Friday, April 6, 2012

How wisdom happens

Lately my thoughts keep returning to the topic of wisdom. Why? Because it's my own particular friend, in a way I will now explain.

One spring day when I was about ten years old, my Aunt Honey came to visit. She came into the kitchen carrying a woody shrub covered with tiny yellow flowers and declared, "This is for Cynthia."  (Avid gardeners: you will have got the joke already.)

I was elated at the unexpected gift, and I pranced all around my mother and aunt as they planted the bush directly under my window. Later in the day I said to my mother, "I'm going out to visit my bush." "Your bush?" She said. "What do you mean?" Indignantly I replied, "The one Aunt Honey brought! She said it was for Cynthia." To my surprise, my mother burst out laughing. When she could speak, she explained that it was a forsythia bush, and that it was just a coincidence that they planted it under my window.

This did not faze me: it was still my bush. In fact, it was even more my bush than before. I had gained not just one bush, but a whole world of for-Cynthia bushes. Decades later, every time I see a forsythia bush anywhere, I say, "There's one of my bushes." I have never actually planted a forsythia bush on my own property, however. If they are mine I am theirs, so if I plant one and it dies...

Wisdom is mine in the same way that forsythia is mine. When I was a kid my dad had nicknames for all of us, each of which came with a silly little song; and my nickname was guru. I think he called me this because I had developed a solid reputation as the daydreamer of the family, the one who spent most of her time staring off into space thinking about nothing in particular, the one who was always in need of a good poke in the ribs before she would respond to what was going on around her. Because of this early name, all my life I have thought about what it means to be a guru, and what gurus do, and what gurus have, which is generally always described as ... wisdom. So I think about it.

Don't hate me because I'm wise

The penultimate story about wisdom, for me, is a conversation that took place in my late 20s. At the time I was slowly recovering from my back injury and had recently jumped ship from the academic world. Out of spite mixed with desperation I had taken a job working for an older couple who owned a chain of beauty salons. I was doing their payroll while writing a payroll program for them so they wouldn't need anybody to do their payroll anymore. In the frame of mind I was in at the time, this was nihilistic enough to be satisfying. The children of my kind employers were all grown and gone, and I was lonely and short of funds, so I started staying to dinner each day after work.

One night at dinner my hosts were talking, not for the first time, about some friends or relatives of theirs, a married couple who were always at each others' throats. "You know what I think?" I said. "Some people don't know what they have when they have it." The husband looked at me for a long time, then he said: "How did you get so wise for a person so young?"

I have thought about that conversation many, many times in the twenty-plus years since then. I have never been able to figure out why he said I was wise. I didn't mean to be wise. The full and honest extent of the not-very-deep thought behind my statement was: "Gee, I wish I was married."

Another reason I keep replaying that conversation is that it keeps happening. Over the years I have been called wise, or deep or profound, more often than I find comfortable. I don't know if everybody goes around telling everybody they are wise and deep and profound all the time, but somehow I don't see it happening to other people as much as I see it happening to me. Sometimes the word seems less like a compliment and more like a taunt. If I'm so damn wise, why do I make so many stupid mistakes?

Well, the other day I finally figured it out. I was replaying the "how did you get so wise" dinner-table story on waking up, for the millionth time, and this time I finally, suddenly, saw it. It was not me that was wise. It was the situation that was wise. Wisdom wasn't something I had or did or said, it was something that happened.

Here was a married couple who had made the journey over the swamps of marital disappointment, talking about another couple who were mired in them and couldn't see their way out. And here was me, a lonely young woman longing for the promised land of married life. To me at that time marriage was nothing more than a place where I could never be lonely again. I had had enough of friends moving away and boyfriends losing interest, and I longed to be part of something that lasted. I had no way of knowing that the permanence of marriage means everything is permanent: what you choose, what you accept and what you overlook. We all happened to be in the right places to see the swamps from before, during and after. As a result, views impossible to see from the other sides of the situation were exposed, and that -- not any quality or ability of mine -- was wisdom.

Thus it also makes sense that the reason I understand the conversation now, and couldn't then, was because I am now finally on the other side of the swamps. I have been married nearly twenty years, so my view now is much like the view of my employers then. I can now finally see all the sides of the issue, so I can now finally see how the wisdom happened.

Thus, reader, I submit this question to you. What if wisdom is not a quality, either of individuals or groups? What if it is not something anyone can have or get or be or do? What if wisdom is an event?

In this context I can't help but think of that great old Pantene commercial where the woman said, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." The premise was that it was not the woman who was beautiful: it was the interaction of the woman's hair with the wonderful Pantene shampoo that was beautiful. In other words, beauty was an event, one in which we great unwashed masses could participate.

Three more tales of wisdom

After this revelation, I started thinking about other times when I've seen wisdom happen. Sometimes wisdom flowed through me to another person, in which case they said I "was" wise. Sometimes it flowed from another person into me, in which case I marveled at "their" wisdom. And sometimes the wisdom flowed from and to everyone, in which case nobody said anything about anyone "being" wise or "having" wisdom; they simply remembered the event and learned from it. So I thought, let me try and come up with one story for each of these situations and think about them.

For the first I-am-seen-as-wise story, I could use the marriage conversation above, but there is another conversation that has always puzzled me and which might work even better. When I worked at IBM Research, we often had people coming by for advice on organizational issues. Organizational studies were entirely new to me, though I did notice some useful parallels from my years studying non-human societies. Others in the group were knowledgeable about organizational affairs, so I happened to sit in quietly on a lot of conversations about knowledge management and organizational culture.

One day some people came in who were responsible for the operation of some sort of large government bureaucracy. They were looking for ways to improve their effectiveness as a "learning organization" and so on. They brought with them some sort of organizational chart, possibly with knowledge flows mapped. I can't remember exactly what it was, but it had a lot of little person icons and lines between. I didn't know enough to know what I was looking at, so I thought to myself that it looked kind of like an architectural drawing of a big old mansion, with halls and floors and wings.

They asked all of us for input on their situation. When they got to me I said, "Why don't you have any trick stairways?" "Trick what?" they said. I explained that in big old English houses they used to have all these hidden staircases, so you could get quickly from the parlor to the kitchen, or from the stables to the bath, or whatever. In old houses, trick stairways were built in because people realized that no matter what structure was set up on the surface of things, it would still be useful to circumvent that structure at times, privately and quietly. Then I said that when a lot of people work together, as people did in the big old mansions, I would presume the same needs for flexibility in structure would come up. Maybe the CEO would need to drop in on the factory floor from time to time, or the word on the street would need to drift up through the air vents, or things like that. I suggested that maybe they, as the people in charge of their edifice, might want to build some trick staircases into their mansion of bureaucratic efficiency.

Our visitors loved this idea. They got very excited about all the "trick stairways" they could create and looked at the diagram as if they had never seen it before. I was glad what I said was helpful to them. But the thing that was strange to me, and the reason I keep replaying the conversation years later, was how they kept saying how wise I was. "How in the world did you ever think of that?" they said. But I didn't think of anything at all, really. I just happen to love reading old English novels, and I thought their diagram looked like a big old English mansion. I didn't "have" wisdom, and I didn't "do" anything. I just saw the issue from a different angle because I had had different experiences. Again wisdom happened because different people saw different things, and again the wisdom was mistaken as a quality or ability rather than an event.

Second story: this one about wisdom coming to me. After I left home I went through what I now know to be fairly predictable stages of finding oneself. I was confused, lonely, arrogant, selfish, and very much afraid. At some point during this time I went to see the movie Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, was its French title). I remember coming out of the movie feeling exposed, ruined, flayed. Somehow, the woman who had made this movie had got entirely inside my life and flung it out for all to see. The film explores the tug of war between freedom and comfort, and how one always goes when the other comes. This was exactly the issue I was living with for those several years of my life, but seen from both sides and thoroughly, devastatingly explored.

Most importantly to our topic today, I came out of that movie believing that its creator (Agnes Varda) had to be the single wisest person on the planet. How in the world did she ever think of it? Even as I write this, as hard as I try, I still cannot think of Varda in any way but as a giant of wisdom, alongside whom my meagre fund of insight buzzes like a gnat.

But still, the wisdom was not necessarily in Agnes Varda. It was in the juxtaposition of what she had experienced and what I was experiencing. One essay I found about the movie says that it was inspired in part by Varda's experiences with a young woman she "met on the road." So again: an issue is important, critical, to someone; one person sees it from one side of experience, one from another; the communication of experiences creates an event that is wisdom. When we place the wisdom on the person, we are wrong. It belongs on the juxtaposition. This may also be why people disagree about who is wise and who is not wise. To me Varda is only surpassed by Dostoyevsky in wisdom; but to many others those people created burdensome, irritating things of trivial import, while others have possessed absolute wisdom. If wisdom is not a quality but an event, we are all correct in our assessments.

Let me ask you this: If there was a person who knew everything there was to know about life, the universe and everything, but that person absolutely refused to share what they knew with anyone, would we call that person wise? No. Knowledgeable, learned, but not wise. Wisdom is not transmitted through interaction; wisdom is interaction.

Third story. As promised this is one in which nobody can possibly be seen as an originator or owner of wisdom. In college I drove half an hour to school. One winter day I drove onto the on-ramp to the highway, only to find a large barrier blocking my way onto the highway itself. I can't remember why the road was blocked, but it was probably a sheet of ice, as it often was in winter. There was nothing I could do but turn around and drive back out of the on-ramp, slowly and carefully.

Halfway back I met a police officer in his car. He stopped, rolled down his window, and issued a blaring tirade at me for driving the wrong way on an on-ramp. I was so stunned -- knowing that if he only turned his head a few degrees he would see the barrier not one hundred feet in front of him -- that I could only sit there with my mouth hanging open. By the time I summoned the thought to speak or point, he had rolled up his window and driven angrily off. I watched his car in my rear-view mirror as he drove to the barrier, stopped, and turned around. When he got back to me he stopped, rolled down his window, and issued an apology as vehement as his tirade of blame. I still said nothing, because what was there to say? Then we both drove off out of the on-ramp, slowly and carefully.

I often think of that incident when I catch myself about to jump to a conclusion based on inadequate evidence. I consider the memory of this event to be a great source of wisdom in my life. But nobody "had" the wisdom, and nobody "was" wise, and nobody "did" anything wise. The wisdom just happened, and again it happened because we saw different things.

Conditions of wisdom

I have been thinking back through many other examples of times when I have seen wisdom happen, and I have been thinking about what conditions have been common in such situations. I have come up with six conditions under which wisdom can happen. In any happening of wisdom at least one of these things is going on, and usually more than one. Briefly, they are as follows.

Juxtaposed experiences. When people who have had differing experiences surrounding a unifying theme or topic come together in some way, wisdom sometimes happens. My dinner-table story features this type of event, as does my on-ramp story. This condition seems to me to be more important than the others (so far). You will have noticed that the juxtaposition of experiences leads naturally into the telling and hearing of stories. This is exactly why story books like the I Ching are known as "books of wisdom." The wisdom is not in the book itself; it is in what happens when you read it. This is true for every good collection of stories, but especially so for stories about your own community or organization.

Juxtaposed manners of thinking. When people who habitually view issues and problems from different perspectives, based on personality, background, and beliefs, come together in some way, wisdom sometimes happens. Other less desirable things are also likely to happen, like prejudice and jealousy and anger, but I never said wisdom happened all by itself. In folk tales wise people are often those who turn "conventional wisdom" on its head and look at problems with new eyes. But if their way was the only way they would not be wise, would they? It is the difference, the juxtaposition, that matters.

Well-placed ignorance. When people who know little or nothing about a topic become mixed up in it, wisdom sometimes happens. They may be allowed to do this, or encouraged, or they may just blunder in unwanted; but they get mixed up in it. My trick-stairways story fits best here. All "from the mouths of babes" stories such as "The Emperor's New Clothes" also satisfy this condition. Jerzy Kozinski's great story "Being There" is a treatise on the ways in which wisdom can flow from well-placed ignorance.

Communication. Wisdom cannot happen when it is impossible for people to communicate juxtaposed experiences, manners of thinking, and useful ignorance. Communication has to take place on two levels. People have to speak, and people have to convene. When people cannot or do not come together into the same space, it doesn't matter what they say. Then, when they do come together, what they say begins to matter. In my dinner-table story, I first had dinner with my employers. I was not, say, segregated away from them by age or gender. Then, when I said, "You know what I think?" I paused to see to see if my friends wanted to hear what I had to say. If they had indicated disinterest, no wisdom would have taken place. Similarly in every other story, if there had been no way for the juxtaposed elements to communicate with each other, no wisdom could have happened.

Well-placed curiosity. If wisdom is poised to enter and the door is closed, the circuit cannot complete and wisdom cannot flow. In a state of incuriosity we keep our doors closed, and we hunker down in our houses of what-is, never venturing out to see what else could be out there. In this state all connections are impossible, and no positions are juxtapositions. But please, let's not make the mistake of labeling people as wholly curious or incurious: we are all both. I am curious about many things, and I avoid curiosity about many things. I don't see a problem with this: sometimes hunkering down is called for. The danger lies not in lacking curiosity but in being unaware of it. That's why this condition is not curiosity in general, but curiosity in context.

Reflection. The last thing I have observed about wisdom happening is that it does not happen when nobody ever ruminates over anything. Wisdom needs to bounce around inside us as well as between us. The wisdom I felt happening when I saw Vagabond took place because Agnes Varda met a homeless girl, reflected on the experience, and wrote a movie; and that movie reverberated throughout my own reflections about freedom and comfort. When nobody ever ponders anything, either because they have no slack time for it, or the culture does not permit it, or they simply don't have the habit of it, wisdom is less likely to happen.

I started writing longer sections about each of these conditions, and about how people in organizations can improve them to consciously create greater flows of wisdom. But I stopped, because the post was stretching on for too long. Also, I am unsure whether it would be useful to people to have these points expanded. I could expand each of these out into a blog post, but I won't do it unless somebody says they want me to. (Meaning, I am saying "You know what I think?" then pausing to see how you respond.)

Wise people

So finally I come back to the question of what makes a person wise. I can think of three ways in which a person can become involved with wisdom.

A wisdom whisperer is somebody who consciously knows how to create the conditions under which wisdom happens. The great intuitive organizers of people belong in this category: facilitators who can take a roomful of strangers and help them reach new heights of insight; negotiators who can defuse explosive situations with the right whisper in the right ear; motivators who can get the least interested people involved and excited.

A wisdom starter is somebody who unconsciously creates the conditions under which wisdom happens, because their personality or background - just who they are - causes them to spread the conditions around them as they move along. These people are like the little girl in the movie Firestarter who started fires everywhere she went, for no reason she herself understood. Some people are just put together in ways that create conditions of wisdom around them, and just by "being there" they hold up a mirror that makes everyone see themselves anew.

A wisdom wayfarer is a person who keeps finding themselves in places where wisdom happens, but not because they make it happen. They just fall into it. These are the people who get caught between the giant grinding gears of historical change, are seized by their situations, and find themselves compelled to play a role they would not have chosen for themselves. These people are sometimes said to have been "born at the right time" or destined for some purpose, but they themselves may feel trapped in the wisdom they experience. Krishnamurti comes to mind as such a person: he was selected as a child to be a spiritual leader, and when he later tried to spread the message that having spiritual leaders was futile and that people should think for themselves, people only listened because he was a spiritual leader.

I think I am starting to understand my frustrations about being called wise. When I try to explain to myself my involvement in the happenings of wisdom, I can see that I am mostly in the starter category. First, compared to most people I know I have had more varied experiences than most, because I've changed careers relatively often. I've been a scientist, software designer, organizational consultant, what next, who knows? Second, my manners of thinking are sufficiently different from the norm (reclusive, nocturnal, apparently absurdly reflective) as to be uncomfortable, thus probably real. Third, I am famous for my willing ignorance, well or poorly placed, as evidenced by the arrogance of this essay itself (am I an expert in this? have I read the proper volumes?). Fourth, I mentioned the absurd need for reflection, which is where the nickname came from that started me on this journey of reflection. And I am dangerously curious. The only condition that does not fit is communication. If I were to communicate more (like, say, finish the damn book) perhaps more wisdom would flow in my vicinity. We shall see. I would say that wisdom-starter elements account for about 75% of the accusations of wisdom I have encountered; wayfaring the other 25%; and actual conscious creation of wisdom, none at all.

Therein lies the answer to my decades-long conundrum. Because people think of wisdom as an ability, they attribute all manifestations of wisdom that appear around any person as deliberate actions. But much of the wisdom that happens is not consciously created. It is an emergent property of circumstance. Some people, because of the way they are or where they are or both, live in wisdom without meaning anything by it. Thus they feel strange when someone calls them wise (or deep or profound), as though someone had praised them for their height or eye color. If you are one of these people, these reflections might be helpful to you. If you have wanted to "be" wise and have not perceived yourself thus, maybe you "are" wise in ways you had not realized. I find it liberating to think of wisdom as an event, because it converts wisdom from something that distinguishes us into something that brings us together. I begin to look for it in new places.

To bring this essay together into some sort of conclusion, here is my proposition to you. I believe that an increase in the habit of thinking of wisdom as an event rather than an ability or attribute might lead to a corresponding increase in the number of events of wisdom in the world. Do you agree?


WalterRSmith said...

What I'm hearing is that wisdom is primarily relational ... reminded me of Proverbs 111:10 ("The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom").
Not sure I heard much about "beginning" ... could be "source" or could be catalyst for emergence or ??? ... :-)

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Walter: Thanks so much for your comment. If it seems I have been ignoring it by not responding sooner, that's only partly true. Partly I have been thinking about it.

As I understand it the "fear of the Lord" is not really fear like fear of a burglar. It's more like awe mixed with respect. In that sense it makes sense to connect it with the juxtaposition I talk about in the post. You could say that contact with the numinous is juxtaposition writ large, and that it is only when you approach that juxtaposition with the right frame of mind that you can be in a position to gain its benefits. That is probably true for all juxtapositions that result in wisdom: seeds sown on rocky soil bear no fruit. That connects to the need for curiosity I listed. You could say that curiosity is akin to awe, in both being ways to reach out, or across, to something different than oneself.

Thanks for the connection and insight, Walter.