Some Wise Advice for Listeners on This Monday Morning

Sep 23, 2013

Reading a nineteenth century novel, I was struck by the fact that one character described another as "Intelligent, but not very wise." We would never say that now. We might describe a person as being not very sensible, or not very talented, but never as lacking in wisdom. The word has dropped out of the language, along with other useful descriptive words like stupidity, usury, and posterity.

The abandonment of the word "wisdom" is not entirely trivial. After all, this has been the goal of the human race down the ages - not mere knowledge, like the latest celebrity divorces or how to survive Windows 8 - but Wisdom. Wisdom is deep and complicated. It addresses tricky things like the meaning of life and the sources of happiness. Traditionally, wisdom takes time to acquire, and there is no obvious payoff. Nobody since Solomon ever got a job by being wise.

That's exactly the problem, of course. Rushing between several jobs, multiple families and obligatory keep-fit classes, trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of employers, children, advertisers, and cats, we have no time for wisdom. What wisdom we have tends to come in highly abbreviated forms, on bumper stickers for example. In fact the bumper sticker has become the medium for the display of our most profound insights.

These insights are not quite as profound as Socrates might wish. "One Day at a Time" is a message often seen on bumper stickers. Yet the steady rotation of the earth guarantees that we will get one day at a time, and not three or twelve together unless we happen to live near the north or south pole. Anyone who tries to live according to any other principle is likely to become seriously confused. "What goes around comes around" is clearly true for operators of carousels, but not necessarily for anyone else.  "You're never too old" is another piece of bumper sticker wisdom, along with "It's never too late," and "You never know what you can do until you try." But a very small amount of wisdom reveals that we are often too old, it's frequently too late, and there are many things we are absolutely certain we can't do, no matter how hard we try.

Such proverbial wisdoms are always delivered with a great air of certainty. My mother was fond of saying things like: "Rome wasn't built in a day." But I never imagined, even in my wildest dreams, that Rome was built in a day. If I were to speculate, I would guess that the project took much longer, depending on which construction company was employed, and which Italian bank made the mortgage arrangements.

Globalization has exposed us to the proverbial wisdoms of everyone else on the planet. The Chinese, for example, advise: “Add legs to a snake only after you have finished drawing it.” Perhaps something was lost in translation, but I doubt it. In Ireland everyone knows: “Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot” and in Zululand it is equally obvious that “You should never speak to a rhinoceros unless there is a tree nearby.” Sometimes proverbs really do offer good advice like that one. And here’s another, from Spain, especially appropriate for public radio listeners at this particular moment: “If you like something, enjoy it, and then pay for it.”

Copyright: David Bouchier