VIEW VIDEO Several years ago, Chris and Anne Gautier were at the farmhouse with Joan and me. It was in the summertime and we were sitting outside watching the birds, which were just thick down there. As we were watching, an iridescent blue bird landed on a feeder and began feeding. I pointed it out to Chris and Anne and Joan, then identified it as an Eastern bluebird. I had recently read an article about Eastern bluebirds and proceeded to tell them little-known facts about bluebirds. I went on and on, confident they were as enjoying my lecture as much as I was. How fortunate they were to be the recipients of such extensive knowledge, I thought to myself. I discussed the bluebird’s range and habitat, their precipitous decline in the 1970s, and their recovery due to volunteer efforts to provide bluebird housing. If I remember correctly, I even ended my lecture by humming a few bars of the song The Bluebird of Happiness. When I finished, I leaned back in my chair, exceedingly pleased with my exhortation.
Chris looked at me, then said, “Everything you told us about the Eastern bluebird was true. Except the bird on your feeder was an indigo bunting.”
Have you ever noticed you can have all the information just right, and still be ignorant?
We’ve been discussing the habits of wholeness, those behaviors conducive to our wholeness and well-being. When we began this discussion some ten weeks ago, we did so with the conviction that God is interested in our wholeness, that God is committed to our spiritual, emotional, relational, and societal maturity. Because God is committed to human wholeness, so should we be likewise devoted. Let’s continue our discussion with a reminder of where we’ve been.
We began with balance, giving each aspect of life its proper weight, place and priority, lest we lose our sense of equilibrium and fall. Then we talked about patience, the calm acceptance that things can happen in a different order than the one you have in mind. We discussed forgiveness, which we defined as the conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they deserve your pardon. Then we discussed empathy, which we defined as our ability to be aware of the sorrows and joys of another being. You’ll remember we said that empathy enables “them” or “they” to become an “us” or “we.” Then we added generosity to our list and defined it as our decision to enter the lives of others as a gift. Last week we spoke of the importance of discipline and observed that whole and healthy people have trained themselves to do positive things in a controlled and habitual way. I’ve repeated these habits each week for the same reason we repeated the math tables when we were in elementary school. Repetition facilitates retention.
Today, I want to add the trait of wisdom to our list of habits. I want to begin by distinguishing intelligence from wisdom. Intelligence has to do with our capacity to learn, organize, and retain the facts and data we encounter. Wisdom has to do with the employment of facts and data to improve our lives and the lives of others. Intelligence is about intellectual capacity; wisdom is about application. Here’s an example to help us understand the difference. Intelligence means knowing the principle of thermal conductivity, while wisdom is knowing not to stick your tongue on a frozen pump handle.
We have all known people who are unquestionably intelligent. They have absorbed and retained the information they’ve been taught, but they nevertheless lack wisdom. For whatever reason, they have not applied their intelligence toward the betterment of their lives and the lives of others. They know why tongues stick to frozen pump handles, but they do it anyway. There’s a lot of folks walking around with metaphorical bandages on their tongues. Let’s define wisdom as the thoughtful and constructive use of intelligence. We recognize this disconnect between intelligence and wisdom. The writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov observed that “the saddest aspect of life is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” We are adept at accumulating information and data. In 1945, it was said the body of human knowledge doubled every 25 years. Today, it is estimated human knowledge doubles every 12 hours. If you feel overwhelmed with information, that is why. It is almost impossible to stay current.
We know this experientially because the shelf life of our electronics is so brief. Most of us grew up, like our parents and grandparents, with phones tethered to our kitchen walls, were amazed when the first cordless phones were invented and we could roam around the house. Then came the cell phone, that simply made phone calls, and we were astounded. Just the other day on my phone, I scheduled a dentist’s appointment, paid a bill, checked my retirement account, looked up the weather for Fairbanks, Alaska, enjoyed Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C Major, counted the number of steps I walked, monitored my heart rate, finished reading a book, purchased an oil filter for my lawn mower, read an article on cybersecurity, and found out which roads to take to visit a meeting attender. We are adept at gathering information, but are much slower in its thoughtful and constructive use. Incidentally, the World Economic Forum recently said growth in jobs are going to come in roles that rely on human skills such as advising, decision-making, reasoning, communicating and interacting. Those are wisdom jobs, yet another indication of the growing need for insight.
There’s an Italian proverb that says when God punishes a land, he deprives its leaders of wisdom. This week a major American political party removed from leadership a woman who had the temerity to stand and say Donald Trump had lied about the election. While I do not share her political philosophy, I admire beyond words her courage and commitment to truth.
Millions of Americans are waging a war against wisdom, which never ends well. To spurn wisdom, to scorn obvious scientific facts, is to reject the accumulated and hard-won treasure of a culture. Unfortunately, it appears many Americans are determined to do just that. Friends, we are the heirs of an accumulated cultural wisdom, gained by centuries of ceaseless effort, exploration, and reflection. This accumulated wisdom has improved our lives immeasurably. It has protected our health and well-being, it has provided structure to our social and governmental life, it has prevented the rise of disorder and chaos and assisted in the furtherance of order and harmony. Wisdom has been our salvation, and when we forsake it, we jeopardize our future.
I recently overheard a woman say that wearing a mask caused “fatal overdoses of calcium.” This same woman then got in her car, designed by highly educated engineers and scientists, with no seeming awareness of the disconnect between her contempt for science and her faith in automotive technology. This disconnection is rampant and can only be countered by our continued commitment to intelligence and wisdom, learning all we can, gathering and gleaning the ripened knowledge of our past and present, then applying it thoughtfully and carefully so that our lives, and the lives of others, might bear rich and bountiful fruit.