When the topic of wisdom comes up, so do the usual images. Walls and walls filled with dusty old books. Elders with the wisdom of many years carved into the wrinkles on their faces. Diplomas framed and filling one’s office wall. Endless letters placed in front and behind your name (Dr., PhD., LCSW, JD, Rev., etc.)
The message: wisdom is about accumulation. If you want to be wise, you need to pile it on. More knowledge. More experience. More books to read. More gurus to follow. More degrees to get.
But then words like these sneak into the conversation:
Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification. – Martin H. Fischer
There is no need to “acquire” the knowledge of God. There is only the dropping of the illusion and forgetfulness. – Omid Safi
Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. – Lin Yutang
It’s a reminder that the math of wisdom is often the opposite of what we think. It’s more a game of subtraction than addition. Often, accumulation of knowledge doesn’t get us closer to wisdom; it’s just in the way. There’s a sorting, simplifying and stripping away that needs to occur. It’s about unknowing as much as knowing.
Just think about how deeply we get tangled up in those cultural messages about money and success. Or the way degrees, IQs tests and SAT numbers get mixed up with status rather than the pursuit of truth. Or the way political parties, religions and even science claim to have all the answers. Maybe this is why the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote:
The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.
And with all the nonsense shaken out and stripped away, maybe what we notice most is not so much the pearls of wisdom themselves, but the sources of wisdom we’ve forgotten.
When reason and logic hog the spotlight, the wisdom of the body rarely enters the room. When week-long retreats with the newest guru define the path to wisdom, we stop asking what our failures and mistakes are trying to teach us. When “experts” sit in the center, the wisdom of those on the margins is lost.
So many untapped sources. So much wisdom waiting to be known. Makes one think that maybe the wisest question of all this month is: “Where have I not looked before?”