by Kerry Cue
We know as we age that we are, indeed, much wiser than in our youth, but can we really justify this assumption? In their book The Art of Wisdom and the Psychology of How We Use Categories, Frames, and Stories to Make Sense of the World, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe give some insights into art of acquiring wisdom. (You will find a review at Brainpickings.)
Dancing around the notes on a page applied specifically to rules.
‘A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule… A wise person knows how to improvise… Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing’.
Barry Schwartz gave a good example of this applied wisdom in his TED lecture on Our Loss of Wisdom.
In this lecture Schwartz lists the Job Description of a hospital janitor. This job description lists tasks but does not mention a patient as if a hospital janitor cleaned in a parallel universe devoid of human life. Yet the janitors that showed wisdom did not follow the letter of the law. One janitor knew not to vacuum in a visitor’s room at one point because a patient’s family was sleeping there. Another janitor did not mop a floor because a patient was taking their first tentative steps around their room following an operation.
This is wisdom. It is also something we Sibyls understand. People are different. No two life-situations are the same. Combine the two and there are many possibilities. But here is the catch. You must be creative and flexible, otherwise, your response to any situation will be RIGID, predictable, but not necessarily wise.
You must also be old. Why? Here is Barry Schwartz again:
“A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counselling.”
My book, Forgotten Wisdom, begins with the words ‘Certainty ended for me on 2nd March, 1995. I was 42 years old’. My forties were the miserable years. They began with learning that my mother was dying of cancer at 66 years of age and continued through a long illness with one child, a sick spouse and, torturously, writing humorous articles for a living.
Yet, talking to my daughter the other day, I realised for the first time that I’m thankful for those 8 years of misery. At the time, I would have paid anything not to live through those years. But now, I wouldn’t give them back. They formed me. Up until that point, the life choices I had made– university courses, husband, children – had materialised. I thought I was in control of life. Then I wasn’t. Now I’m less arrogant, more sympathetic, less rigid, more open and less judgemental.
Am I wise? Wiser, perhaps. At least, I know this: The birth of wisdom follows the death of certainty.
So wisdom is a craft and you need a broad range of experience in life – joy and misery, triumph and disappointment, fear and acceptance, pain and endurance – to hone this craft.
For more Wisdom of The Sibyls see Jennette Williams on the beauty of the older women, Mary Beard on silencing women in the public forum and Doris Brett for a journey through stroke, love and recovery.
Perhaps, the Sibyl’s anthem should be: