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Wisdom: Now and Always

The year 2020 will go down in history as the year the pandemic arrived. The year of Black Lives Matter. The year of QAnon. The year that led to Trump supporters attempting to overturn the democratic foundations of their own country. The word that came to me repeatedly in this time was ‘wisdom’. I wondered: Where is it? Who are the wisest among us right now? And what is wisdom, truly? So I began seeking out the wisest people I could find, from a range of backgrounds, to help develop a sense of what wisdom is in theory and practice, and how it can be identified and cultivated. This journey is shared in the book: Wisdom: Now and Always.

The first thing I learned from these extraordinary people is that we are all fellow travelers. Wisdom is not something held only in sacred texts, windswept Himalayan recesses, sweltering ashrams and men and women of deepest knowing. Each of us cannot help but acquire some type of wisdom as we move through the world. At the most basic level, wisdom is about learning from mistakes. It then becomes a tool for good decision-making. Understanding the full context of our decision is highly complex, as it includes geographic, cultural, political, economic, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual factors. And no doubt others. Our choices will all be made within a number of dynamic, multidimensional, interweaving contexts.

And then there is insight. Wisdom seems to crystallize in gestalt moments, where the full dimensions of a thing become suddenly clear. It may be that we realize something important about ourselves, others, relationships or situations that now seems obvious, but before was buried in layers of complexity. Or perhaps denial.

As insight is mental, intuition is often physical – a literal gut response. Observing this and taking note can be vital, in everything from art to sport to wilderness survival. Our body, mind and consciousness are picking up signals continually, and feeding information into our decision-making center.

But wisdom has a higher level yet, which is beyond intelligence, discernment, courage, cultivating relationships and an instinct for timing. It is not about service to self, but service to all. It is bound up in benevolence, reciprocity, compassion and humility. Nature, in its wisdom, takes care of others, through reciprocity and balance. The stories of indigenous people ritualizing their practices of harmony with, and respect for their environment reinforce the idea that wisdom is central to survival.

An important consideration which proceeds from this is the matter of differentiating wisdom from intelligence. One can be an intelligent sociopath, or a shrewd investor whose decisions and priorities damage the earth and the human spirit. Or one may be a politician whose policies and rhetoric divide and dispossess. The material and professional success of such individuals may be lauded in some societies, and they may be considered wise by their peers, but this is not true wisdom. Each interviewee in the study dedicates themselves to others, some or most of whom they may never meet. They take a wider, deeper view of life, and of priorities. They feel the richness of existence, and seek to share and protect it. They are always ready to listen, to learn, to explore and to advocate. Many of them have changed the world in important ways, and all have changed lives for the better. They each face personal challenges, but their spirit continues to carry them through.

Our existence is such an incredibly complex proposition that reflection through art, spiritual practice and conversation with trusted allies will always be vital. As long as we proceed with an open heart and mind, wisdom—both inside and outside—awaits. Simply put: Wisdom seems to be the answer to life. The two are intimately bound up. Life breeds wisdom; wisdom breeds life. And love is so closely intertwined with them that wisdom and love are virtually interchangeable for me. Wisdom is as much heart-based as head-based.

It is no simple thing to deconstruct wisdom, and no two people will see it alike. And yet most of us feel it when we encounter it. The real trick is to cultivate our own with honesty and integrity, and maintain some objectivity. It is easy to slip into self-delusion about our own wisdom, but we can equally be blind to that which we have. Ultimately, developing wisdom is a path of self-discovery, and now, perhaps more than ever, this is a vital part of our shared journey.

Miguel Mendonça, July 2021

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