Even more wisdom

Dictionaries struggle to define the word ‘love’. Because it’s not a ‘thing’ it’s hard to describe, so dictionaries use phrases such as ‘strongly liking another person’ and also talk about romance. Not exactly comprehensive. But, since you can’t put love under a microscope you can’t analyse its constituent elements. You can only talk about how love is felt or shown, especially when that love is between people. (Loving your job, your house, your garden, even your dog, isn’t quite the same.)

Describing wisdom is as problematic as describing love. You can’t sum up wisdom with a word or phrase; instead you give examples of wise decisions or actions. That’s what I’ve done in the last two blogs, and this one isn’t different.

I’ve listed six categories in which wisdom matters. I could have listed 16, and by next week even more. But one I’ve listed here is about knowing when to stop, and I will stop writing about wisdom (at least for a long time) after this blog.

Here goes with (hopefully) even more wisdom.


Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynic was ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.[1]

It’s a great line, and likely true concerning many people. The second half is disturbing: that, someone could know many things but know nothing about their value. Not know where worth really lies. Not know what’s truly important.

Wise people don’t make that mistake. They understand what matters, and they prioritise and pursue those things rather than the trivial and ephemeral, things that are unimportant and don’t last.

I’ve been privileged to pour myself into work that has deeply affected people’s lives, both in the UK and many other countries. I have seen some people change; others, scattered around the world, I simply knew about through friends and colleagues.

Not everyone can have jobs aimed directly at transforming and improving lives. Sadly, some have hated their jobs. Their work, it seemed to them, contributed nothing other to boost the profits of a large multinational corporation. Why did they not find other employment? They didn’t leave because they were well paid. One was so well paid he had three cars: a Jaguar, a Porsche, and a Maserati. And he bought a ranch as well. I’m not suggesting cars or a ranch are ‘sinful’ – just that directing your life towards accumulating wealth or owning ‘things’ produces no lasting worth.

Wise people know where value really lies, and set their goals accordingly.


My mother started smoking in her mid teens, a long time before the general population had any idea that cigarettes were harmful. My father probably started around then too, but never smoked heavily except perhaps during World War II when he was in the army. As my brother and I were growing up, mum and dad both discouraged us from smoking because ‘it causes shortness of breath’. But – unknown to them – smoking was much more serious than that. It was killing them. My mother’s heart was badly affected, and she died aged 55. My dad immediately stopped smoking but that couldn’t eradicate the damage already done. He had a massive heart attack when 64, and survived it, probably because he was already in hospital and got immediate attention. He reached 79, and then died of a second heart attack. Our most favourite aunt – my mum’s sister – smoked all her adult life, and she died aged 74.

You’ll gather I have strong feelings about the harm cigarettes do to the human body. Thankfully I took my parents’ advice and never smoked, not even once.

This paragraph isn’t meant to be a rant about cigarettes, but a statement that wise people take good care of their health. At a minimum that’ll involve a good diet and exercise. I married well, and Alison ensures we eat only what’s good for us. Diet: tick. And we walk our dogs up and down hills every day, and Alison is a committed gardener while I play golf two or three times a week. Exercise: tick.

I spoke at a large conference in the north of Scotland, a talk during which I said we should care for our health to avoid hastening death. One man came to me straight afterwards, anxious to persuade me that we can’t hasten our deaths. We can die only when God has ordained it. My answer was along the lines that God has ordained that we care for the bodies he’s gifted us so we can fulfil all the potential he’s invested in us. That man and I didn’t argue, but also didn’t agree. Oddly, we stayed in touch, became friends and that led to the publishing of four of my books.

Whether we believe our bodies are gifts of God, wisdom dictates we care well for them. Damage your body at your peril. You can’t trade it in for a replacement.


I have attended many retirement events, at which we celebrated people’s long service and achievements. At the end the retirees would speak. Almost always they’d say that if they had it all to do over again, they’d give less time to their work and more to their family. It seems their children had grown up strangers to them. I vowed to never have to give that speech. Certainly Alison and the family made sacrifices because of my work, but we all survived, and now our grown-up children are our best friends. We get on great. Whatever wisdom helped that happen, I’m grateful for it.


Image in public domain

In the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, there’s a short scene that influenced me significantly. Lawrence is doubting he can continue leading Arab tribes in battles against the Turks during World War I. Exhausted and emotionally troubled, Lawrence considers giving up the fight. Then the top general challenges him with words like these: ‘Many go through life with no awareness of a destiny. But it is a terrible thing to have a destiny, and not to fulfil it.’ Those words stir Lawrence, lift him from his depression and weariness, and he presses on to win significant battles.

The words in the film were probably the work of a script-writer and not original. Yet they captured Lawrence’s situation, and impacted me when I was worn down. I knew I had a calling, a destiny, and it hit me freshly that it would be terrible not to fulfil it.

My guess is that most people don’t think of having a ‘destiny’ for their lives. The word sounds grandiose. But many do have some sense of purpose or opportunity. There is something they could do and should do. It would be terrible to reach old age and suddenly realise they’ve left it too late to do what they’ve always believed they were in this world to do. A wise person thinks early on about their purpose and potential, and moves steadily towards that goal.

Starting and stopping

I’ve always been tempted to take on more things than I can handle. Giving in to that temptation inevitably leads to stress and incompetence – stress, because we’re overworked; incompetence, because there’s only so many things we can do well.

But most of us are under constant pressure: to join a committee, take on a task, support a good cause. I’ve been asked to lend a hand – it sounded so innocuous – ‘I just need a little help with a project…’ Before long I was doing the project and he’d gone fishing.

Perhaps the only way to have a quiet life is to be hopelessly incompetent, because then no-one asks you to do anything.

Incompetence, though, is a bad solution. Rather, the wise person considers whether a new thing is a right thing.

To be a right thing, three conditions have to be met, best done by asking ourselves questions:

  1.  Does this thing fit with the particular gifts or abilities I have? Most of us could do all sorts of things, but there are some things we’re particularly good at. Those things – which especially fit our skill-set – are likely to be the tasks we should take on.
  2. Should someone else be doing the new task? Many things can be done by many people, so this task doesn’t specifically require me. Just because I could do it doesn’t mean I should do it. Beware those who say, ‘You’re the only one I could ask’ because the real truth may be that ‘You’re the only one I have asked’. Some people don’t look far afield when enrolling help. Don’t be a soft touch.
  3. Can you stop doing other things in order to do the new thing? There’s a saying, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’ – because they’re the kind of person who’ll say ‘yes’ when asked to help. But that’s exploitation. They hate to say ‘no’, so soon become overloaded. Unless, that is, they let other things go. I wrote an earlier blog under the heading Necessary Endings (available in Archives, April 11, 2021). I’d been helped by a book with that title by Henry Cloud, a clinical psychologist. He sums up his message early on: ‘…the tomorrow that you desire and envision may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today.’ Wise people limit their work so they can work well. And survive their workload.


One of our dog behaviour books tells us that far beyond any other kind of treat, the greatest motivator for a dog is praise. Lots of enthusiastic ‘Good boy’ ‘Good girl’ ‘Well done’ statements with gentle stroking is key to good dog behaviour. Humans need appreciation too.

I can think of a boss – not one I ever had, thankfully – who was never grateful for what any of his staff did. No recognition of excellence; no recognition of working all hours to get a project finished. Their work was taken for granted; no need for thanks. But if a project went wrong or was late, he flew into a temper and raged at his staff even if the problem had nothing to do with them. You can guess what that boss’s bullying and ungrateful behaviour did to his staff: how little they enjoyed their work; how much they dreaded what might lie ahead as they walked through the office door each morning; how demotivated they were about continuing in that employment.

A wise person is an appreciative person, someone who says ‘you did a great job’. If we can’t appreciate people we’re in the wrong job. Recognising worth and sharing praise is rarely dwelt on in management books, but, done sincerely, appreciation bonds a team and builds achievement.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs says ‘fools despise wisdom’ (ch.1:7). And the New Testament book of James says ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’ (ch.1:5). So, fools reject wisdom. But those with a little wisdom can seek more, which God will give. I agree – I’d be a fool not to.

[1] Spoken by Lord Darlington, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, a play first performed in 1892. Wilde wrote the play while living in the English Lake District, hence the source of the name Windermere.