How do we become wise? The quickest answer is: through experience. This experience begins early in life. Several years ago I was at a first birthday party for a little boy named Brian. He was sitting in his highchair smiling as his mother set a small birthday cake in front of him. Then she lit the candle. Before anyone could stop him, Brian had reached out his chubby little hand to try to grab the flickering flame. Ouch! Immediately he began to cry. Experience. It can be painful at times.
But experience can also be wonderful. We meet someone in the first grade and soon we become friends. And through that friendship we experience warmth and joy and fun. Over time we come to realize how important friendship is in our life. And we decide to do things that nurture such relationships. That’s good experience leading to wisdom.
But wisdom doesn’t automatically come with experience. It presupposes we are attentive to our experience and we reflect upon it. I’m reminded of William Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” He’s implying that powerful emotions can overwhelm a person, making it impossible to communicate at the time. The poet needs distance and reflection to give birth to a poem. Similarly, powerful experiences can overwhelm us too, so we often need time to reflect on what has happened to gain wisdom from them.
We grow in wisdom not merely through our own experience, but through the experience of others as well. Isn’t this one reason many of us love to read or go to movies? Through a book or movie we can experience what it feels like to be at the South Pole or on a battlefield without actually being there. Recently I saw the wonderful film Lion. It tells the true story of a little boy in rural Indian who gets lost in Calcutta and is eventually adopted by a couple in Australia. I gained much wisdom about wholesale poverty, the evils of human trafficking, as well as the incredible love parents can have for their children.
Jesus was a very wise person. How did he get so wise? Through experience (his own and others) and through his pondering and prayer. One day the 12-year-old Jesus gets “lost” in Jerusalem. His frantic parents finally find him in the massive Temple and give him a serious scolding. Jesus meekly leaves Jerusalem with them and goes back to Nazareth where he “advanced in wisdom and age” (Lk. 2:52).
Like all wise people, Jesus was extremely attentive to experience. The multitude of images he uses in his teaching demonstrate how much he paid attention to the world around him. He must have watched his mother baking bread and became fascinated by the magical power of the unseen yeast. He wisely concluded: There’s more to life than meets the eye. How did he learn the potential disaster that could happen if you pour new wine into old wineskins? Maybe by his own experience.
Jesus learned much from the experience of others: farmers, fishermen, shepherds, housewives, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, children, widows, servants. What a good listener he must have been. Good listeners are usually wise people.
I offer two questions for your reflection today:
+ Think of a someone you believe is wise. This person can be living or deceased, someone you personally know or someone you’ve met in another way. What are some reasons you think this person is wise?
+ How and where did you gain your own wisdom? Notice, I’m assuming you are wise. After all, you’re reading my blog, aren’t you? (Hee, hee!) What are some of the “bits of wisdom” you have gained over the years? Would you be willing to share a “morsel” of your wisdom with us?
The song today is called “Wisdom Song” and it is sung by Laura Woodley Osman.
Do you have any response to today’s reflection and/or song?
PS: A big thank you to Gayle C. for inviting me to speak on hope at St. Christopher’s Parish in Rocky River, OH on Saturday. Another big thank you to all the men and women who came for the day. I enjoyed my time with you very much! And thank you to seminarian Joshua who handled my technology needs throughout the day!