In all your getting, get wisdom.
With the advent of computing, broadcast technologies and mass media in the 20th century, we entered the beginning of the information age, the primary consequence of which was that our daily lives were invaded by a deluge of data. Vast as this new flow of information was, it initially remained unidirectional and impersonal – essentially a “monologue of information” that left a great deal of power in the hands of the content creator (publisher, producer, editor and so on). You and I had little ability to feedback or respond to what we were hearing or seeing, outside of the confines of our social circles. Whether we agreed or disagreed was immaterial because our voices lacked a suitable platform – unless we owned a newspaper or TV station. Yet, no sooner had we become accustomed to the presence of TV and radio in every home, than a new revolution started taking place.
From the early 1990’s, new media promised us a world of instant and on-demand access to any kind of information, anywhere and on any device. With the advent of web 2.0, we entered the age of the “democratisation of information”, where information was no longer traded as a monologue, but became a distributed dialogue with an audience of potentially billions, accessible at our fingertips. Suddenly we had choices not only about what information we could consume but we were also given the power to publish our thoughts instantly (and often intractably) to the entire world. Commercial and social drivers ensured that this dialogue was driven to the top of everyone’s agenda – from the individual right up to world governments. Today, even protests and revolutions are started and finished on the web – sometimes never leaving the domain of the so-called armchair “hacktivists”.
The point to be made here is that a radical, world-changing transformation took place within the span of a generation. To put that into perspective, there are c. 6000 years of recorded human history, spanning some 240 generations. Up until generation X (born 1965 – 1980), the average person was exposed to less knowledge in a lifetime than what you and I are exposed to in a single day (hour?). This change not only happened quickly, but the technology behind it became so embedded in our daily lives that it seems strange to imagine a world without Google maps, iPads, internet shopping and social media – and the flurry of information that we are expected to process during work and play. What has intrigued me for many years, is understanding what the social impact has been of this change and where it has left us as a society. Has the assimilation of all this information, data and facts (which I will refer to collectively as “knowledge” from here on in) led to a corresponding increase in the collective wisdom of mankind and an improvement in the state of world affairs? I would answer with a decided no, which I’ll obviously need to qualify: Firstly, just being more knowledgeable does not automatically make you wise. Secondly, wisdom is key to becoming the kind of person that society both needs and respects – those men and women we hold in high esteem because they have been the true states-persons of the past and have shown the kind of moral leadership that the world needed to save it in times of great crises and peril (Martin Luther, Churchill, Mandela to name but a few).
To start with, we need to understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I will start by deferring to a quote a colleague passed on at work recently:
Knowledge is knowing that tomatoes are a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put them into a fruit salad.
I thought of ways of explaining the difference more eloquently, but I couldn’t, so you’d be best off reading this hilarious complaint letter, which drives the above point home. Knowledge says that the food is “award winning”. Wisdom tells us it scares people. What you will engage with on these pages highlights the subtle but significant difference between knowledge and wisdom and why wisdom is so important in the application of truth.
Why is our age defined as an age of knowledge and not as one of wisdom?
To start with, let’s for a moment reflect on the consequences or impact on society of the explosion of knowledge. Even a casual observation will reveal that people in our post-modern society are less likely to be patient, teachable and selfless and more likely to be impatient, opinionated and narcissistic. You may not even consider that a problem, but you’d have to agree that there has been a shift from the former values to the latter as the so-called “norm” of society at large. To be clear, I am not implying that it’s the worst it’s ever been, but it’s certainly more widespread now than ever before, with Western culture and it’s “new” values having come to dominate and influence much of the world. This influence would certainly be a direct result of the information age, with the internet and mass media playing a key role in propagating these new ideas and values. One of the core values that has been propagated is that the more you know, the “better” a person you’ve become. Today, the pursuit of knowledge has often become an end in itself, fuelled by an ego need to be better than the next person, or to know more than them in order to exert power or control over them (the old “knowledge is power” idiom playing itself out). It’s quite ironic that no-one sees this latter state as worse than the former.
As people have become more knowledgeable, it’s created an interesting side effect: there are more morally confused people out there than ever before (I don’t have the stats to back this up, but it’s enough to ask the man on the street of the city of your choice his view on a range of topics to see why I make this statement. If you go into the countryside you’re likely to get slightly different views, but since 80% of people live in cities, we need to look at what the state of the majority is). The world has moved away from what once were clearly defined areas of black and white into at least 50 shades of grey; in other words, moral relativism. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t complex moral decisions to make and that there’s always a clear answer to every dilemma, but rather that wisdom should be applied to such scenarios in order to achieve the “right” or “ideal” outcome – let’s call it a “truthful” outcome, because that is what it is. Unfortunately, in today’s world, a search for the truth (if that’s what your’re really interested in) soon degrades into a hunt after the opinion that most closely aligns with your own, because we’ve simply no other way of achieving objectivity or applying standards.The real problem I’m concerned with is that a pluralist society dictates that the only politically and socially acceptable point of view is a relative one. “There’s your truth and there’s my truth but it needn’t be the same truth”. This is even reflected in how we try to find new information: there was a time when “search” was the big word on the internet – to help us find what we were looking for. The advent of “answers” websites tried to help smooth over this problem by allowing people to “vote” on what the truth is, as if truth could somehow be validated by majority opinion. Unfortunately the truth has never been a democratic choice. In fact – historically – the truth has often been defended by a minority against many odds and at great cost, even to their own lives. The point here is that if we think that gaining more knowledge will lead us closer to the truth, we are mistaken. Only wisdom can do that, and the road to get there is decidedly different – and harder.
If we make wisdom (rather than just knowledge) our primary pursuit, then it will help us gain a healthy perspective of the objective truth and allow us to make morally challenging decisions with clarity. We’ll recognise that all knowledge must be interpreted by wisdom and this will give us a clearer view of the truth. In other words, pursue wisdom if you want to get to the truth. If we make Wisdom our primary pursuit, then Truth will find us – if we are willing to accept and yield to its absolute and rather unbending nature. I like the analogy presented in the first Matrix movie: Morpheus and Trinity are searching out the truth-seeker Neo, yet it was not Neo’s pursuit of the truth that led him to them, but it was his pursuit of the truth which led them to him.
So, in summary:
1. Don’t assume that gaining more knowledge will lead you closer to the truth. The problem is that we can never obtain 100% of all the data/information/knowledge that there is to gather. If we (collectively as the human race) only know 1% of all there is to know, then that wouldn’t surprise me. But even if we assume we already knew 50% (and I don’t think anyone would be as generous as that), that still leaves half of everything unknown to us, which seems like an awful lot, judging only from that which we do know. Then there is a further conundrum: Even if we did eventually know everything there is to know, by the time we had come to know the “end of all things”, we would probably have forgotten/lost the beginning (much like a nuclear scientist that collides atoms for a living probably doesn’t know how to build the computer that make his experiments possible). We’re only human, after all. The main point to be made here is that knowledge and truth are not synonymous. You need wisdom to help you interpret knowledge, so you can get a proper view on the objective Truth.
2. Don’t assume that gaining knowledge is the same as gaining wisdom. Many people know that smoking kills, but it does not stop them from lighting up. Just having knowledge, will not enable you to make the kind of life-giving (vs. death-producing) choices this world so desperately needs. There is a symbiotic relationship between wisdom and truth – the one feeds off the other and vice versa. Take the things that you “know” and put them on the back-burner for a minute. Consider the higher way of wisdom and allow that to invade your heart and to keep you. We often think of older people as wise. If you happen to find a truly “wise man” he’ll be the first to admit that the only reason he is wise is because he has had ample time to make many mistakes, has taken the time to learn from them and now lives life differently as a result! Most likely, he won’t claim that now he “knows” everything”, rather that he’s “learnt something”. This is perhaps all a little abstract for the liking of some. I’ll refer again to the ancient proverb to help us here:
Get wisdom! Get understanding!
Do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will preserve you;
Love her, and she will keep you.
Wisdom is the principal thing;
Therefore get wisdom.
And in all your getting, get understanding.
Exalt her, and she will promote you;
She will bring you honor, when you embrace her.
She will place on your head an ornament of grace;
A crown of glory she will deliver to you.”
3. Wisdom is a journey that changes our hearts and our minds. There is a journey to be travelled by every person. If we start our journey merely looking for more information, we will become opinionated people, puffed up with knowledge, but with unchanged hearts and indifferent attitudes. As mentioned earlier, if we understand that we have been called to pursue Wisdom and make this our primary objective, our journey takes an interesting turn: Before we even get to know Wisdom very well, she starts to bring to us things that we didn’t even know we needed. Firstly, she will introduce us to the Truth, who will become our best friend on this journey. We’ll be surprised to learn that the Truth has been looking for us, much longer than we can claim to have been looking for him (yes, the personification of Wisdom and Truth is deliberate as you’ll discover later in your journey). This can be an uncomfortable moment for us, much like Neo in the Matrix accepting the “red pill” that opened the way for him to discover the harsh reality of his true state – only to be tempted soon afterwards by the fact that he could have taken the “blue pill” and returned to his prior state of ignorance – yet having forever lost the opportunity to know the Truth.
4. Wisdom is the key to destiny. Finally, Wisdom will set us on a course with our destiny. Few people understand the true purpose of their lives and are caught in the birth-school-work-taxes-death cycle. And, of course, many spend their whole lives trying to escape the school-work-taxes part with varying degrees of success. Yet none of us can escape the birth-death part and it is here where Wisdom becomes an essential travel companion. Wisdom helps us interpret the journey of our lives, giving us understanding of why certain things happen the way they do. Lastly, it will lead us along the proverbial road less travelled, with a glorious ending:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”