Understanding wisdom, part one: The good

Sandy boy One of the benefits of ageing (usually promoted by the aged) is that as the years pass and the lines deepen we gain wisdom. I imagine wisdom as functioning like a crystal ball, but rather than being fuelled by magic, it’s powered by knowledge accumulated through experience. And as we gain wisdom that gypsy trinket becomes more powerful, it enables us to gain insight into the potential consequences of our actions and decisions. It might not help us predict the future, but it can empower us to alter the way it unfolds.

Hindsight is an insidious gift, it enables me to imagine an edited version of my life. How many times have I wished I could rewrite a year, an hour, a moment, knowing what I got wrong the first time?  How much more accomplished might my life be if I could undo that thoughtless comment, that spending of a taxi fare on three more drinks, that stuttered and premature admission of desire? But hindsight is also useful, especially if I use it in an equation like this: hindsight + consideration = wisdom. And as hindsight is only possible with experience, experiences are a necessary part of developing wisdom.

I’ve tried to rewrite this equation, adding in a component for any knowledge that I acquire through reading, research and television. Hindsight + consideration + Frank Herbert + Twin Peaks = wisdom. But I think I was fooling myself, I don’t believe watching Pretty in Pink or 500 Days of Summer improved my ability to make more considered romantic decisions. Not compared to the stinging memories of public rejection, scorned tattoos and love gone wrong. My discomforts, my excruciating embarrassments, they have provided far more coherent and consequential lessons than any film or book. Except maybe Once.

That hasn’t stopped me attempting to short-cut the wisdom crafting process though (and ignore my equation). After making the decision to switch to writing for a living I tried to cram wisdom. I studied freelance journalism, read Steven King’s “On Writing”, and watched every season of Californication. And three years later I now understand that it is writing every day which improves my capabilities as an author, not reading about how to do it. I imagine the same applies to knife fighting, ventriloquism and parkour. Making decisions, trying new things, taking action, that’s the way to build wisdom. And living an eclectic and varied life comes with serious fringe benefits, being willing to try new things is the greatest way I know of to combat prejudices, whittle away at naiveté, and teach myself to be humble.

So undergoing experiences means we develop hindsight, but that’s just one of the components of my equation. I spent a lot of time in my twenties and thirties running away from conformity, from repetition, from ruts. I gathered stories and leapt into adventures, but somehow wisdom seemed to side-step me. I’d recover from the more painful mistakes by jumping into a new adventure, and somehow the failures became just a measure of how resilient I was. How nothing could break me. So many of those failures could have been avoided with just a little reflection, a little consideration. I didn’t take time to examine how my wins and losses were affecting me, nor how they affected others. And instead of wisdom I ended up manufacturing regrets. It was only around four years ago that I found the courage to simply slow down and examine my darkest moments with as much scrutiny as my brightest. And in forcing myself to examine past decisions, I finally started finding ways to improve my future. Some wisdom, at last.

So my ongoing advice to myself is two-fold. Firstly, say yes. Do I want to try out my neighbour’s new crossbow over a couple of cans of beer? Yes! Though accumulated wisdom tells me that switching to Bourbon after we run out of Stellas is a bad idea. Through doing, learning, achieving, I grow. Secondly, there’s that consideration side of my equation. I need to reflect on my experiences, in order to develop. If the natural progression of spending Thursday nights firing bolts into bags of sand is dressing in a camouflage onesie and tracking sun bears with a loaded automatic weapon, then maybe it’s time to switch to sand boarding. I’m not so good at the killing.

In five weeks I’ll be looking up at the Pyrenees from a small town in the south of France, and taking my first steps on a five hundred mile walk that runs from Catalonia to Galicia. I’ll be exchanging stories over ciders, popping blisters next to open fires, and trying to avoid accidentally ordering octopus in Basque. My strongest motivator for this journey is introspection, both my own, and that practised by the other pilgrims. After around five weeks of walking I should reach the West coast of Spain, at a little place called Finisterre, and there I’ll look out over what was once considered the end of the world. And I’ll reflect on what I have done, knowing that while I might not have found answers, with some consideration I can at least ensure my experiences generate some wisdom.

I’d like to dedicate this to the memory of my grandfather Colin, a man whose wisdom I never took enough advantage of. But his curiosity about the world was inspiring, and I’ll be looking
out for him in the changes of weather above France and Spain. Laters Grandad.

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