If it is true that wisdom is much more complex and multifarious than, say, courage or passion, then it seems as though some aspects of a person’s wisdom would be more advanced than others, which would be relatively underdeveloped. I picture a bar graph for each individual with some levels (bars) being more highly developed and prominent than other levels.
I was reflecting on this, thinking that I have some relative strengths and relative weaknesses, as would be expected if wisdom were indeed made of manifold sub-characteristics. I, for example, tend to believe that my ability to analyze, discern, attend, parse, critically think, reevaluate, and discriminate is fairly highly-developed. As with any other person, this is merely a combination of my genetic heritage (both my parents were/are high in this ability—though by no means, perfect) and all the tiny peaks and valleys and challenges and blind alleys of my youth. In fact, with human beings not having a fully-developed neocortex (the uniquely-human part of the brain that is responsible for executive function, judgment, rationality, and language—which accounts for a whopping 75% of its mass!) until well into their twenties, everything that occurred in college and even in graduate school, for me, was part of my growth process. There may be a little tiny space for one’s “free will” to positively affect one’s development (to use the broadest term possible), but that is rather conjectural.
The point is, within myself, I can appraise—and true to form, the wiser the person is, the more accurate and reality-bound this appraisal will be—certain aspects of my wisdom to be more robust than others. I am not claiming that I am in “the top 10% of wise persons,” by the way; whatever wisdom I have I believe I can detect slight differences in levels of its constituent parts. So, I noted that my “cerebral/analytical” functions are well-developed—and yes, I like most fairly introspective individuals can point to certain hallmark occurrences, pivotal moments, traumatic events, and “character-building experiences” along my path which played an outsize role in my development.
However, I was just sitting there trying to eat an egg sandwich and was very distracted by an occurrence in my work life. For fourteen months, and costing well over $400,000, I have been working with a business partner on a “fix and flip” project (what might be called a small residential redevelopment project, in the lingo). Essentially, my partner Bob is doing everything except funding the “rehab” on about 5,000 square feet of house which sits on 1.5 acres in Dorchester County, South Carolina (an area that was absolutely blowing up—at least until COVID struck). It was expected to take six months and $400,000. Fourteen months in, and at $425,000, I mentally threw in the towel. It was just becoming a real thorn in my side. Yes, I am referring to the trials and tribulations that life, tropical storms, bureaucrats, code, and dumb luck placed in our path. Bob has in fact said “You’re right, this is difficult; if it were easy, everyone would be successfully doing it and we wouldn’t have picked up an acre-and-a-half for $125,000.” There have been some interpersonal issues along the way, too. It is difficult for two grown men to share responsibility, power, and work when it comes to a complete gutting of 5,000 feet of house. I was feeling an intense desire to “do something assertive” in regard to the fact that I just received an email from the insurance agent that our insurance expires in six days (and were mostly held up by about ¼ of the roof which probably should have been thoroughly and professionally replaced a long time ago, but which, for the second time, was leaking). My desire to dress Bob down—who is my elder and who is quite self-assured—was palpable. I wanted to second-guess him, micromanage him, and even chastise him. Considering I “am over” this damned project, I was probably going to “put some English on the ball”, to use a tennis metaphor.
All this is to say that there I was, the kind of person who can, if he tried, write a 400-page book on the topic of wisdom—potentially one of the headiest and elusive concepts in all of social science and the humanities. Yet, I was itching to give Bob an earful. It felt to me, upon reflection, that one of my weak points was my ability to control impulses, get along with others in a harmonious way (the sophistication with which I conduct my social relationships, as it were), and an overdeveloped sense of justice—that I need to stand up for myself and for everyone else, too, all the time, and maximally. And unfortunately, because I can have an obsessive thinking pattern when something is bothering or intriguing me, I was thinking about this over and over and over. My self-reflection was clearly that I might have some aspects of my life and my psychological/emotional/social development that are impressive and full, but I had to accept that that sphere of impulse control/controllingness/patience/social relationships/being mindful and emotionally-in-control was clearly lacking.
I had quite a bout with low self-esteem and shoddy self-confidence and dysphoric mood for many of my 46 years, and so my tendency was to feel bad about myself—full stop. However, I think it is fairer to conceptualize the whole thing as:
Different persons have differing levels of psycho-emotional development at different times in their lives—and where wisdom is concerned, I am indeed not perfect. However, I am marked by many positive qualities and it is an act of character to fully realize what the truth is—and that includes oneself. No one is granted excellence in all attributes or perfect levels of development. My self-talk was along the lines of: “Realize where your limitations are and shore them up and find proper expression, and ‘play your cards right’ so that you win the game, not lose.”
To realize that perfectionism, self-control, positive social relationships, or an overwrought level of emotion in certain situations are areas which need work is what developing one’s wisdom is all about. I’m not absolutely sure that refraining from emailing Bob with a scathing critique of the job he is doing, and instead doing some writing, is going to make a critical difference in my future. But as the son of an alcoholic and a person who was addicted to Xanax and Klonopin for more than a decade, just to “live life on life’s terms” is a type of a win. The wise person knows where they’re at, where they’ve been, where they want to go, has a plan to get there, and executes it with the dedication of an aspiring Olympic athlete.
Wisdom sometimes feels like a very long game of poker, in which one must play the cards they are dealt, against some fierce competitors, and there is no ATM card in one’s pocket. The goal is to know the game, to play it with skill and grace, to improve as one goes, and to go home at the end of the cycle having won—or at least, not having gone into debt or turned to the bottle to cope. I try to do the best I can, think about what I’m doing, ask myself for self-improvement and self-growth, accept my losses, relish my wins, and try to enjoy the game while I am alive to play it. The gods will think me as wise or unwise as they will.
That, to me, what developing wisdom as you go is all about.