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What makes someone wise?

I recently had a conversation with someone and the word “wisdom” came into play. And then you know what else came into play? The word “age.” The conclusion was that wisdom grows as you age. That’s the common belief, right? I’ve heard that far too often, and it usually comes out when someone wants their opinion to carry more weight than another person’s opinion (yes, because of their age).


Never in my counseling practice would I tell a teen that they should listen to me because I am their elder, but maybe that’s just not expected as much in this day and age? Anyway, since my conversation where the word “wisdom” came about, I decided to reflect on what truly makes someone wise. In my life and in my “life work” as a therapist and someone who journeys with others into the depths of who they are, I seek wisdom with all of who I am. I know age and life experience can create opportunities for wisdom to grow, but it doesn’t mean it will equate to being more wise. It takes intentionality.




So, here is my humble attempt to make a list in what I think goes into the equation to create wisdom:


1) Experience…that softens, not hardens

I had to clarify what type of experience leads to wisdom, because just above I was saying experience doesn’t mean wisdom. So, in some cases experience does in fact help. Here’s an example. I’ve experienced heartache. I’ve experienced a breakup. For some time after being lied to and broken, I stayed hard. I numbed my emotions. I was incredibly cynical. Yet that was an awful way to live. I was shut down to deepening relationships and I pretended I didn't care about things in life. When I started softening (as painful as it is to soften and to actually feel things) I felt like that was when I became more wise. It opened up my eyes to other’s pain, as well. It also helped me move through the slog of being stuck in the past to open up to new possibilities. This is why I say experience that softens, not hardens, is what it takes to create wisdom.


2) Mindfulness

This one is huge. This one is closely linked to emotional intelligence. If you respond to life’s events always reactive and with no ability to slow down to absorb information, there is no wisdom. We must allow emotions, thoughts, perceptions to come and go. We are not our emotions. We are not our reactions. We are not our thoughts. We can look at them from a distance to see what fits the situation best.


3) Emotional Intelligence

THIS ONE IS EVEN BIGGER! :) When I did my senior seminar at Virginia Tech I focused on emotional intelligence. Little did I know this research would really be a benchmark for a lot of the work I’ve done in life since then. Is there a way to equate someone’s EQI? If possible, that’s what I would say is more linked to wisdom than age. I’ve talked with, worked with, dined with individuals who are "old", yet who are extremely low in EQI. When Emotional Intelligence is low, you stay stuck in infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, or even adolescence. There is a part of us that needs to evolve emotionally and socially to create wisdom. The more we can mindfully start learning about our emotions, the more this connection with ourselves helps us connect more deeply with those around us.


4) Spirituality

I think spirituality is pivotal for wisdom to grow. I am rooted in Christian spirituality and find that when I spend time abiding in God, who IS wisdom, I make much more sound decisions. Those decisions are made out of a place of love, compassion and strength. Having a spiritual practice that puts our hearts in an open, receptive place is key to creating wisdom.


5) Listening

Can we be wise without listening? I think not. How do we define listening? We can hear something, but I think listening is more intentional. Listening is done in a way to understand and see another’s point of view. Maybe you’ve seen this…recently there has NOT been so much listening because everyone has an agenda. They want to convince others their way of seeing things is accurate. The most sensible, intellectual, “experienced”, wise, way of seeing the world. Yet, how can we say that when we have no ability to sit across the table and listen to another person before we cut them off to prove our point? We can’t. I can’t. We must humble ourselves to close our mouths and listen.


6) Empathy

What’s empathy to me? It’s seeing the person rather than the issue. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take politics (yes, I’m daring to go there) for example. In some cases (most cases, actually, these days) I am seen as the political outsider. Which is funny, because I don’t overly identify as either Republican or Democrat. Ok, so that’s neither here nor there. Let’s get back to the topic, empathy. I try to see the person, rather than the issue that’s being decided. When someone asks, “what’s your political stance on ______”…fill in the blank. Racism, abortion, immigration, taxes... I answer not based on what a political party tells me to say, but based on stories I've heard when I’ve sat with people and heard about their lives. Sometimes it’s an easy answer, sometimes it’s not, and typically I just try to dodge the question because I know a person is trying to make an assumption about me either way I answer :) Ugh, isn’t it the ugly truth?!


I make my decisions on an “issue” only after I sit with someone who has been impacted by the “issue.”


I see racism through the lens of the stories of dear friends of mine who continue to be impacted by the color of their skin. When I hear some say “black lives matter” is only the work of the left or the right politically, I am baffled. Truly, I never knew that. Saying a person's life matters should not be something we identify with political party.


I see abortion through the stories of women I’ve sat with. Some who have aborted. Some who have not. All who need empathy.


I see immigration through the individuals I lived with in Tijuana, along the border of the United States and Mexico. I don’t see the political “issue” of immigration as a topic to discuss, I see it as people’s lives. I see the people I lived with and ate with. So no, I really don’t see them as “aliens.” I see Estella and Marco. It's not a political decision to me, of which party can package up a view nicer, it's someone's life I see.


I see taxes through those who never "came into money." Who have had systemic challenges to buying a home or furthering their career. Yet, I also see that issue through the white man, who went from food stamps to a part owner of a company. I see his lifetime of hardwork. Neither should be minimized. Both of their life experiences are important.


May we remember to see the people rather than the issue. People's lives are what are behind each and every "issue" we talk about. We cannot forget that.


7) “Enoughness”

I hesitate to say this one. Because if I say something like, “there is enough to go around” some might categorize me as a socialist or some sort of Robinhood. No,I am neither. I believe in hard work and discipline. The basic crux to what I’m trying to say is when we approach decisions or our worldview based on fear rather than a calm, clear knowing that all our needs can be perfectly handled, we are better able to incorporate wisdom. Wisdom is less about “us versus them” to seeing all as part of the human family. Our world, our culture, has done enough to divide us. I think the more we continue to see ourselves as against one another, the more the pain will continue. I hope we can learn to celebrate the goodness that comes into someone else's life, rather than seeing it as a loss in our own life. "They got a raise," doesn't have to mean we are inferior, or there is now somehow less money for us. Let's stay in our lane and celebrate the growth of the people in our lives. There is enough goodness to go around.


What else would you add to the list for the proper ingredients for wisdom? I know my attempt is not complete, but it's a start to continue building a solid foundation for wisdom to grow. Praying for you, too, that wisdom would grow in your heart and mind. Happy rooting, everyone!

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