Wisdom, Part I

The first week I moved here I had to have a wisdom tooth pulled. Setting aside the pain, the trauma of having to find a dentist and my abject fear, I started to think about wisdom. Our “third molars” are probably called wisdom teeth because they appear sometime between 17 and 25, when we are supposedly wiser than when the other molars grow in childhood. I had all four of mine, which I only wish correlated with sagacity.

I am smart. I have always been a high achiever. But wise? Lately, with age and experience, I think, perhaps, I am approaching wisdom. The dictionary definition of wisdom is knowledge, or accumulated learning, and insight, or the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships.

I am wise enough to know what I don’t know, recognize wisdom in other people, and build a leadership team. I can sort through complexity. I can listen. I can offer advice without being directive. And I can pass this learning on. 

The good news about my evolving wisdom is that it has come at the same time as being able to share it in new ways. I have held demanding leadership positions for over 25 years, but now I can coach a new generation of leaders. I no longer spend my days dealing with politics, fundraising, and regulations, but I can help others lead in these arenas. I can help teams discover and act upon their sense of purpose. 

Erik Erickson described the last two stages of psychosocial development as “Generativity vs. Stagnation” and “Ego Integrity vs. Despair.” The respective positive values of each stage are care and wisdom. I am working through both these stages now. Yes, I am in the final stage of evaluating my life and fortunately my sense of accomplishment far outweighs my regrets. But in no way do I feel my life of active generativity is behind me. What has changed is the sphere of giving. And my challenge is how to make a difference in a world filled with hate and brutality. 

Last week I saw the Holocaust film, A Bag of Marbles. I had a hard time watching yet another example of the violence human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings. Yet, at every step of the journey taken by the two young protagonists, there was someone who helped them. A priest, a guide, a head of school and a doctor risked their own lives to help the boys. A few days later I attended a lecture by Susan Dworkin, who, with Edith Hahn Beer, wrote the Nazi Officer’s Wife. How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust. She stressed that Edith Hahn Beer said she survived because of the five people who helped her and added that if five people would help each of today’s refugees we could eradicate the horror. 

Both the film and the book left me questioning my own responsibility. I am proud to have made a difference in many lives, and to continue along that path. But if I do not act to end the evil I see in the world, I feel that I will have failed to fulfill a moral obligation.  I need wisdom and courage to determine what that action should be.