It’s hard to say exactly what wisdom is. Just as it’s hard to say what a chameleon is. ‘Surely it’s not difficult with a chameleon. Look, there’s one – that blue old-world kind of lizard. And another one – oh, oddly that one’s yellow. Maybe, then, yellow ones are not chameleons… Wait a minute, there’s something else that looks like a chameleon but it’s green. Too confusing. I’ll stick with the blue one. But hang on a minute. It’s not blue any more – it’s red.’
Of course, as most know, chameleons have a remarkable ability to change colour – using various combinations of pink, blue, red, orange, green, black, brown, light blue, yellow, turquoise, and purple. Sometimes they change to camouflage themselves, sometimes to regulate their temperature, sometimes to look aggressive to predators, and some may even use colour to signal to other chameleons. All that variety makes it hard to say what colour a chameleon is. But, of course, there’s something at the core – the DNA – that is always chameleon.
I think of wisdom like that. Dictionaries can use words like ‘experience’ or ‘knowledge’ about wisdom, but they just describe how wisdom appears, like blue or red is how a chameleon might appear.
When we’re talking about wisdom we have to be content with that. In the last blog I wrote that wisdom is something which is practised, in other words the way wisdom shows itself. We see attitudes and actions we recognise as wise. So, this time, I have listed five characteristics of wise people.
They use knowledge well
My son sent me a concise example of that: ‘Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.’ Hard to argue with that.
Knowledge is usually a wonderful thing to have, but wisdom happens when we do good with what we know.
So, I know my car could reach 100 mph, but I’m foolish if I go that fast. And I know I could simply pick up and cut down a (small) tree with my electric chainsaw, but I’m an idiot if I don’t put on protective gear before using the chainsaw. And, when the children were very young, I knew they’d go anywhere I took them, but I’d have been reckless to run across a busy road hoping they’d follow safely.
Wisdom is not simply about having knowledge, but about doing good with knowledge.
They have strong self-awareness
The Apostle Paul wrote this: ‘Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…’ (Romans 12:3)
If only Bonnie Prince Charlie had had such wisdom. In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart crossed from France to Scotland believing he’d get massive support across Britain to restore the Stuart monarchy. He had early success, winning battles and taking troops into England as far south as Derby. But support in England was low, and Charlie withdrew his army back to Scotland. On 16 April, 1746, two armies confronted each other on a rugged moorland at Culloden, near Inverness: the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the British government army under the leadership of the Duke of Cumberland. The day ended with a rout of the Jacobite army, Charles fleeing the battlefield, eventually escaping to the western highlands and islands, and then by ship back to France.
Why such a defeat? As with all battles, there were many factors and still many opinions. But one is that Charles wanted to prove his skills as commander rather than let his generals get the glory. But he took exhausted men into battle after a failed overnight mission, then waited while many were cut down by enemy artillery fire before hand-to-hand fighting had begun. His chosen battleground was boggy and unsuited to the ‘Highland charge’ which in other places had overwhelmed the enemy. The day was decisively lost, with many dead and wounded. Afterwards Jacobites were hunted throughout Scotland and many put to death. Bonnie Prince Charlie was welcomed back in France, but his later life was not good: he had several affairs, fathered illegitimate children, and became an alcoholic. He died in Rome in 1788, aged 67.
Forty two years earlier, at Culloden, he believed he was a better leader than he really was. It was disastrous for him and his supporters. Wise people exercise sober judgment.
They treat others well
One style of management centres on the willingness of a boss to perch himself on the edge of a colleague’s desk and simply talk. Not a business meeting; not a conversation with an agenda. Just a chance to get to know the staff member, who they are as well as what they do. Perhaps ground-level insights about the business will emerge, but the fundamental purpose is just to be interested. That style of leadership can be overdone, of course. An employee desperately trying to finish a project before a deadline won’t appreciate a chat about last Saturday’s football. But valuing people, knowing them, being interested in their views – that’s wisdom.
It’s even good for people’s health. Apparently research shows there’s great value in direct interaction with colleagues because it releases hormones which improve mood, trust and the ability to learn and remember. The same doesn’t happen via video, messages or emails.
It makes sense that the more you know someone the more able you are to work together. My guess is that there would also be fewer fights between neighbours if they were friends rather than just ‘the people who live next door’.
They have good instincts
In the last blog I mentioned King Solomon’s prayer: ‘…give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.’ (1 Kings 3:9) God answered that prayer, and from then until now Solomon has been thought of as one of the wisest people who ever lived.
Two parts of that prayer relate to good instincts. One is to have a discerning heart and the other the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
To discern is to see something clearly, perhaps to have a sure grasp of facts, or perhaps what we call a ‘sixth sense’, an ability to know something without using the five ordinary senses.
To distinguish between right and wrong seems clear. Often it is. But not always. Situations can be ambiguous. Someone’s hurt and I’m driving them to the hospital. If I exceed the speed limit they’ll get help more quickly, but if I exceed the speed limit I might cause an accident, more injuries and possibly deaths. What do I do? Or, another example, a colleague’s language is borderline racist or misogynist. His words aren’t directed at me, but I’m offended and others could be seriously harmed. Do I report him? Do I try and correct him? Either of those will end my relationship with him, but if I do nothing his inappropriate language will continue and do real damage.
In both these examples I could argue the case for either course of action. I hope I’d end up doing whatever my instinct told me was right in the specific circumstances. Like Solomon I’d be praying for discernment and to know what would be right and what would be wrong. Wisdom is having an instinct for hard-to-resolve issues that occur constantly in our lives.
They have more than one speed
No-one should drive like my aunt whose top speed on all roads – all roads – was 25mph. She was dangerous.
But my meaning here isn’t about speed in that sense. Rather, they should be people who look before leaping, and leap after looking. I’ll explain.
There are foolish people who charge through life without taking time to think about what’s ahead. Ivor was like that. He’d have an idea for a new business, borrow money, buy equipment, and rent office space… But what he never did was research the business potential. Were there clients for his services? Were there customers for his products? Again and again he rushed headlong into ‘new opportunities’, but each business failed with serious financial consequences. Ivor had bright ideas, but constantly leapt without looking. (Jesus had words about that kind of folly – the person who began to build but wasn’t able to finish – see Luke 14:28-30.) Wise people look before they leap.
But I also said wise people leap after looking. Of course that statement depends on what you learn from looking. If you stand on the bank of a raging river, look carefully at how far it is to the other side, and realise it’s twice as far as an Olympic long-jumper could cover, then you’re an idiot to attempt even your best leap. You’ll be swept away.
Of course you can’t always leap. But it’s foolish to never leap.
When I left school I went straight into journalism with The Scotsman, which was considered the premier newspaper in Scotland. I was a good reporter, and after two or three years was trusted with being the only journalist on duty on a late shift or on Saturdays. The pay was good. The work was varied and interesting. I saw a great career path ahead. And then I left. I gave it all up. I sensed another direction would be right for my life, so spent many years studying, became a church minister and later headed up major Christian organisations. Like now, it was hard to get into journalism, especially on a national paper, and some of my colleagues in the newspaper office must have thought me mad to leave. Perhaps family and friends did too. But I knew what I was doing. I’d ‘looked’ and now it was time to ‘leap’. It was the right thing – the wise thing – to do.
I’ll finish here for this blog piece. There’s more to say about wisdom, and I’ll try to do that next time.
For now I’ll close with more wise words from the Bible:
Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 3:13-15)
 Bonnie Prince Charlie’s full name was: Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart. Aren’t you glad you’ve never had to write anything like that on an official form?