The Freedom to be Wise

I urge you all to take a moment to be thankful for the land and water of our home, and to consider how to repay the debt you owe to its original stewards for the responsibility and privilege of residing here. Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Tsawassen, Sto:lo, Qay-qayt, Squomish and others were here first. Most of us are settlers here. Take it into the world, and remember.


The concept of freedom in human life sorts into two main piles; the freedom from something, like hunger, and the freedom to do something, perhaps to express an unpopular opinion. I believe we have the freedom to be wise; we can choose to be wise.

We should probably review what wisdom is, before we talk about how we’d employ it if we got hold of any.

American geriatric psychiatrist Dilip Jeste has spent much of the last decade (written in 2019) trying to understand what makes people wise.  After much work, including a meta-analysis of the world’s wisdom literature, it appears that wisdom has six distinguishing and interconnected characteristics, which I will now briefly outline.

First, the six characteristics.


They are: a general knowledge of life and good judgment in social situations;

control over your emotions;

pro-social behaviours like empathy, compassion, altruism and a sense of fairness;

insight into oneself and one’s actions, or as Jeste says, ‘the ability to see what mistakes you’ve made’;

value relativism, or as he puts it, ‘accepting that we don’t know what the truth is sometimes’;

and finally, decisiveness.

I could leave it at that for a full morning’s message but you’re undoubtedly expecting me to expand on that.

The first characteristic is: A general knowledge of life and good judgement in social situations.  

Permit me to repeat the characteristic: A general knowledge of life and good judgement in social situations. I understand what he’s getting at, but it just seems like a useless thing to say. There I was, with another sixteen minutes to come up with, and I was stuck on the first characteristic of wisdom, which in itself made me uneasy.

So I backed away from writing for a while and thought about my grandson instead.

As a grandmother, I’ve had a generational epiphany. When I was in the middle of parenting, (the zero minus nine months to fourteen years part,) I was too busy doing it to understand how inept I was. I was supposed to be training my children to be wise; instead parenting was a series of tick-boxes, filled out in a rush and likewise abandoned. Parenting was about keeping the kids clothed and fed and schooled and immunized, don’t forget to have family fun, establish traditions, encourage their dreams, don’t forget, don’t forget.

There wasn’t a minute in there when I wanted my kids to be wise. I wanted them to be, in no particular order, happy, obedient, much less picky about their food, polite and to, well, reflect credit on me. None of these desires are necessarily bad, depending on how you go about fulfilling them, but I never got to the end of a week thinking – What shall I do to help my children to be wise next week? – because I was too busy checking boxes.

It wasn’t until I watched my kid raise her kid that I understood what was happening. That’s it. That’s the wisdom. It’s the dailiness of human life. Make trash, take trash out. Figure out how to make less trash. Make art, move art out. Figure out how to make more art. That’s an example of ‘the general knowledge of life’; that actions have consequences. Daily life is built of daily events. Family life, communal life, a life with friends and intimates, life as it’s worth living, is built of daily events.

Having a chore list, and dealing with it, is going to teach your children – or your employees, teammates, fellow congregants – the applications in life are endless and do not by any means narrow themselves to children – that you can choose to be wise whatever mood you’re in. Being an adult isn’t glamorous and it doesn’t just happen. Your kids watch you transform yourself into a different kind of adult as you learn to parent, or your staff as you learn to manage. The only way they can watch you do that is if you’re present in their lives. When you are present, you’re giving them a model of the world.

That’s all it is: a structure, a model. If it’s bad they can find new ones, although it takes a while. You receive from your parents an understanding of how the world works, your place in it, the framework you put your experiences in.

Years before I became a parent I read a Cynthia Heimel column in a Playboy magazine, and in it she gave herself permission to fail, as a parent. You’re going to do a lot of it, so you might as well come clean with your children and admit error. That was the best parenting tip I ever received.

Life is iterative. It repeats and builds on itself. Little chunks of it repeat over and over in our lives. The first pillar of wisdom rests on and is built from our family, the little repeating bits of behaviour that show that we care, we repair, we move through space together, find our safety together, our spirit together, our progress together; if not with those of our kin with whom we feel we belong, then those who raise us and teach us about daily life.

We get good judgement in social situations mostly from our family of origin and then in large part from schooling and our first jobs, and those situations, and the people we are forced to jostle up against along the way, mostly train us in the ways of the world. If that’s mostly what happens, that we learn wisdom from family, schooling and working, then it’s the case that we are wise in some proportion, in some immeasurable but evident way, to the family we contribute to, and the family which sustains us, for all the kinds of families we humans make. Gloria Steinem said family is content, not form, and she was never more right than about that.

You can both find and create wisdom in family activities. Wisdom lives in the world, and has confidence to act in the world, because of a solid understanding of people and daily life.

Control over one’s emotions is a characteristic of wisdom.  Everyone from Yoda to Marcus Aurelius has shot an arrow at that target. My spin on self-control is – well, I’ll call it special pleading, and I beg your indulgence as I make my case.

I’d put it very simply; have all the emotions you want, seriously. All of them! Every last one of them! But keep quiet about the wilder and hairier ends of them, unless you’re with a close friend – or spouse, or spousal equivalent – or a therapist.

It is my resigned observation that the largest component of being wise is being prudent with who bears both your weightier and your – shall we say – more temporary emotions. Most times, it is silence on emotional hot button subjects that is all the demonstration of self-control that other people care about. As a short-cut to wisdom, keeping your mouth shut when you’re feeling emotional has few equals.

Wise people avoid public expressions of emotion which are unsociable, and by that I mean unfriendly or tending toward making other people hesitant, fearful or humiliated; to state it more positively, they tend toward being welcoming. Wise people find ways to express or demonstrate their emotions usefully, practically, in the service of their own health, and that of those around them. Wise people put their emotions to good use. They don’t pretend they’re not there. Unwise people are ever the servants of their emotions; it’s why we call unwise adults, toddlers.

According to Dilip Jeste’s research, people who are wise embody empathy, compassion, altruism and a sense of fairness. They talk about it, too, but mostly they embody it, and that means doing.

Why is it a characteristic of wise people to embody pro-social traits – traits like empathy, and fairness? I see it as an extension of how we learn wisdom from our families. If a wise person looks across all of humanity, especially the people living closest, and sees not strangers but family, then the practice of altruism and fairness is neither a hardship nor unusual. To be empathetic and compassionate to a family member is neither a hardship nor unusual, unless your family is unwise, in which case you’re excused duty.

Wisdom consists in part of agreeing with yourself to behave as if some work toward the reconciliation of the human family into a balance of peace and justice is your personal responsibility, which is spoken of in the Jewish tradition as Tikkun Olan. Wisdom is active in the world, as it is able.

Although decisiveness and empathy are characteristics of wisdom in Jeste’s model, I consider the ability to be introspective to be at the heart of wisdom, for even when a person can no longer move in human space along any other path of self-improvement, due to imprisonment or illness, poverty, enslavement or some other reason of incapacity, they may continue to grow in self-knowledge. Many religions put daily meditation at the heart of practice; steady self-examination by the stages and liturgy of a particular religious tradition.

The ability to be introspective can help us to be intentional in the standards we set for ourselves, and to create methods of avoiding actions and behaviours we aren’t likely to be proud of, later. However good or wise our families of origin were, some improvement and correction will always be required, as no human parent was ever perfect. Fortunately wiser parents than us have explained we never have to be.

Introspection helps us to root out fear, narcissism and laziness, three human characteristics that seem to pull against wisdom at all times, under all life circumstances.

To see one’s mistakes plainly, and to think about them clearly, in an uninterrupted appointment with oneself, is not something that everyone can do. Many people are not really made for long periods of contemplation, as it can combine boredom and emotional discomfort in a most unpleasant way.

To the extent you can, if you truly desire to be wise, try to put aside time to think about how you’ve missed the mark, the standard that you have set, for yourself – and part of introspection is setting that standards – in private thought, and what you can correct about it in future.

A caution: introspection without the goal of corrective action, the operative word being action, is called stewing, and while stewing has its uses, introspection should be the servant of action promoting human good, even if you’re the only human being served. For a wise person? introspection? – it’s part of self-care.

Value relativism seems like a strange selection among the characteristics of wisdom. If a wise person is accepting of the truth that we don’t know what the truth is sometimes it makes wisdom sound like it gives up in the face of tough questions. But that’s where wisdom parts company from dogmatism and fundamentalism. Wisdom shrugs sometimes and says, ‘I do not know’. Dogmatism and claims of inerrancy are in themselves unwise.

We must, like gardeners, root out the weeds, and replace our all too human fear of uncertainty, of not knowing, and the fear of being shamed by not knowing, and plant the seeds of comfort with ambiguity using nothing but the power of our minds.

Comfort with ambiguity is a beautiful thing. It’s a confusing thing, but it’s a beautiful thing.

There are many reasons we may not know or understand the truths of the world around us. Sometimes the truth is clear but we enclose it, so as not to burden others. We tell lies to protect people we love all the time, and we must live with the ambiguity.

Another reason we must learn to be comfortable with ambiguity is that there are now dozens of identified cognitive biases which can be tested for human beings, any of which may directly impact our ability to perceive truth. Cognitive biases are a very loaded subject; most of the bias human beings suffer with – or enjoy, it’s a mixed bag – is a little bit of nature (our evolutionary heritage, which has given humanity the ability to use speech to navigate a small, tight, imitative and mobile social group) and a lot of nurture, which in our culture is biased toward individual achievement.

This makes, in my view, for a very sad social landscape. The overwhelming majority of humans want to be part of a functioning group with a clear mandate, and every working part of Jeste’s wisdom model applies to and supports a functioning group.

If we don’t find that group in our family of origin, we’ll work very hard to find one. We’ll go to ludicrous extremes to find that group. But everywhere we go, it seems, our cooperative instincts are destroyed by individual humans, mostly rich people, who’ve never been encouraged to be cooperative in their lives, at least not since team sports in college, and when we’re thrown out of work or exposed to toxins over a thirty year period or die because a substandard piece of concrete detaches from a parking garage, whatever is left of collective human good mourns and cries for justice, and with heart wrenching frequency, the individuals responsible walk on, in many cases remarkably free of either knowledge or concern about what they’ve done.

We struggle and struggle to be wise, and then capitalism comes along and knees us in the groin, and as we roll around on the ground guilts us into buying a self-help book and some aspirin.

But capitalism is held up to be a perfect system by the richest people in it. So I’ll ask something.

How do we know that captains of industry are unwise? Because they don’t act like it  — they aren’t prosocial – they’re helping destroy the planet;

they don’t know how to be effectively introspective – there’s nothing like watching them implode on social media to get the truth of that;

and they don’t appear to understand that they don’t know everything, especially when they’re talking about arcane concepts like marginal tax rates and the  impact of low vaccination rates on morbidity statistics – and this goes for all the wealthy humans currently running for President in the US.

When the unwise hold so much power – mostly, and sadly, the power to destroy – it’s very hard to be hopeful. Elites destroy themselves over and over through history; how much they take with them, in terms of civilization, we may not even have enough civilization left over to discuss, the next time it happens.

We none of us are privy to what captains of industry are thinking; we don’t know their mental landscape. If any of them are taking positive action about the fate of the planet, action which outweighs the harm they do, they are doing a superb job of hiding it.

I would argue that value relativism is what allows Unitarians to contemplate the humanity of someone whose main joy in life is to be engaged in the destruction – for profit, and sometimes just for fun – of the home we share, while he buys up media outlets so he can collect advertising revenue for telling us how wrong we are about our liberal values.

I would also argue that this value relativism needs a really solid kick in the pants.

After all, what can we wisely value more than our home, our planet?

We are faced, one and all, with collective harm – a planet experiencing a geologic scale atmospheric and extinction event – because of our unwise and culturally mandated collective avoidance of consequences flowing from the unwise actions of individuals. As an act of collective wisdom, we should probably freely engage to do a lot more about that. Decisively. 

Blessed be.