“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”
— Mark Twain
Wisdom that is the art of making good out of what life throws at us.”
— Gordon Jackson
I have always thought deeply about how to become wise. And there’s no easy answer to the question: “How can I become wise? Knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing. One may know millions of facts but that doesn’t make one wise.
Perhaps wisdom is knowledge plus, that is, doing something like being virtuous and dealing well with the ups and downs of daily life. Virtues are habits that help us live the good life by carrying out our daily duties in a responsible and joyful manner.
We can’t act virtuously on our own. We need the help and power of God or a higher force to manage what life throws at us. And God never sends us a challenge that we can’t handle, provided that we ask for help from above.
There exists a passion for wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly in the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. These books are about the shaping of our actions and behavior before Adonai.
Who can forget the words of wisdom found in Psalm 23:1 “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" and Psalm 23:4 “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”
Scholars tell us that the wisdom literature found in the Hebrew scripture was not limited to Israel. Rather, it was shared with other traditions and cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Apparently, the wisdom literature of Israel was both interreligious and international. (See David F. Ford, The Shape of Living, Baker Books, 1997).
Correspondingly, the virtues and vices spoken about by St. Paul in the New Testament have parallels in various schools of thought in the Roman Empire, particularly in the Cynics and Stoics. It seems that every era or century has had to deal with new challenges and difficult questions and this continues to this day.
How does one attain wisdom? Unfortunately, there’s no magic answer to such a question. It helps to have good teachers, be they family members, wise friends, or teachers who see our potential, though at the time we were unaware of it.
Such teachers inspire us while at the same time allowing us to blossom. In this connection, I am thinking of a Franciscan friar named Gervase Beyer. He taught me logic, Latin, and persuasive speech.
He influenced me greatly and came up with proverbs and aphorisms like “one never graduates from human nature.” Gervase read widely in literature, philosophy, and physics and was a tough task manager who would say things like “Rich, you won’t have to come to my desk for your grade, I’ll roll it down to you.”
Over the centuries, there have been rich streams through which traditions have flowed such as the Jewish rabbinic discussions, the Sufis of Islam, writers like Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante, the Analects of Confucius, the poems of Rumi, the wisdom in oppressed peoples like Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Bhagavad Gita from the Hindu tradition.
The internet and institutions of higher learning give us so much information, knowledge, and technical skills that by themselves can make us drown, but one wonders if they teach us wisdom. I recommend the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a wise Lutheran pastor put to death by the Nazis in 1945. Bonhoeffer came to see the importance of suffering in one’s life.
In this connection Bonhoeffer wrote the essay “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made At New Year 1943.” He writes these words of wisdom: “Time lost is time in which we have failed to live a full human life, gain experience, learn, create, enjoy and suffer….
"We have for once learned to see the great events of history from below, … from the perspective of those who suffer …. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key in exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.” (See D. Bonhoeffer, Orbis Books, 2000).
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus-Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.