Identifying The Pillars Of Practical Wisdom

"Wit is like salt in a conversation but not the food itself; wisdom is the latter. Similarly, wisdom contains universal truths while wit can be devoid of those"

Identifying The Pillars Of Practical Wisdom

Writing or speaking candidly about the state of affairs in Pakistan is unsustainable at present. Even if you manage, it does not get the right traction, due to the ensuing political trench warfare. I took the painful option of not writing for a while, but the need for catharsis and addiction to writing have caught up with me. For obvious reasons, I have decided to write about wisdom.

Humans as a species are named after our perceived wisdom: Homo sapiens, wise man.

Writing about wisdom, however, is full of paradoxes. It might be one of the oldest subjects in our intellectual history, but is also something intuitive; writing about it feels quirky and disingenuous. All of us might have an idea about who is wise and who is not, but we hesitate to define wisdom itself. My further predicament is that I happen to be a Jat from Punjab who has chosen to become a psychiatrist. I am also used to communicating knowledge but not wisdom; perhaps due to its mystique and reverence, and the fear of being labelled unwise for getting it wrong.

The Bhagavad Gita, based on the Yogas dating back to two millennia BC, discusses wisdom at length. Ancient Greek philosophers were lovers of wisdom, with Socrates accepting the Oracle at Delphi’s declaration, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Aristotle taught theoretical and practical wisdom – the first involves seeking the truth, and the second explores change through good choices. Descartes agreed that wisdom was about good judgment and seeking knowledge. Others have since viewed wisdom as two kinds of knowledge: logos and mythos. Where Logos comes from formal structures employing logic; Mythos comes from “speech, narrative, plot, and dialogue.” Confucius summed up how it works:

“By three methods we may acquire wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

I was told the story of Birbal in my childhood. He was one of the navratnas (nine jewels) in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court. These noblemen were extraordinary intellectuals and artists of their time. Birbal was known for his wit, and in time, tales about his wisdom spread far and wide. One day, Akbar drew a line on the floor with his hand. He then asked everyone present to make the line shorter without touching or erasing any part of it. The courtiers walked one by one around the line, thought for a long time, but none could come up with a logical solution. Birbal stood up on his turn, and drew another longer line next to the first one; making the line drawn by Akbar shorter. This story ends just like that; one of the shortest we hear, but has layers of wisdom.

A global theory of wisdom could address globalisation, technological evolution, the need for high quality education, and the challenge of environmental–ecological management. However, a sinister blend of prejudice and reason has unleashed fear, anger, and confusion in today’s world

I am tempted to maintain that my interest in wisdom emerged from reading the far Eastern philosophical traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Sufism; the lives of their sages and the ways in which they made sense of one’s existence in the transmuting world. I could also claim inspiration from medieval Christian philosophy, based on reinterpretation of Platonic and Aristotelian ideas. But the truth of the matter is that all religions and ideologies have their own saints while the concept of wisdom remains primordial, without obligation to any single culture and region.

Academic interest in wisdom waned during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, perhaps due to a focus on the challenges of reducing ethical dilemmas to a common denominator. The discourse during those times shifted from the good life towards the pursuit of rational self-interest. Interest in wisdom re-emerged in the 1970s because ‘happiness’ and ‘psychological fulfilment’ became an important focus of public and philosophical cliques. From there onwards, a scientific approach to wisdom started evolving as the world was more concerned with rising social and climate inequalities.

It is often said that wisdom comes to us when we no longer need it. However, the relationship between wisdom and age is more complex, as individual trajectories of wisdom are based on experiences, contexts, and personal resources. Empirical evidence about this matter is mixed because cognitive measures show a positive relationship between wisdom and age in young adulthood, but it declines in older age. Personality measures also indicate a negative correlation, particularly in the cognitive dimension. Future research is focused on studying wisdom in different life phases and cultures, and on devising ecologically valid measures of wisdom.

Wisdom is currently viewed as a psychological quality that combines virtue and wit, and is acquired through experience based on personal intelligence and knowledge. It is about using pragmatic intelligence to balance personal interests and those of others to achieve a common good. It is, therefore, an invitation to us that we go ahead and reclaim our minds because the nexus of space and time where we are now, is the most immediate sector of our universe. In the words of Rumi,

“Being human is like being a guest in a house where joy, despair, kindness and malice, visit in turns. We should be grateful for whoever comes in, because each one of them has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Wisdom and wit are often grouped together, which may or may not be factual. Wit is like salt in a conversation but not the food itself; wisdom is the latter. Similarly, wisdom contains universal truths while wit can be devoid of those. However, when they appear together, they leave a lasting impression. For example, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” But sometimes, you get stuck like Lincoln, who was trying to make a point to an obstinate listener. Lincoln tried a different tactic. He asked the disputer, “Well, let’s see now. How many legs does a cow have?” The disgusted reply was “Four, of course.” Lincoln nodded, “That’s right. Now, suppose you call the cow’s tail a leg; how many legs would the cow have?” The antagonist replied assertively, “Why, five, of course.” Lincoln prevailed, “Now that’s where you’re wrong. Calling a cow’s tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg!”

Proverbs are a good source of wit and wisdom, as they convey realities based on common sense or experience. For example, “Proverb is the wit of one, and the wisdom of many” makes sense because such proverbs come from varied sources like philosophy, poetry, stories, songs, films and even commercials. They are often seen as reflecting the values of a specific culture during a certain time. Considering their impact, there has been a growing interest in using proverbs to achieve goals and to promote changes in society eg, public health promotion. However, interpreting proverbs can be an interesting exercise due to the presence of contradicting proverbs or their different meanings in the same culture and language. For instance, the English proverb, "A rolling stone gathers no moss" can be seen as condemning a person who keeps moving. However, others would see the same proverb as praising people who keep moving and developing.

A global theory of wisdom could address globalisation, technological evolution, the need for high quality education, and the challenge of environmental–ecological management. However, a sinister blend of prejudice and reason has unleashed fear, anger, and confusion in today’s world. Bizarre and brazen things are being done ruthlessly at individual, collective and governmental level. This might be an expression of our collective unconscious, but also tell us that reason isn’t the saviour of the future; that role must be assumed by wisdom. We are at a point where we either embrace who and what we are, or condemn ourselves to eternal misery. An evolutionary thesis of ‘selfish genes’ is not as relevant today because modern crisis is more intellectual and technical than physical. And this takes us beyond materialism into the realm of ‘the survival of the wisest.’

Time is not the great teacher as was once proclaimed; experience is. We evolve by learning from the environment, and somehow the next generation knows better than the previous generation. However, we are drowning in information now while starving for wisdom. We seem to have created a human vision that is devoid of wisdom where natural resources are being destroyed via overpopulation and a lack of attention to the environment.  Pursuit of happiness, based on consumption, is procured at the cost of loneliness, loss of community life and denial of a divine power. Evolution of wisdom and survival of the wisest are not random processes themselves. No one is going to stop global injustice and the diabolical creativity of weapons of mass destruction except us. Survival of the wisest means a shift in consciousness not based on Darwinian principles; otherwise, nature is perfectly capable of letting us destroy ourselves through ecological collapse.

Diverse stages of wisdom have been described in various disciplines and belief systems. I am not sure where I would be on the relevant continuum, as each moment feels like a blessing and each day a miracle. I wish I could make it as simple for you as Ali al-Khawwas did, “All wisdom can be stated in two lines. What is done for you, allow it to be done; what you must do, make sure you do it.”

Nonetheless, before we could try and get there, I have hundreds of words, sayings, stories, and anecdotes to share with you from a journey of a lifetime; living on three continents, traveling around the world, and having had the privilege of seeing and getting to know hundreds of common and special individuals very closely.

(to be continued)

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist and visiting professor