The Road to Wisdom

My son has absolutely no sense of fear. To add to my stress levels, he is also uncommonly daring. He loves anything that gives him an adrenaline rush. Fortunately, he is in the habit of announcing to the world what adventure he is about to undertake. Recently it has been: “Nathan swimming”, before attempting to jump into the deep end of the pool. He loves swimming, and he has watched his older cousins hurling themselves off various ledges into the pool. He just doesn’t understand why I get hysterical when he tries to emulate them. After all, I am always telling him what a big boy he is, and big boys – it would seem – don’t get in at the step and wade sedately in the water.

Another favourite is “Careful the spider” before attempting to handle them. Brown widow spiders are quite common in our garden, so I am trying to get him to observe them in a non-tactile way. As luck would have it, he hasn’t fully grasped the difference between spiders and ants, so most of what he manages to handle before I intervene is quite harmless. Still, fatherhood is not kind to the heart.

Every night I pray that he will grow up to be a wise young man. The ability to make wise decisions is, I believe, the key to being an effective human being. Sadly, there seems to be a dearth of wisdom in the world. Every year, for example, the Darwin Awards ( commemorate those whose astounding lack of common sense resulted in their untimely demise. On first reading them, these awards are humorous, but one quickly sobers to the realisation that there is something deeply tragic about humanity’s seeming inability to act wisely.

And it is not usually that difficult to determine what the wise course of action would be. The Bible describes Wisdom as a woman calling out in the streets. The voice of Wisdom is available for all to hear. It is not secretive or cryptic. It is simple and free. It just doesn’t always say what we would like it to say. In fact, very often – for this reason –  we take a conscious decision to suppress her. In her frank manner, Wisdom simply asks: given the likely consequences of that course of action, should you really be acting the way you are?

But pride, avarice, wishful thinking, or a stubborn refusal to believe that basic cosmic laws apply to us, make acting wisely the exception rather than the norm. It is why so many marriages fail; why powerful government agencies fail to respond with appropriate alacrity and severity to crises like global warming and pollution; why so many people find themselves in inescapable debt. Generally, it seems, people have not been taught to think about what outcome they should expect before embarking on a course of action. And the problem with ignoring the voice of Wisdom is that you always reap disaster.

Hopefully Nathan will mature out of his oblivious foolishness and become a man who thinks before he acts. There is still hope for him. It seems that most of the human race has not been so lucky.

I am sure that in your life, right now, you are facing some sort of enormous decision. When you strip away pride, after you have conceded that certain outcomes are merely wishful thinking, and once you have accepted the stark reality that life’s laws have no exceptions, what are your options? Only once you have carefully considered what the desired outcome would be, and the potential pitfalls, should you plan the best route to get there.

The alternative is that, oblivious to the dangers (or worse: choosing willful blindness), you grasp the spider with clumsy fingers, or plunge into the deep end of the pool, and there is nobody there to whip you out of harm’s way at the last moment. Confucius argued that there are three methods by which we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. Which will you choose?

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