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Ever-elusive, wisdom requires an open mind and plenty of self-doubt
The Greek philosopher SocratesStock photo: Fotolia

Greg Blass
Ever-elusive, wisdom requires an open mind and plenty of self-doubt

Funny thing about wisdom – no one admits to having it, because no one can be sure. Most of us strive for it, or try to, and almost never know if we have reached it. Some of those who seek to define it offer another clue: you are more likely to act wisely when at first you feel truly unsure whether it’s the wise thing to do.

Certainly, throughout this troubled world, we desperately need wisdom, more now than ever. It makes all the difference in how we decide great and small things, for those who lead, for those who would lead, for us and our families, for the young and old, for literally everyone.

And those who are sure of their wisdom most likely lack it altogether. The philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it well: “Fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Consider the term “streetwise,” one type of wisdom (if indeed wisdom can be put in categories – something we’ll cover in a moment). In the world of dictionaries, one (Miriam Webster) defines “streetwise” as “possessing the skills and attitudes necessary to survive in a difficult or dangerous situation or environment.” Another one (the Urban Dictionary) defines “streetwise” as “when someone has a sense of, or knows how to handle themselves in an unfamiliar neighborhood or city street.”

That brings us to an ancient story of wisdom about King Solomon, who once was presented with two women from the same house, each the mother of an infant son. One of the infants has died, and each claimed the surviving boy as her own.

Solomon declared his judgment: calling for a sword, he ordered the baby would be cut in two, each woman to receive half. One mother felt the ruling was fair, but the other begged Solomon, “Give the baby to her, just don’t kill him.” Solomon found the second woman to be the true mother, because a mother would even give up her baby if it would save his life.

This judgment from the Bible’s Book of Kings has become known worldwide as an example of profound wisdom. Similar stories go back millennia in other lands and cultures.

Benjamin Franklin, regarded as among the wise of America, said that one who is wise is “he that learns from everyone.” But is there wisdom in all of us, if only we can find it? And is there a formula, a set of guidelines if you will, to help each of us, no matter what our station in life, to act wisely?

First of all, wisdom is a special virtue – a gift – according to every philosophy, every religious belief, and every tradition, from Aristotle to Confucius, from Christianity, to Judaism, to Islam to Buddhism, and throughout folklore. It sets leaders apart from the rest, but when leaders lack it, the outcome can range from annoying to profound.

A number of editions and postings in Psychology Today offer more scientific ways to reach a level of wisdom, a sort of “how to.” Here we find the elusive quality of wisdom mentioned earlier, how it’s difficult to put in words, yet people can see it when they encounter it.

Psychologists describe wise people as those who share an optimism that life’s problems can be solved, and experience a certain amount of calm in facing difficult occasions.

They add that intelligence – also hard to define – may be necessary for wisdom, but it definitely isn’t sufficient. Wisdom is more an ability to see the 30,000-foot view — the big picture — with a lot – a whole lot – of introspection.

Wise people, says strategy expert Roger Martin, have it in them to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads, what he calls “integrative thinking.”

In an articles posted August 13, 2013, in Psychology Today, Dr. Adam Grant was among those who shared these excellent benchmarks for those of us who strive for wisdom:

– Age and intelligence do not assure wisdom. It can be found at any age.

– Wisdom and egocentricity are simply incompatible. Strike a balance between focus on ourselves and on others.

– Be open and willing to question rules. There may well be a better way than the standard way.

And the most compelling of all: Aim to understand rather than to judge. This means we had best avoid sorting others into one category or another of good or bad. Wisdom is rather to explain others’ behaviors. Psychologist Ellen Langer justifies this approach so well: “Behavior makes sense from the actor’s perspective, or else they wouldn’t do it.”

A big step toward wisdom clearly is practicing to keep an open mind, rather than to be content merely to evaluate.

So there’s wisdom in a nutshell, or actually, a passing glimpse into its universe.

Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.

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