Wisdom is a complex topic. If you look it up in the dictionary, you will get a paper-thin definition—correct perhaps, in as far as it goes. What I tried to do in my 2022 book on the subject is to go beyond mere definition to metaphorically painting a picture of the phenomenon. In this blog, I will get into one aspect of wisdom: what I might term an efficient perception of how the world works, what humans are like, and how we can best cope with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Shakespeare put the vicissitudes and the turbulence we each face in life. This is existentialism; personal growth; the development of the self. In other words, dealing with the challenges and the pain of life.
I am a big fan of the television show Breaking Bad. It’s an oldie, but a goodie!
In the 4th Season episode named “Salud”, the following dialogue from line 217 to line line 286 in the transcript of the show. Or if you watch on Netflix or whatever, it’s about halfway through the episode and takes about 4 minutes.
In this scene, the main character Walter talks to his son after his son found him beaten up and sobbing inconsolably. It is touching because although the challenges and pain Walt experiences are essentially of his own making, they nevertheless are real, feel poignant to the two characters, and provide plenty of opportunity for a real heart to heart—rare for a man who spends most of the show dissembling and running a mere persona—almost an alter ego. He has a very real moment with his son, and it is wonderful writing, directing, and acting.
I too know the pain involved in seeing one’s parents in an unvarnished way. Of course I have my own issues, and am looking out of my own eyes, so I am not saying I am 100% objective. But I will say that both of my parents spent/spend a lot of time managing the impression they give off to others, and projecting what they wish others to see in them. The challenges and pain of life either are or are not experienced by an individual—but how they let others see them (the opposite of which is essentially manufacturing an illusion) is a somewhat different matter. The beautiful movie The Imitation Game is a must-see for anyone who likes this place where the psychology of the self meets social psychology meets clinical psychology.
Wisdom can be helpful here, as it is helpful in so many ways—most of the ways which go unperceived by most people most of the time, incidentally.
One of the things wisdom is about is being able to cope with the challenges and pain of life successfully. I’m talking about emotion management, keen perception, perspective-taking and perspective reconsideration, and mediating existential challenges.
I am estranged from my mother, and she is not far from me geographically. Why this is differs depending on who you ask. The bottom line for me is that my mother is not who I need her to be, wish she was, or what I would ideally want in a person. I don’t not take her call or anything, but I just feel as though life is easier and better if I keep distance from her. The fact is that dysfunction runs in and plagues families as much as psychopathology affects individuals; I find that keeping that familial dysfunction at an arm’s distance is healthier for me (and easier) than to keep repeatedly entering that field of anxiety, impression management, anger, blame, subterfuge, and generally challenges and pain that the family dynamics between my mom/sister/me entail. My mother has a life and has constructed a personality (and defenses for it) that work for her, but that doesn’t mean they work for me.
Wisdom is that thing that can guide me in such decisions, and assist me in dealing with the emotional consquences of such a stance. The interesting thing about wisdom (among hundreds!) is that you never quite know for sure if you are embodying wisdom; utilizing wisdom; perceiving wisely; dealing with an efficient perception of reality. As an example, an alcoholic will do all they can to prevent themselves from being discovered, changed, or punished. It seems as though it takes wisdom to accomplish all this to the alcoholic, but in reality it is self-subterfuge and self-sabotage more than it is true wisdom.
The challenges and pain of life get us all eventually—and some people, relentlessly. Many people kill themselves or others in any given year, or live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau put it. Someone said “The thing about life is that no one gets out of here alive.” And Maurice Riseling said, “Sooner or later life makes a philosopher out of us all.” We desperately need wisdom, and no place needs more of it than America.
The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel. —Horace Walpole
I recall my father pretty well sometimes. I will attach two photos that are illustrative of how vicious life can be.
When I was younger, he was a marvel to me. He owned a beautiful blue Mercedes. He was the physician in charge of the Kaiser at which he worked. He was good-looking, funny, and moral. Not everyone would agree, and I think maybe I was hopelessly subjective and young. He also beat the crap out of me a few times and was a very emotionally closed man quite a bit of the time. But I think in a way I lionized the man.
He was also a Captain in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (Reserve Division). It seemed to me a real commitment, and showed his character. His weapon was a .357 magnum. I would shoot my .38 with him at the range and DAMN that thing was a hand cannon! You can’t help but admiring your dad when he can adroitly and responsibly wield a pistol of that caliber. No pun intended.
The man was very mentally ill at times. I sometimes felt that the challenges and pain of life was somehow magnified in him. I have seen him cry, pace the floor, lose his job, be obsessive-compulsive, lack meaning in life, and generally be a very poor role model for me. But he always seemed to love me. At times, he loved me until it hurt him. A very deep appreciation for me as a person, and me as a son is how I would describe it.
I saw over time that he made a few improvements in his mental health, and he did carry on a very long relationship with a woman after the divorce with my mother. His physical ailments began to catch up with him, including a heart attack at about age 60 (leading to a multiple bypass surgery, from which he felt he might not come back, and which took him down a few notches for quite a while). Eventually he had a terrible pain in his back (spinal disc deterioration, I believe), glaucoma, strokes, astonishing weight loss, and irritability. Life seemed to have it in for him, it seemed at times…
Wisdom is something that comes to us all fairly easily when we are really focused on the more meaningful things in life. Depression, anxiety, anger, hopelessness, low self-esteem, and generally a maladaptive response to the challenges and pain of life can certainly color our perception of wisdom.
Not unlike the figurative character Lady Luck, wisdom can be seen almost like a force that is god-like, and which can smile upon us, or completely delude us. Yet, there always seems to be a lesson; truth; a quickening of insight and action that many interesting Greek myths make hay out of this phenomenon.
I sometimes think of wisdom like the beauty of numbers when one really knows mathematics, or even radio waves or infrared light or the Earth’s magnetic fields—which are unseen and unheard until we turn on a proper receiver. This is akin to the value of vision.
So, when I reflect back on my father and his life (and here is a video in which I do), I think about all the good he embodied. I think about all the challenges and pain he had within. Life is just fascinating like that. I feel a deep sense of “life is absolutely heartbreaking and it can certainly be absurd” when I watch the parts of the video in which he is ailing and declining. People who care for sick relatives, or who volunteer in a hospice, know this feeling all too well….
I have also known others whom I loved, and watched decline, deteriorate, and die. The challenges and pain of life are too much for some to bear, and are a major challenge to us all.
I believe it is wisdom that helps me to analyze that duality, cope with the uncomfortable feelings of seeing the life drain out of someone you respect and love, and incorporate the lessons that are available to learn into my own life. Some say the fact that life is limited and fleeting and absurd is what gives life meaning.
I suppose that is hard to accept, but true.
Such is wisdom….
Here is a blog about existentialism and meaning….
Below are some photographs which are pretty much in chronological order…. The challenges and pain of life were always there for my dad, but became more visibly apparent as his physical condition deteriorated…