Wisdom is not something you have (e.g., IQ or information), it is something you do with what you have. It is the ability to sort through information, categorize that information and then use it to solve problems, resolve issues, and meet the challenges of life—in other words intelligence requires critical thinking. The overabundance of conspiracy theories in our present culture may indicate a deficiency in this area.
In the same way a building must have a solid foundation to be stable, wisdom requires a firm foundation of sound principles. Here are four principles worth considering.
a) One can examine ideas and concepts without embracing them. As a Christian conservative I find it advantageous to read and listen to lectures that are in opposition to my world view. I believe this broadens my understanding.
b) Feelings have nothing to do with thinking. Thought guided by impulse is often faulty and contradictory. The problem isn’t that feelings always lead one astray, the problem is that feelings are often inconsistent. Feelings are the fashion of today. Sympathy, more than logic, drives many of our current ethical discussions. Before you follow your heart, think carefully and decide if it deserves to be followed.
c) Even the best experts can be wrong from time to time. At the dawn of the railroad era when the top speed was 25 mph a London professor said, “Rail travel at high speeds is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia. The President of the British Royal Society in 1900 said, “X-rays are a hoax.” The commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, arguing for the elimination of his department in 1899 said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” The words of an expert one respects still must be understood as opinion and weighed. Something written in a book by an author you admire is no absolute guarantee.
d) Truth is discovered, not created. Truth is not truth because it is believed, but because it is true. Galileo’s claim that the sun was the center of the solar system was disbelieved by many of his day, but still true. If truth is subjective then education is the height of absurdity and grading a “true/false” test is the ultimate insanity.
Wisdom seeks to avoid confusing opinion with fact. Opinions are beliefs we choose to affirm even in the absence of verifiable information. British author Robert Peel said public opinion was “a compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs.”
Too often our opinions, even on complex issues, can stem from “click bait” headlines, the assertions of an admired celebrity, momentary impressions, or even the commonly held beliefs of our community or peers. To be clear, opinions are not always wrong, but also, they are not always right. Accordingly, they should be tested. Here are three questions worth asking.
a) To what conclusion does this opinion lead? For example, if the culture of any given ethnicity is only accessible for those of that ethnicity, then how far do you take that doctrine? Are only the Germans allowed to speak the German language? Should only the Scottish wear kilts and play bagpipes? Can only the Irish cook potatoes? Are only those of Hawaiian descent allowed to play the Ukulele? To whom does the french fry belong? What about the fortune cookie? As you can see, the opinion of culture exclusivity just doesn’t hold up. Wisdom strives to think things out all the way to their ultimate conclusion.
b) Are there exceptions to this opinion? One opinion you may have heard is this, “you can do anything you set your mind to?” Is that true? Can a short person make themselves taller? Did Tim Tebow succeed in football or make it into the major leagues? Did every candidate in the last presidential election win the presidency? “Be authentic, be who you are,” said the actress who had undergone 24 plastic surgery procedures. Apparently you can't do everything you set your mind to. If an opinion defies constancy, then it cannot be fact.
c) Do the experiences of life validate this opinion? The preacher said, “guilt is always a negative thing?” Is it? Experience seems to tell us the opposite. Nice people feel guilty when they offend, and that guilt motivates them to apologize, in this experience guilt is a positive thing. I was once told, “If you force children to do something as a child, they will refuse to do it as an adult." They said, "The reason I don’t go to church as an adult is because my parents forced me to go as a child.” I responded, “do you still brush your teeth?”
An unwavering loyalty to long held opinions is not an indicator of character. Unwillingness to allow one’s mind to be changed is not integrity. In fact, changing our mind on a given point, in response to clear evidence, requires courage as well as a bit of humility.
There is an ancient legend of a Hindu king who openly ignored evidence, advice, and counsel—he was resolute in his opinions. Sissa, a Brahman, decided to open the mind and eyes of this unwavering monarch. So, he devised a game in which the biggest and most valuable game piece represented the king, but was at the same time was also the most helpless piece—the game was chess.
The king liked the game so much he decided to reward Sissa and invited him to name his prize. Sissa modestly asked for some grains of rice, the quantity to be determined by placing one grain upon the first of the 64 squares of the chess board and then doubling the number of grains with each succeeding square. The king quickly agreed, but then just as quickly was surprised to discover that he had promised away his entire kingdom.
Sissa, instead of claiming his prize took the opportunity to point out how easily the was king was led astray because he rushed to decision without thought. Wisdom is not something you have it is something you do--think about it.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. (Proverbs 4:7)