Education is an essential component of a healthy society. Whether formal or informal, learning is crucial if we are going to grow our mental, emotional, and physical capabilities beyond birth. From the moment we are born to the moment we die human beings have the opportunity to gain knowledge. From infancy, through childhood, adolescence and up to early adulthood, the brain is growing at a rapid rate. Our pre-frontal cortex¾the front part of the human brain that controls the ability to understand cause and effect, and to regulate our responses¾does not fully develop until we reach 25 years of age. Everything in our lives up till that point shapes our brain and our pre-frontal cortex: food, drugs, alcohol, environment, injury, trauma, opportunities, grief and messages we hear about ourselves and the world around us. Yes- 25 years old. Not 16, 18, or 21 but 25 years old.
What earlier life experiences shaped you?One would assume that the higher the education an individual receives, the more wisdom they will possess. After all, those who have higher ed. degrees have read many books, articles, and journals. They will have written papers in tightly controlled formats that meet the standards for the American Psychological Association or the Modern Language Association. They will have learned, the value of forming and defending arguments in a well thought out manner. A formal education is incredibly valuable, but a good education is one that leads you on a journey from novice to knowledge, it allows you to develop critical thinking skills, help you to ask the right questions, and makes you look into an issue or problem from a deeper perspective, instead of immediately taking what is fed to us through multiple media platforms. All of these are really important skills for life. As we get older, we also have to learn how to plan, manage our time, expectations, set boundaries, and make sacrifices. Again, these are all essential life skills.
Hopefully, along with those embossed signed certificates students and graduates also took away with them two valuable lessons: One, the more you learn, the more you understand that there is SO much more to know (i.e. the more you learn the less you know). Two, is that knowledge does not equal wisdom. Knowing both of these things hopefully keeps us humble and on our way to being somewhat wise.
The New Oxford American Dictionary (online version) defines wisdom as, "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment: the quality of being wise."(1) This is a good start but still really doesn’t capture how wisdom looks, sounds, or feels. Nor does it speak to the actions born out of wisdom. Celtic scholar and modern shaman, John Matthews, and Will Kinghan’s definition of wisdom evokes a more nuanced approach. Wisdom “is a profound understanding of our purpose in the world, and an intuitive grasp of how to exercise sound judgment based on the experience we have acquired in the course of our lives.”(2) In other words, learning from experience, understanding possible consequences and making informed decisions shows wisdom. Again, all these aspects are developed from a healthy well-developed pre-frontal cortex.
When thinking about wisdom it is perhaps easiest to think of the trait as a person or creature. Because ‘wisdom’ is a universal pattern it is considered an archetype. Archetypes are not specific to one person, culture, or demographic, instead, they are energetic patterns, and can be thought of as a blueprint for the most common aspects of the human experience. Other examples of archetypes are birth, death, love, and heartbreak but there are many more; and some will be explored in future blog posts. Humans use their imaginations to determine what an archetype looks like. When a trait or archetype is viewed in human form, Archetypal Psychology calls that “personification.”
Have you formed an image in your mind of what wisdom looks like to you? Did you think old man? An old woman? Perhaps you see a creature such as an owl? Do you have a different idea of what wisdom looks like to you? If you don’t, can you think of how wisdom is presented in cinema? Word of caution: there are always exceptions, so while archetypes offer us an insight into the general patterns we cannot and should not apply those traits to every person within that category. If we do that and use wide and general brushstrokes, the picture we see will be a reduction of the archetype into a stereotype, and these are not the same!
From the definitions above and when thinking about a personified version of wisdom, we can begin to discern particular traits. Wisdom is knowing what to do in any given situation. With this in mind, it means that we need a wide variety of skills and tools and we must know which tool to use in any given situation and when to use it in any given situation. The tools of wisdom are as varied and nuanced as wisdom itself: patience, discernment, good listening skills, kindness, the ability to foresee consequences and to take action towards or against desired outcomes. Wisdom is knowing what to say and when to say it, or when it is best not to say anything. Other often undervalued tools include using our intuition to guide us and using our senses to gauge a situation for what is, including the drivers underpinning those overt circumstances. I am specifically thinking about the times when a person’s anger is the immediate feeling in a situation, but where grief is actually the underlying emotion driving a individuals behavior. To have wisdom, one must practice seeing beneath, behind, or around a situation and reacting from our center. Therefore, wisdom often comes from a place of centeredness, for no wise decisions or choices are made from a place of frenetic activity.
In times of crisis, it can be hard to see a bigger picture or foresee consequences, but that is exactly what wisdom requires of us. In essence, wisdom requires us to understand the importance of timing.
The subject of education, knowledge, and wisdom is much broader than I can detail in one blog post. Knowledge and education are not the same thing. Book education is not the same as experience. Western knowledge is not the same as indigenous knowledge or wisdom, which is much broader in scope. And indigenous education, knowledge, and thus wisdom, often begin from a far different place than western culture: one of reciprocity with the lived earth and the ancestors, rather than seeing humans as the pinnacle of life. How do you view wisdom?
Citations: also known as extra reading for the curious
New Oxford American Dictionary. Online version (app).
Matthews, John. & Wil Kinghan. “The Shaman’s Oracle: Wisdom and Guidance from the Ancestors.” Watkins Media Limited. 2017. p.30.
If you like what you have read in this blog, scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe.