The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Think about the positive attributes of growing older, and ‘wisdom’
will always appear near the top of the list. Until recently, I had
assumed ‘wisdom’ was a kind of ‘right knowledge’. Every time someone
says the Serenity Prayer, I am reminded of this attribute again.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I
cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the
wisdom to know the difference.”

Now, as I approach my 65th birthday, I wonder if I do know the difference.

On one level, I have learned a degree of serenity and think I am
more or less accepting of most things in life. Yet I still fret about
our political leadership, the drift toward corporate oligarchy, the
environment, TV programming, traffic and a hundred other things that I
think should be different than they are. It is true that I am less
apoplectic about them as I grow older, but I still resist and want
reality to conform to my will, my standards and my vision for what can
or should be. All of these things, of course, normally fall into the
‘things I cannot change’ category. In the ‘things that I can change’
category are exercise, diet, and, to the extent I can, being of service
to others.

If I stop and think about it, I do know the difference, so I guess that makes me wise.

Not so fast, I say—do I really know what wisdom is?

A little time with a dictionary and I learn that wisdom isn’t
knowledge at all. The consensus of dictionary writers: wisdom is a form
of action. That is, it is exercising good judgment. If this is so, then
the question becomes:

What actions am I taking and what choices am I making about the things that I can change and the things that I can’t change?

From this perspective, my attention is less on my circumstances and
more on my choices. In a way, I am learning that it makes little or no
difference what I think (I am not in control of most of my thinking
anyway). What matters are my commitments in a given moment. If I am
committed to doing something about political leadership, TV programming
or the environment, then I can act, if even only to write a letter. If
I am not committed, then I can give up the complaints and live life on
life’s terms. By the same token, if I don’t take action in all the
areas where I conceivably do have control, I don’t need to beat myself
up so much. I just need to be aware of and responsible for my choices.

“The wisdom to know the difference” really boils down to having the presence and clarity to choose, to exercise ‘good judgment’.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I
cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the
presence and clarity to choose between the two.”


0 thoughts on “The Wisdom to Know the Difference”

  1. wisdom

    the man with the unpressed suit and upraised arms
    speaking in airline monotone, knows exits
    the woman in the seat beside me moulds latex
    into monsters’ heads for movies, and wonders
    if she has time for a Harvey’s hamburger, loaded,
    before her bags arrive on the carousel
    do these people have wisdom?

    five miles below, a man scratches earth from dinosaur bones
    and another scutters down darkened lanes breaking car windows
    looking for glitter, running from the alarm’s wail, laughing
    is there wisdom in knowing what to look for?
    is there the slightest wisdom in getting away with something?

    when the magi set off to honour the birth of an unknown child
    were they wise because they knew what no one else knew?
    the natural way is the wisest way, the old cultures have it
    but are my instincts wiser than those of the ebola virus?
    the lawyer wielding principle like a club seems wise
    though reason may be just to the cause, it is cruel to the man
    is a judge wise to discern the difference, or wiser to ignore it?

    every child knows that darkness is scary and the enemy’s evil
    that strangers will hurt you but loved ones will not
    can the seeds of wisdom possibly lie in what everyone thinks to be so?
    are we wise when we’ve learned our lesson, or acknowledged mistakes?
    does any part of wisdom lie in relinquishment, regret or longing or pain?
    is it only then that the truest value of a thing is taken?

    do we know wisdom to see it? can we teach or acquire it?
    is it the same as feeling or sensing or waiting or wanting?
    is it somewhere near the sum of experience?
    having it, are we happier, richer, sexier or more clever?
    or is it an abstract, like Somalia, familiar but remote?

    wisdom, I think, is a version of sorrow, a burden
    a state of mind edged with sadness, even as it knows joy
    more believing than knowing, more patience than insistence
    it is seeking to understand, and be understood,
    the divinity that is discovered in ourselves, and in others

    and finally:
    wisdom is a reverence for what is essential in the human condition
    which is why this love, this bottomless love of ours, is so wise

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