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6 April 2010

Response to Copthorne Macdonald

In thinking a lot about wisdom lately, and relating it to my own life, I found a particular section in Copthorne Macdonald's book, Getting a Life, to really interest me. In chapter 20, speaking on "Real Happiness," Macdonald touches on the appropriate way to deal with "an impulse of fear, anger, hate, or craving" that we feel at any given time (104). He later adds, "If we let the feelings remain without reacting to them — allowing them to stay, simply as messages on the notice-board of mind — they soon fade away completely" (104). Something I would've liked to have asked Macdonald if there had been more time in our Skype session, is how exactly I could go about doing just that.

My whole life, I've been the sort of person who doesn't think before speaking. I've yet to master the concept of "biting my tongue" and, especially lately, it seems to be causing many problems. As much as I might like to change this characteristic about myself, I feel as though I wouldn't be satisfied simply lettings things go rather than reacting to them. When someone wrongs me, either by lying or something different, I get my closure by having the last word. I always wonder if that person even knows they have done something wrong. I don't want to take the chance that I walk away from the situation leaving the other person thinking he/she was right. I realize this shouldn't matter. I should know that by me doing the right thing, that's all that counts. But it does matter. I'm wondering if there is a way to teach myself to react the way Macdonald suggests, or perhaps this is a type of wisdom that comes with age.

Another question I would've liked to ask the wisdom expert is if "studying" wisdom makes a person wiser. By learning about knowledge and what it really takes to gain wisdom and be a wise person, does this automatically make someone wise? I seem to think I can research all I want to on the subject, but unless I practice it, I'm not really gaining any wisdom at all. Macdonald mentioned during our Skype chat that he's been expanding on his knowledge as he ages. With that being said, is it even possible for a twenty-year-old college student to be wise? Of course we all think we are, but without more life experience and lessons through learning, I struggle to say that any one of us could actually be wise just yet. Though there are people my age who have done some pretty incredible things already in their life, they still have so much more room to grow. My grandparents are the wisest people I know. I don't think it's just a coincidence that they also happen to be the oldest people I know.

The subject of wisdom is an interesting one. No matter what I do, I don't think I'd ever call myself wise. I could make a smart choice every now and then, but "wise" is a trait I'd never use to describe myself even on the most self-confident of days. Though maybe in fifty years I'll think differently.

April, 14 2010

Dear Hannah,

Well, you did get a chance to ask your really great questions after all, and I'll respond the best I can.

First of all, I see wisdom as a continuum with really clueless and foolish at one and exceptionally wise at the other. Almost all of us are somewhere in between. We all have some of the qualities associated with wisdom, developed to a certain degree. You'd probably agree that most 20 year-olds are wiser than most 12 year olds. But as you say, this increase in wisdom has come out of additional life experience, and most importantly, making sense of that experience. I wouldn't expect any 20-year old to be as wise as an elder such as the grandparents you think so highly of. But although life experience is a necessary condition for wisdom, it is not sufficient. Older people, too, can be found at many places along that wisdom continuum. University of Florida wisdom researcher Monika Ardelt has studied older people, and she has observed that the wisest among them are people who have met serious challenges in their lives and overcome or transcended them. We all face life crises and difficult situations. Dealing with them in a positive way and going beyond them develops wisdom. Being diminished by them and retreating into feelings of victimhood does not.

Does studying wisdom make a person wiser? Maybe yes; maybe no. What I was attempting to do when I wrote Getting a Life was simply to get people thinking about a variety of common life situations and skillful and not-so-skillful ways of dealing with them. It was intended to be a mind-stirring book, and that is the way Dr. Nordstrom has been using it in the personal writing course. Cop doesn't have all the answers, but the life situations and issues I focused on are ones that most of us will encounter at some point in our lives. My assumption was that a little pre-need thinking about these things might be helpful.

How do we just remain with feelings without reacting to them? We do it by developing a sense of separateness or detachment between the observing quality of mind - awareness, subjective sensitivity, the sentient ground of mind, the subjective me — and the brain-generated informational content of mind: perceptions, emotions, thoughts, feelings. And how do we do that? We do it by spending a lot of time just quietly watching how our mind works. Meditation is the general name applied to techniques for doing that. In another of my books, Toward Wisdom, I go into this at some length. If you don't mind reading on a computer screen, it is available for free download at

The Rollins bookstore may still have printed copies of it. Also on The Wisdom Page is a guided mindfulness meditation in streaming audio form. Listening to it would give you a taste of the practice. It's at

Regarding the biting my tongue / having the last word issue, there are no doubt situations where each is the most appropriate course of action. But to the extent that decisions about what to say are guided by wisdom, and not just knee-jerk reactions, the "many problems" you are experiencing at present would likely become fewer. Wisdom is not just aerie-faerie stuff. It is intensely practical and down to earth. Among the important characteristics of wisdom are that

  • wisdom takes context into account (What will the ramifications be if I say this),

  • wisdom cares about the feelings of others (Will saying this be hurtful? Is there a non-hurtful way to get my point across? ).

Meditation practice can help develop that little pause between impulse and action which can allow "sober second thought" to intervene.

Again, thanks so much for your letter and those great questions.

All the best,