I Believe in Wisdom

Jennifer - Evanston, Illinois
Entered on April 29, 2008

I believe in Wisdom – the practical knowledge and understanding that develops with experience and self-insight. To write an essay on wisdom at the age of 26 seems laughable, perhaps even arrogant, but I believe that I have something to contribute on the topic. Not only because I spent the majority of my graduate school career at Yale studying and co-editing a book on wisdom but because within my personal life, I have pondered the question of “what is wisdom” and if I will ever see the fruits of wisdom in my own life.

There are many brilliant people in the world – people who can choreograph ballets, design skyscrapers, understand black holes, yet there are wars, neglected children, destroyed resources. Are these tragedies the products of the imbecilic? I don’t think so. But I do know that they are not products of the wise.

I believe in wisdom because I believe that it gives one the ability to synthesize and cultivate knowledge, the facts that one observes or is taught, into practical tools that can be applied for the good of oneself and the greater society. Looking back at my first day of college at 12 years old, I remember a girl who was hungry for conventional knowledge but more so, an understanding of her role in the world. I was perplexed by the mundane questions of life – like how to study for my next exam, as well as by more profound ones, like understanding what contribution I would make to the world and worrying that my life would be spent for selfish strivings. Fourteen years later, I can’t say that my questions are very different nor that I have substantially more answers but I do feel like I have a better, albeit still inchoate, understanding of my place in and contributions to the world, my community, my family.

Our society worships and exalts the prodigy. But I am perplexed by our fascination with the precociously gifted or skilled child. Just because one has sampled from the tree of knowledge before she can even reach a branch does not endow her with superior understanding or practical insights. Prodigies are defined by their speed and youth more than by their depth or ingenuity. Not that I define nor ever defined myself as a prodigy but I do know what it is like to be labeled one. I also know that after my first quarter century of life, it is not superior or swiftly-gained knowledge that has enhanced how I live and serve my community. My older friends and colleagues who have made a difference in their community share a similar characteristic: they accept who they are and understand how to use that person to meet an underrepresented need in society. Perhaps that is wisdom. If so, I believe in wisdom because without self-knowledge and the understanding of how one can contribute to others’ lives, there will continue to be violence and destruction rather than benevolence and construction.