Wisdom 101: A matter of time

By Jim Selman | Bio

The older I am, the more I reflect on the aphorisms all around us and wonder why it is so difficult to accept and live with this obvious wisdom. Robert Fulghum memorialized many of them in his bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. All of these little ‘nuggets’ of wisdom we’ve accumulated over the years are generally, well, wise. It is befuddling why so few people take them to heart.

Why do so many spend a lifetime learning these kinds of lessons the hard way? Actually, why is it that any of us continue to act badly, do things we know won’t work, or become engaged in behaviors that, in any of a hundred different ways, are harmful to ourselves and others?

Theologians, psychologists, teachers, philosophers and parents have been occupied by these questions for a very long time. The larger underlying questions at the heart of this inquiry are:

  • “Who am I?”
  •  “Do I really have a choice about what I do?”
  • “Is it really possible to learn from our experience?”

If by ‘experience’ we mean something other than behavioral conditioning (that is, something other than simply substituting one ‘habitual’ behavior for another), then I think learning from our experience is pretty much the same as learning from our Elders. I wouldn’t say Pavlov’s dog learned from experience: the dog was conditioned to change its behavior. To learn from our experience is to learn from the past—to learn from our own experiences and the experiences of others—and to be able to distinguish between the present, the past and the future.

My view is that we all behave however we behave as a function of how we observe our world. If something appears to be a threat to me, I will always behave however I behave when I perceive a threat—no matter what the situation. If I cannot distinguish between the present and the past, then the present will occur to me pretty much in the same way it did in the past. If I observe my situation the same way as I did before, then I will do what I have always done.

Freedom to change presupposes choice. Choice presupposes being present and not trapped in historical beliefs or habits. So to learn a different response or have a genuine choice about what I do, I must be in ‘present time’ and I must change the way my situation ‘occurs’ for me (that is, I need to change how my ‘reality’ appears for me).

I also need to be able to distinguish the future as something that isn’t an inevitable extension of my past. I need to see the future as a possibility. I may do this by observing others who see the future as possibility or, in some cases, I may have to generate it for myself. The future as possibility is a vision, a different context for living, a place to stand from and which to exercise choice. For example, for a 12-Step recovering addict or alcoholic, the possibility of living a sober life is captured in the notion of a ‘higher power’ and, in that context, the job is to choose sobriety ‘one day at a time’.

Being able to distinguish the past, present and future in a way that allows the future to occur as a possibility (rather than as an extension of the past) makes it possible to break the deterministic ‘vicious cycles’ that so often make us prisoners of our own mind and blind us to our own wisdom and the wisdom of others. When we are ‘present’ in this way, it is obvious that the wisdom of previous generations can help us navigate in this increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.