Wisdom Means Different Things To Different People

Wisdom means different things to different people.  A few days ago I went for a ride in an area of town I rarely frequent, the long stretch of road lined with businesses selling used car parts, recycled truck engines and other remnants of scrapped vehicles.  Pickups shared the road with me.  Stopping for lunch in a crowded, friendly little spot, we were greeted, in Spanish, by an overworked, but energetic waitress.  Men with baseball caps and work clothes filled the other tables while their lunches, piled high with french fries and chili, arrived to be devoured.  The food was excellent.

And then I noticed a man at a table near me wearing a black T-shirt with three circles (like an exam where you are supposed to fill in the bubble with the correct answer).  Above the circles was a message.  I blinked a few times before I realized I had read the choices correctly.  It said:  “Choose Wisely:  Glock, Paper, Scissors.”  Wisdom means different things to different people.

Wisdom involves making difficult choices in challenging situations.  In the United States today, we are deluged by rapidly changing circumstances, required to make ethical choices, political choices, economic choices while the substrate underlying those choices is behaving a bit like melting Jello.  How do we cope?

Some folks I know are retreating.  Feeling overwhelmed by circumstances they cannot control, they are pulling back into smaller worlds of family and friends, seeking connection and support in the familiar.  This is a valid response.  Retreat is often necessary to get reinvigorated, refreshed.  The interstate highways have rest stops for a good reason.

It is no accident that rooms with toilets are called “restrooms”; bathroom breaks are a physical necessity.  Retreats are an emotional necessity.  Some people do best with formal retreats, isolated from media, work, business and everyday demands. For other people, small but frequent pauses to have a cup of tea, walk around the block, gaze at a tree or call a friend serves the same purpose.  Some folks eat what I refer to as “kid food,” comfort foods like mac and cheese, enchiladas or tomato soup; indulging in the familiar helps us face the unfamiliar.  Other people just take a slow, deep breath and continue the day, with some slightly changed perspective.  This variety of responses is wise; we are each unique; wisdom means different things to different people.

Some folks I know are stepping into public roles, advocating, marching, petitioning, calling and demonstrating.  Feeling overwhelmed by circumstances they cannot control, they are choosing activism, community connection, mutual support and public action.  This is a valid response.  The frustration of helplessness in the face of injustice is not healthy.  Thoughtful reactions help; finely tuned movements facilitate change.

Some people choose activities with which they have experience, others move into the unfamiliar.  This variety of responses is also wise.  But…and there is a “but”….action without mindful self reflection is like Brownian motion, the erratic random movement of microscopic particles in a fluid.  It uses energy, but isn’t focused.  It leaves people exhausted, cynical and frazzled.  Internal reflection is a physical, emotional and political necessity; it can alter our perspective.  We are each unique; wisdom means different things to different people.

I have been reading Martin Buber, the prolific author, scholar, literary translator, political activist and philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, expressed in his important book I and Thou. Buber holds that the essence of the religious life is not religious ritual, but how one meets one’s own existence. This requires self-reflection, careful consideration of how to respond to circumstances we face, each in our unique way.  He writes: “Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique….If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born.”

Wisdom means different things to different people.  Each of us must choose wisely, but I am sure that my choice would be different than the choice made by the man in the black T-shirt.

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