The Challenge to Become Wise

“Where shall wisdom be found?” is an ancient question that remains as relevant as this week’s New York Times. An interesting article in Sunday’s paper provides a glimpse of how some researchers in our time understand wisdom. The attributes they discuss bolster quality of life in any circumstance. But in particular this article looks at how traits of wisdom foster positive, meaningful lives as people get older, and help in coping with serious physical decline.

Job 28 12

One aspect of wisdom has to do with the ability to accept change, including changes in ourselves. Psychotherapist Isabella S. Bick points out that if we reject our current selves for not remaining the same as we were in the past, we cut off our ability to grow wise. Yet in different ways, and at different levels, this is exactly what we do. We spend a lot of energy trying to argue with what is.

One inevitable change, of course, is aging. In a culture that reveres youth as much as ours does, it’s hard not to feel diminished by age. But deep change happens in many ways, pushing us out of our comfortable places. Activities and relationships that gave life meaning go away. Involvements and priorities that once mattered no longer seem important. We are dealt new challenges.

Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965)* calls this “the shaken and devastated surface of [our] former lives and thoughts,” and says that facing it is how we grow. We are meant for a life of greater depth, and greater joy, but “the road runs contrary to the way we formerly lived and thought.” It’s a dismaying thought—all those miles in one direction just to turn around and go the other way.  And who wants to disrupt a life, or a world view, when we’ve worked so hard to get where we are?

Tillich answers by reminding us that too much of the time “we talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. . . We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life.”

People who have looked beneath the surface and “found that they were not what they believed themselves to be” know something of the depth of things. No one wants to endure a painful disruption, but it moves us toward wisdom, something most of us do hope to have in some measure at the end of our lives.

Tillich clarifies what we’re looking for. He says, “the name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, or what you take seriously without any reservation.”

The heart of things lies beneath the potholed surface of our lives. But life’s challenges are real, and we need more than social research to help meet them. We need insight from beyond our current time and culture to help us become wise. Interpreting the spiritual wisdom of the ages is part of what we need from religion, and we stand in great need of theologians like Tillich who could bring a rich intellectual and spiritual life to his ministry.

He challenged his flock from all walks of life to deepen their existence. He told them, “the mark of real depth is its simplicity. If you should say, ‘This is too profound for me; I cannot grasp it’, you are self-deceptive. For you ought to know that nothing of real importance is too profound for anyone. It is not because it is too profound, but rather because it is too uncomfortable, that you shy away from the truth.”

The quality of our existence, individually and collectively, depends on meeting that challenge.


*The quotes from Paul Tillich are from “The Depth of Existence,” in his book entitled The Shaking of the Foundations.

Meditation in Lent

At meetings of my writing group, we often undertake a freewrite exercise together. Using prompts of various kinds, we spend twenty minutes or so writing without editing, simply letting the conversation and the shared energy around the table work with the prompt to elicit new work. This post is from today’s group meeting, where I drew the the words “decision,” “demand,” and “would  you pay” from an Altoid tin full of provocative words. My writing friends found meaning in this writing and urged me to post it. Going with their judgment, here it is. 

Sand Dunes


I’m thinking about the feather in Forrest Gump, swirling on currents of air, the lovely way it’s lifted and carried from here to there, rising and falling but always remaining aloft and traveling on to a new place, in harmony with the prevailing winds, peacefully moving through the world. When the movie came out I lived next door to a preacher who said to his flock: Don’t be like that feather, don’t just be blown by the breeze—make your life count for something.

I didn’t like his message, its hostility to the flow of things. I didn’t want the bulldoggedness of his theology or to be someone who operated that way. I didn’t want to reject the organic movement of the world, of life with others, to plow forward as if my own motives mattered most.

Maybe I wanted to picture the Holy Spirit as the air lifting that feather and sending it where it needed to be. How else could a feather know where to go? And how much more about where to go do I know?

But in this world decisions are required. Moving forward demands a decision, necessitates action. We come equipped with our own vision; I think we’re supposed to use it. Even if it’s limited. Even if it’s inadequate. Maybe filling out that vision is where the Holy Spirit comes in.

What would you pay is a question that drives this world. We have to pay. And we need to be paid. What would you pay for what I have to offer? That’s how we measure so much of our worth. Too much, but that’s the world we live in.

What would you pay to have what you want? And with what currency? With money? with time? with attention? with training? with dogged effort? with constant tending? with scraping for hope? with gathering the necessary vitality for one more try, one more day? Would you pay with sacrifice? with humility? with impoverishment? with pleading? with force? with violence? with insistence? with demands? with exile? with rejection? with woundedness? with letting go? with love? What is the price of what matters most? Is it anything short of a cross?