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  • Stuart Nevill

Why wisdom matters

Updated: May 20, 2020

Welcome to the first of a series of reflections on wisdom, what it is, and how to develop it and put it into practice.

Few of us set out to be ignorant, cruel, or immature, yet at times we are, and whilst many of us aspire to be wise we often fall short. Why is that? We have the potential for both within us, but it is easier to live automatically and unthinkingly where possible. In contrast, wisdom, integrity, and maturity are developed through experience (often painful) and with effort.

It really is all too easy to not be wise. We can for example when we feel threatened to fight for our interests regardless of the consequences to others which we keep out of mind. Sometimes, we prioritise the benefits we get from belonging to a group, regardless of how little realism, integrity, or maturity there is in that groups' ideology. We can also numb ourselves to the feelings that would if we let ourselves be aware of them, threaten our identity. We all have the ability to avoid uncomfortable or inconvenient emotions, projecting our unpalatable intentions and characteristics into other people (we become good and they become bad). 

Having established how easy it is to live unwisely, it is equally true that we are also capable of remarkable self-awareness, sensitivity, reflexivity, acceptance, integrity, and realism. This is because our human nature includes the drive to learn, adapt, and understand, as well as to conform, react, and go unthinkingly with the majority view. 

The balance each of us finds in our lives between these opposing characteristics, reflects our willingness to feel, reflect, and learn from our experience and in this way grow in wisdom, integrity, and maturity.

We are, after all, part of the natural world and in our existence, we have the ability to be more or less aware of how it feels, we can live in lesser or greater harmony with our own human nature, we can make more or less sense of our experience. The more aligned our subjective (thought) experience is to internal and external realities, the wiser we are, the richer our lives are and the less we suffer.

We develop greater wisdom as we pitch our assumptions and expectations against reality, suffering in the process, and arriving in due course at greater acceptance and understanding of the realities of our inner world and our relationships, particularly when our experience has not conformed with the way we wanted it to be. We grow into wisdom by understanding the painful and problematic nature of our immaturity and this changes us.

We can't really avoid it, our life itself requires us to change and if we don’t, we soon land in deep water. Typical challenges along the way include:

- Our childhood expectations of love and safety aren’t met (as much as we would like, at least) in the world at large

- Our early adult ambitions for social status and success become less meaningful in later life

- Aging and the prospect of death heralds the ultimate existential crisis

Navigating such changes, required by the natural course of life and the dilemmas we face along the way (which are brought about by the interplay of competing drives within us and other people), provide the opportunity for us to change and grow in wisdom and maturity. Pain is the best teacher. To give an example, we might for realise that avoiding a difficult conversation (one that would threaten our identity, or take us out of our comfort zone), has unwittingly created further problems because whether we like it or not something uncomfortable or downright ugly has happened that we didn’t consciously engage with because we expected life to be fair. 

Such change is necessary but it can be extremely challenging. If our society helps us in this process by providing a structure within which we can let go of the familiar so as to grow into the new experience, then we are very fortunate. Such traditional social structures are less accessible than they once were. If we find ourselves facing the challenge alone, we can benefit from an education in the process of personal change. This lesson exists at the heart of countless traditions, mythologies, and psychological frameworks and yet they are hard to access and difficult to apply. In today’s society, we tend not to pro-actively engage with a process of change until we are in the depth of suffering, or unless it is forced on us. However, deciding to pro-actively take up the challenge of changing and developing our wisdom is an option, it always has been and always will be.

We do need some form of system, containment, or framework to change in this way. Our anxieties need to be contained so they don’t overwhelm us. We need a project or to do some work to focus our energy. We need some form of support from others.  We need a direction of travel and hope that a positive change is possible when we are uncertain and struggling. If we don’t get this through our society we need to develop a personally meaningful framework for ourselves and use that to direct our reflections and choices. 

Wisdom comes with personal growth. It is cultivated by being sensitive, attentive, and reflective of the reality of our experience. It is realised organically, rather than being forced, but courageous reflection and conversation can stimulate and embed such change. Emotional and intellectual intelligence is both a method and a fruit of personal development. Some ideas about wisdom are impossible to understand in a deeply felt way unless there has been some process of personal maturation beforehand. Some such ideas challenge and provoke such personal development.  Wisdom is worth thinking and talking about.

Wisdom is one of the noblest of human qualities and we should remind ourselves in contemplating it's qualities the great potential of human nature which we can choose to draw down in our own lives.

Wisdom manifests as realism, integrity, and maturity. The key characteristics we need to become wiser are humility, self-awareness, and conscience. I will explore this further in subsequent blogs in this series.

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