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Toward Wisdom   by Copthorne Macdonald


This book is about wisdom and the process of becoming wise. It has its roots in two major turning points in my life. The first dates back 25 years, to a time when I was just leaving my 20s and entering my 30s. I was, in those days, a corporate design engineer and engineering manager with a very narrow outlook on life. I cringe as I recall my self-assured smugness, the absolute confidence I had that technology was the center of all that mattered. I saw everything else as some kind of frill, as some variety of missing the mark. Kenneth Rexroth recognized me and my kind; he called us the "technical intelligentsia." He also called us "Neanderthals with slide rules."

A corporate management seminar was the unlikely place where the first seeds of change were planted. It was there that I was introduced to Abraham Maslow's theory of motivation and psychological growth. I found Maslow's concept of self-actualization exciting, and for the next decade the idea of "becoming all I'm capable of becoming" was the focus of my life.

I spent that decade, my 30s, discovering, adventuring, and watching my outlook broaden. I began with a year of intensive reading (Camus, Sartre, Kazantzakis, Hesse, Maslow, and others) and then began a series of outward-oriented adventures. Electronic art was the first exploration; that was followed by three years in Manhattan as Director of Research for a small electronics company. Next came a 13-month backpack trip around the world. During that trip the foreignness of other places and people vanished, and I developed concerns about third world problems and the well-being of our planet. These concerns led to involvement in the alternatives movement of the '70s, writing magazine articles and columns, and changing countries. At the end of the decade I heeded the advice of both feminism and brain-hemisphere theory and took steps to develop the nurturing side of myself. I worked awhile as a hospital orderly, and then with the elderly.

The second turning point came at age 41 when I attended a 12-day meditation retreat and my mind became still and quiet for the first time in my adult life. When I left that retreat the world was the same old world, but my way of looking at it had changed profoundly. I had begun an inward-oriented adventure. The investigation prompted by that first retreat occupied much of the next 15 years — and still continues. During those years I read hundreds of books and scientific articles, and spent several thousand hours doing various types of meditative practice. The goal of both endeavors was to arrive at satisfying answers to some fundamental questions: "What is going on?" "What's it all about?" and "What am I to do about it?" The search was always for explanations that rang true both intuitively and intellectually. In a sense, this book is a status report on the investigation to date.

The book began to take form when I started to see my quarter century of adventure, experience, and insight in the context of wisdom and the growth of wisdom. For one thing, I realized that whole-person development was one of the keys to becoming wise: development of both intellect and intuition, analysis and synthesis, left brain hemisphere and right. For another, I realized that many facets of the world problematique — biosphere degradation, resource depletion, and the continuing follies of war and terrorism — could be attributed to a serious lack of wisdom on the part of both power-wielders and ordinary folk.

Many of us are knowledgeable, but few of us are wise. During this century, industrial society helped us become the most knowledgeable populace in history. Some of us applied our knowledge to the creation of powerful technologies. All of us have used those technologies to create comfortable lives for ourselves. Our intentions were usually honorable in all this, but our actions much of the time were not guided by that holistic, value-connected kind of understanding called wisdom.

The situation the world faces today is incredibly complex. Long-cherished values have begun to conflict with each other: material comfort vs. an uncontaminated world; economic growth now vs. economic well-being for our grandchildren. And things just seem to get worse. Toward Wisdom takes the position that applied wisdom is the only effective way to deal with our personal/global problematique. Wisdom is no longer an option or a frill. We, and the world, need wisdom-based analyses of our problems followed by wisdom-based action. Before wisdom can take control of the situation, however, large numbers of people must become wise. Can this be brought about? How?

In the past, becoming wise was left to chance; a few people became wise before they died, but most did not. If wisdom really is the only way out of our global mess, then this lackadaisical approach will no longer do. Fortunately, today we know more than ever before about what wisdom is and what prevents people from becoming wise. We also know that just as we can become knowledgeable by going through a sometimes arduous but well-defined process, so we can become wise by going through a different kind of arduous process.

On the bright side, we see the amazing power of individual wise people to change things for the better. Their accomplishments are all out of proportion to their numbers. Consider the best of each year's nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize, for instance. What would our world be like if there were millions more with their dedication, skills, and wise perspectives on life? Yes, becoming wise is likely to take as much effort as becoming knowledgeable — but is there anything more worthwhile? Do we, in fact, have any other choice?

The first chapter of Toward Wisdom explores the nature of wisdom. The next three examine impediments to wisdom — those things that make it difficult to adopt wise ways of seeing and functioning. We look at what those obstacles are, how they work, and how they came to be. Chapter 5 points out that we've been mucking up our world, and makes the case that we need to get past those impediments and become wise. The next five chapters (six through 10) discuss practical ways of doing just that. Chapter 11 is about freedom, choice, and responsibility; 12 deals with wisdom in relationships; and 13 with creating a wisdom-based culture. In the final chapter I comment on books that I have found particularly helpful, and tell how to access other wisdom-fostering resources.

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