By Ellen Nimmo
How would you describe wisdom?
One Christmas, years ago, my uncle shared some of his views on wisdom with me: “Forget the future, you cannot predict it. Forget the past, you cannot change it.” “And forget the present, I didn’t get you one.”
Excuse me, uncle? Just what exactly do you mean no present!?
Recently I heard someone, when asked, “How do you define wisdom?” answer in part by saying he thought wisdom was a “safe haven.” Yes! I realized. Yes, I agree. Furthermore, I think it is a beautiful way to describe and think about wisdom. Only, it was missing one thing: wisdom can be scary as hell.
Wisdom has been one of the most celebrated virtues of all time. That is to say, one of the most contemplated. It’s personified in books and films, categorized and argued over by scholars and philosophers, depicted by artists, admired by many, and sought after by a few.
It is said that wisdom begins with knowing yourself (Aristotle). It is alleged that we are quick to gather knowledge, but much slower to gather wisdom (Asimov). And I’ve heard, true wisdom is knowing you know nothing (Socrates).
I reckon I agree with those dudes too. But, as I’ve thought about wisdom, I find the idea of it being a harbor of safety and security and an ocean of risk and danger in complete paradoxical agreement.
Even in our thin and narrow depictions of wisdom we find this tension. Think of Yoda, Gandalf, Splinter, Dumbledore, and Mary Poppins. They are at once persons of sanctuary, refuge and individuals that often push the rest of the characters into discomfort and deeper explorations.
Wisdom is begotten in flecks of light and lives in spectrums of gray. It knows the way to safety, but it might take you through a treacherous passage to get there. It tells you to pack your bags well, be prepared. Asks that we leave the unessential behind, no matter how much comfort they bring. It knows how to sort what is probably good from what is probably bad. Recognizes people and missions and treasures that are worth sacrificing for, even at great cost, because these endeavors are full of heart and meaning. It chooses what is right over rules. It knows to keep asking for what you want, but to be careful, you just might get it. Wisdom sees worth in things that others would overlook or discard. It forgives, and forgives, and forgives, but doesn’t succumb to toxicity or manipulation. It loves humility; it is humility. It is cautious of riches, and knows anger is an expensive luxury. It submits to truth and loves to love. It respects. Wisdom knows kernels of pure and good can, in time, overwhelm armies of cruel and dark.
But dang. Isn’t it just a heavenly mess trying to spot or see or listen to wisdom in the day to day? It is for me. That’s what’s so crazy about wisdom: it beckons. Calling us into safer waters, but it usually costs something, free as it may be. Which is why wisdom feels so precarious. We know there’s going to be something of comfort at stake, something we don’t want to let go of.
Like so many before me, I took a moment to consider wisdom. And whether or not you agree where I landed, I hope you’ll take some time to consider it too. Wisdom, in all its mystery, practicality, and paradox is calling out. Asking us to send the sails up and rudder our way towards new revelations and worthwhile adventures.
Praying we all find ourselves in the open seas of wisdom’s safe harbors this Holiday season.
Blessed Is the One Who Finds Wisdom
13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed.