On Wisdom

Our culture is depleted of wisdom and direction. Rich in entertainment and distraction, it provides us with tools for immediate gratification constantly at our fingertips, making it easy for us to gloss over the essential. The constant deluge of media fills gaps: the gaps of boredom that birth creativity, the gaps between expectations and disappointments, and the gaps in discomfort that precede growth. We numb, or at least dull, our experience of being human. We soften the edges of powerful emotion through avoidance. We escape from the messy world through TV shows, Facebook, Instagram stories, or the endless scrolls of content on news websites.

Look at the world around us, at the chaos, decay of political integrity, senseless violence, and injustice. We need to temper it all with inspiration. We need to find pockets of quiet and rest to keep engaging, to keep moving forward. Sometimes being online or watching TV can help lighten worldly heaviness when those tools are used in moderation as a sweet antidote to life and work, not as a replacement for human connection, introspection, or moments of quiet. We know that screens harm our capacity for empathy. Our phones take us out of the present moment and away from one another.

What is happening around us is frightening. Our never-ending access to information has engendered not only an expectation of immediacy. It has also encouraged a sense of hyper vigilance. Did you hear what happened in X city? is enough to send everyone within a ten-foot radius running for their phones to check the news, expecting and bracing for the worst, making sure their loved ones are safe.

We have been conditioned by this world and its myopic responses in politics and to tragedy. By spending endless hours online, even reading accurate, responsible news sources, we are not learning how to engage in ways that will heal the social wounds of our time. Although our generation is more inclusive, more open-minded, more awake than previous generations, I worry about how we will weather the storms of the decades to come in this world where newness, ease, and speed are valued first. If we do not have touchstones of insight and wisdom within reach, how can we lead with integrity?

The institutions that have traditionally brought people together, like churches, are seeing membership and attendance rapidly declining. Religion is designed to help human beings examine and cope with mystery, to encourage compassion and cultivate wisdom. However, many I know have had disillusioning experiences with the religion of their birth, particularly Christianity.

Christianity in its purest form – even with ritual, which can be incredibly beautiful—should encourage respect for the unknown and espouse love without exceptions. Instead, it has been reduced to a practice that rebuffs mystery and does not make space for the most puzzling human questions. How do we come to terms with our inevitable death? What is the nature of grace? How can we cultivate joy in our lives? How could a loving God be present to immense human suffering? Is God still speaking in the midst of this?

Higher education, too, traditionally has examined existential questions and provided pastoral and moral guidance for its students. However, not only are private universities financially unattainable, the humanities – the discipline dedicated to understanding human nature, art, and the soul—are seen as a poor financial choice or a waste of time. I cannot tell you the number of times I had this conversation as a student of literature: You’re studying English? Are you going to be a teacher?? No, actually, I don’t think so. Well, then, what are you going to do with your life???

There is no doubt that studying Economics, Engineering, or Computer Science leads to better employment outcomes after graduation. My friends who chose those paths during their undergraduate tenure were making more money during their first year out of college than I was, making progress on paying off their loans, had stable health insurance, etc. That was a smart choice for many of them, a choice I envied from time to time. However, those disciplines are dedicated to progress in narrow ways. If we continue to elevate that which is trendy, new, fast, easy, quantitative, we will lose that which is mystical, poetic, philosophical, and True. We will no longer raise purveyors of wisdom in our society: the artists, writers, teachers, philosophers, monks, and healers. A society cannot function without wisdom underpinning it and without people who witness beauty or observe injustice and show it to everyone else. A society cannot evolve to become a more equitable, peaceful place without individuals who bring principle and beauty into public life.

Our culture is ailing and wounded in many ways that require swift response to stop the bleeding. Our culture will also continue to suffer, though, if we do not begin to think ahead. We need some preventative medicine: vaccinations for the soul. We need regular injections of wisdom that help us all – no matter our professions or profiles—act with more compassion and grace.

We can each make space for introspection and inspiration in our daily life. Meditation, prayer, journaling, exercise, whatever resonates, can preserve the needed gaps of quiet to birth renewed clarity. We need to protect the gaps to ask the right questions about human life, God, and culture. We need to create the space to rest from the turning, busy world.

Collectively we need injections of wisdom in public spaces, too. We get injections of everything else in the public world through advertising, media, and tech development. This erodes the creative, spiritual, and emotional parts of us. What if we spent more energy creating a humanist culture, one that focuses on treating the human soul first? One that cares about the effect its content has on people and communities? One that believes that human nature is fundamentally good and therefore there should be more goodness reflected in public life?

We have to be prepared as a generation to take on sociopolitical work with more integrity than what is being modeled for us now. We should seek to raise the coming generations to seek wisdom, honor history, value truth, and practice respect. Do we want to continue a culture of consumerism, of encouraging vapidity, of espousing hyper masculinity, of disconnection? Or do we want to engage in the hard work of creating a culture of heartfulness, of integrity, of wisdom, of responsibility? It is a collective, tough-as-nails mission. Wisdom requires more than tech startups and new branding and strategic research. Wisdom requires qualitative change in our public spaces that draws upon humankind’s most ancient and essential pursuits, change that includes injections of philosophy, art, religion, literature, and community into common life. The humanities speak to the soul and the human condition. They evoke kindness, tenderness, joy, consolation, respect, and clarity, inspiring us to be better versions of ourselves. This transformative work begins, for our generation, now.