You write about wisdom at your own peril: here is a topic as ineffable as a Rembrandt and as slippery as a bar of soap. Worse yet, one person’s wisdom is another person’s cliché — try explaining how, over the course of the last fifteen years, you’ve come to realize that your alcoholism has damaged both your liver and your soul, and the world will issue a tired chorus of “You only hurt the one you love.”
And yet, some things must be said. As lightning bug-like as wisdom seems, it does indeed exist. It seems to reside most vividly in — and is most powerful to us when it is related by — those who have overcome adversity, be that adversity medical, historical, financial, romantic, or meteorological. I speak of blues singers. I speak of poets.
Such an observation may be another person’s — i.e., your — cliché, but I make it because, as it turns out, the observation is not what many psychologists would have us believe. The preeminent study of wisdom is the Berlin Wisdom Project, started in 1984 by quantitative psychologist Paul Baltes. In it, respondents were asked to weigh in on hypothetical vignettes, such as, “A 15-year-old girl wants to get married right away. What should one/she consider and do?” According to Baltes and his colleagues, the wise answer to this question is a response that would strike most of us as both tentative and bet-hedging: “Marriage is typically not a good idea for 15-year-olds, but there are certain instances — if the girl is an orphan, say, or has a terminal illness, or lives in a different historical period or culture than our own — when marriage might work out, depending on the girl’s state.”
I grant you, such painstaking and sensitive analysis is 100 percent on the money, but frankly it exhausts me. If I thought this way, I’d have to take August and September off. No, give me the wisdom that burns bright; give me the wisdom that whacks me across the face like a much-needed slap. The face-slappingest piece of wisdom I’ve ever come across is that of a Moken fisherman in his mid-sixties on the morning of the tsunami in 2003. The Moken are nomadic tribesmen and animists who live in the Andaman Sea of Indonesia. Their understanding of the ocean that rivals most oceanographers’. Almost amphibious, they learn to swim before they walk, and they can lower their heart rates to stay underwater twice as long as other humans. On that dire morning in 2003, the fisherman’s survival of other, smaller climatological disturbances during his lifetime prepared him for this more serious one. Noticing forebodings of trouble — the way in which the tide receded abnormally, the way in which the buzzing of the cicadas dropped off, the way in which the dolphins headed out for sea — he directed his fellow tribe members to climb a mountain. All of the tribe save for one member — a disabled man unable to run — made it to safety; the fisherman thus saved literally thousands of lives.
Though the definitions of wisdom suggested by the Berlin Wisdom Project and the Moken fisherman would seem to be at odds — the former retreats into the cushions of the therapist’s couch while the latter burns a trail up a mountain — what unites them is a kind of omniscience and selflessness. To be wise, these two examples suggest, is to be able to turn off the noise of your own life and become a kind of hyper-empath — someone who can not only understand what the 15-year-old girl is feeling, but what those around her might be feeling, too; someone who is not only sensitive to the fluctuations in oceanic tide and fauna, but who can imagine what bearing these fluctuations might have on the world around them.
William James once famously said that wisdom is knowing what to overlook. But it’s also knowing how to imagine.
Thurber Prize recipient Henry Alford is the author of How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) (Twelve).