In this blog, I will share some snippets from Chapter One of my new book, Wisdom: A Very Valuable Virtue That Cannot Be Bought (March, 2022). The thesis is that wisdom is about love, kindness, altruism & generosity. These are some of the highest levels of human development, psychological sophistication, and societal progress. So, it is fitting that the first chapter in the book is about these beautiful values and virtues.
According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory , what interests and drives individuals begins with a primary desire to obtain food, enjoy physical comfort, find sexual contact, sleep, etc. Only once such basic needs are fulfilled will an individual possess the desire or will to branch out, grow, and further develop their inherent psychological, emotional, social, and even spiritual longings.
A prominent characteristic of the self-actualized person is having an outward-looking, social, and benevolent stance toward others. Self-actualized individuals tend to be kind, respectful, and generous; they care about the world and feel a deep concern for things beyond themselves.
Aspiring to wisdom is, or should be, a requirement for every family and every [community], for wisdom is a form of immortality—a way of giving back to the group (and preserving its survival) long after you have ceased to be a part of it. —Stephen S. Hall
Wise people have theoretically progressed up the ladder of psycho-emotional-social-spiritual development quite successfully, and their values reflect this maturity. Author of the wonderful book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, Stephen S. Hall, refers to “narrow self-interest” vs. “broader social interest” in his book, and it is clear on which end of the spectrum wise individuals tend to be.
One end of the spectrum of a person’s attitude and mindset is myopic, exclusively profit-oriented, and selfish. The other end would be magnanimous, generous, loving, and communitarian. “The wise” (as I refer to people who love wisdom and live a wise lifestyle always aim to focus on the higher and dwell in the most sophisticated end of this continuum—when their lower level needs are met (food, shelter, self-esteem, etc).
Self-actualizing people have deeper and more profound interpersonal relations than any other adults…. They are capable of more fusion, greater love, perfect identification, more obliteration of the ego boundaries than other people would consider possible. [This devotion] exists side by side with a wide-spreading … benevolence, affection, and friendliness. These people tend to be kind [and friendly] to almost everyone … of suitable character regardless of class, education, political belief, race, or color. — Abraham Maslow
Confucius, widely associated with the idea of wisdom, was a proponent and even an architect of what Hall refers to as “civic altruism or public comportment…[and] virtue or morality as it unfolds in the public arena.” Hall also notes that Confucius’ impulse “anticipates social justice in Greek society,” and refers to “a morality grounded in public virtue, with obvious precursors to Christian loving-kindness.”
As Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “When you carry out acts of kindness, you get a wonderful feeling inside. It is as though something inside your body responds and says, Yes, this is how I ought to feel.”
In a sentence, Maslow believed that “the human being is so constructed that he pressed toward fuller and fuller being, and this means pressing toward what most people would call good values—toward serenity, kindness, courage, honesty, love, unselfishness, and goodness.”
Like many other mammals, human beings evolved to be very social creatures; our complex social ecology represents one of Homo sapiens’ main survival advantages. In fact, in ancient Greek literature, Homer referred to the lowest state a person could find themselves in as “hearthless”—one who has no home; no hearth; insufficient social and familial relations.
…to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch,
or a redeemed social condition;
to know that one life has breathed easier
because you lived here.
This is to have succeeded.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Social problems such as the opioid or gun violence epidemics always reflect what goes on within the hearts and minds (and homes) of millions of individuals that comprise a society. At times I myself have known much loneliness and solitude, and I displayed a consequential lack of love, caring, and social cooperativeness then as well.
I never got into hard drugs, engaged in criminal behavior, bullied anyone on social media, or contemplated suicide seriously—but these kinds of acting-out behaviors are on the rise in modern America. People who are lonely, resentful, and vengeful are not loving individuals who can relate well to others.
We cannot easily proceed to higher and higher levels of development (and find the wisdom within) if we are stymied by mental illness, gravely unmet needs, or various kinds of deprivation.
“If you truly want to live up to the ideals our forefathers had in
mind, if you sincerely care to embody the spirit of Jesus, Buddha, or
Muhammad, stop hating and start loving. Love even when you don’t
really feel it, even when you think you’re faking it. Soon, you won’t
be faking it anymore, and you’ll be a better parent, a better friend, a
better American, a better person.” —Alan Colmes
I’m not someone who reflexively and completely derides the individualistic tendencies that are obviously a part of humankind—Americans especially. We have individualism, competitiveness, and even ruthlessness to thank for a significant amount of what Homo sapiens has accomplished in the last ten thousand years. I aim to strike a balance between making money and being comfortable, and my other deeper goals. Money doesn’t buy happiness, just like it doesn’t buy wisdom, but it does have a lot of utility.
At the level of individuals vis-a-vis society at large, to while away the hours on the deck of a 200-foot yacht while the oceans are rising to the point that Florida may someday be largely uninhabitable is foolish and
ignominious. It is akin to the Roman emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned, as it were. This kind of selfishness and ignorance is exceedingly unwise—even if they attract the admiration and special privileges they do.
Trying too hard to hold on to money or other vestiges of control and superiority
(Maslow’s “deficiency needs”) will not make one happier, and is not wise.
Wisdom is about love, caring, and cooperation.
In the book The How of Happiness, research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky debunks certain myths about what makes a person truly happy in the long-term. She indicates: “Perhaps the most common error is that we assume that positive events, be they promotions at work, clean bills of health, hot dates, or victories
by our preferred presidential candidates or football teams, will provide much more happiness than they really do.”
It is quite unwise to fail to see that money, power, prestige, and selfishness will not only not benefit one’s fellow man (woman, and everyone in between—not to mention the Earth itself, now that we are in a stage of planetary destruction that might not be reversible) but it probably won’t make you any happier than pursuing goals that are more intrinsic, other-oriented, and prosocial.
“To be compassionate, knowledgeable, and kind is to be truly wise.” —Will Travers
There is a wonderful story about the late, mostly great American, Colin Powell. He was stranded with a flat tire when all of a sudden a military veteran (and an amputee!) stopped to help a [black] man—someone he didn’t even know and trust. In the course of the courageous act, the Good Samaritan noticed that the stranded motorist was none other than Powell himself! The meeting ended with a changed tire and a photograph of two smiling guys. Later, Powell reflected: “Thanks, Anthony. You touched my soul and reminded me about what this country is all about and why it is so great.”
The phrase “sharing is caring” is not just some pap meant for bumper stickers—it reflects deep wisdom. Why is this type of behavior, such as giving one’s money to charity or risking one’s own safety to rescue another in distress, wise rather than merely nice?
Well, at the risk of being repetitive, wisdom is about love, and that leaves little room for self-concern. At best, a balance between looking out for #1, and caring about the welfare and well-being of others.
Author of the book Einstein’s Last Message, Rod O’Connor Ph.D., writes,
“The attractiveness of more now is a massive challenge for humanity and for our finite planet. It means our ones can never be met; they are limitless. More is never enough. …If our living planet is to have a future, we have to cease our greed and decide for the long-term.”
Arguably, the nature of reality is that all life is interconnected. This comes to us both from spiritual/metaphysical approaches to the self and the universe, such as Buddhism, as well as from traditional academic physics. If this is true, then it is incorrect to say that one can be selfish in relation to another person or people and at the same time do no harm to them. As well, to help others indirectly helps oneself because the self is part of the whole. Wisdom is about love, and part of the beauty of love is that it pays dividends for he or she who focuses on it, not the dividends.
“He who cares for his brother, cares for himself.” —Xenophon
If one rejects Eastern and metaphysical (and to a large degree, the findings of modern quantum physics), and assumes that one is merely an individual human being among billions of other individual human beings, there are still other reasons why it is wise to engage in some level of selflessness (or even, self-sacrifice). I get into some of these reasons in the actual book (which can be purchased (and dozens of objective reviews can be read about) here).
Taking an evolutionary psychology tack here: Indeed, no society will long persist that subverts the human desire to excel. However, a good and healthy society is one in which the tendency to seek private gain is blunted such that the self-centered propensity in each of us is harnessed for society as a whole to benefit from and progress through. No one person can carry a whole community on their back—be they a masculine marvel with a spear or an Elon Musk.
Society needs its artists and farmers and mothers at least as much as it benefits from men who can skillfully fend off saber-toothed tigers or successfully prospect for gold. Mothers are as valuable as fathers. Goodness will not set you back, but actually bring about greater cooperativeness, appreciation, and reciprocal kindness in others.
“I always give much away, and so gather happiness instead of pleasure.” —Rahel Varnhagen
Wisdom is about love; it’s about connections to others; it’s about making the world a better place by countless small actions and tiny sacrifices.
We have come so far so fast in the last 10,000 years that I hope we do a massive rethink. We must realize that we do not need more progress in regard to space travel, faster cars, or megayachts; we need sustainable energy, healthy families, and shared prosperity.
Americans need to adapt to the times and realize there are more enlightened social systems and philosophies than the ones we are currently manifesting and propagating.
To use religious terminology: we must care for the stranger, look after the child, and love our neighbors so that everyone can proceed into the future with equal opportunities and met needs.