admire, and who lived a life and talked a talk much resembling that of a wise person, had a romantic, Germanic, streak about him, nourished, perhaps, by his repressed homosexuality. At one point, he contrasts wisdom with faith; the former he describes as cold, passive, grey, comparable to dry bones, while the latter is passionate, like fire, and comes from the heart. Early Christians themselves had issues with Greek and Roman wisdom, which they condemned as an empty, sometimes dangerous, worldly wisdom, contrasted with the divine wisdom that comes only through faith.

"Because you are luke warm, I shall spit you out of my mouth,"says Holy Scripture. We can observe the choice of faith over wisdom in the current flourishing of fundamentalist expressions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Theirs is the robust, masculine world of passion and zealotry, dismissing science and knowledge, along with wisdom, and focusing on faith alone. Faced with internal conflicts, they repress them; faced with conflicts with others, they oppress them. The passions of faith and ideology represent an alternative to wisdom: repress or eliminate the bothersome other. Happily for therapists, those who like it hot are far more likely to get religion than enter therapy; sadly for society, they are much more likely to join a neo-fascist political movement than learn from a Nelson Mandela.

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