"Who is the Wisest Person You Know?"

July 9, 2023

"Who is the Wisest Person You Know?"

May 29, 2023

In my sessions as a spiritual director, I started noticing something: whenever someone described someone as “wise”, it was usually a sage or spiritual teacher of some sort: a Richard Rohr, a Ken Wilbur, a Ram Dass, a Tara Brach.

Wisdom resided in people, mostly male (and mostly inaccessible), who had a depth of perception, a knowledge about, as someone described it, “the nature of Self, our place in the Universe, and how it all fits together.”

But I believe wisdom, like grace, is all around us; all we have to do is see to it. So I started asking people: Who is the wisest (not smartest) person you personally know? People gave answers revealing a very different side of wisdom. There is a more experiential, relational, and embodied wisdom in the people closest to us, usually women.* This wisdom is not about deep knowledge, but about deep compassion. This wisdom is often held by an older family member like a grandmother, father, or aunt. This wisdom isn’t knowing something deeper about the world, but living differently in the world. A wisdom that comes from the heart, not the head.

To illustrate, here are responses to my survey asking people about the wisest person they knew:

  • The things that make her wise are all the time she shared in service to others, her practicality, frankness, dedication to women's rights and her attitude of optimism and gratitude. She's not someone who had an easy life (her mother died when she was 4), but she usually chose a glass half-full mentality with the glass brimming upwards with gratitude.
  • She is thoughtful, principled, socially engaged, funny, creative and joyfully and fiercely expresses kindness and compassion in varied ways.
  • My dad fills his time with acts of service and activities that make him healthy and happy. He gives to others effortlessly, from his own skills and talents, and fills his retirement time with skilled work that he enjoys—creative, generous work that makes the world a better place. This ranges from fixing lawn mowers and wheelchairs to making odd art out of salvaged materials. He is always singing, creating, fixing, and laughing. He is always on the go, but never with a sense of urgency. He knows that he doesn't want to stagnate or fall apart so he's honing his crafts and giving away his time and talent in service to his neighbors. He is boundlessly generous and boundlessly grateful.
  • He lives out his beliefs around simplicity and peace - not easy to do in this life and it takes a lot of courage, more than I have. Part of his wisdom is that he doesn't seem to preach or try to bring anyone along to his way of thinking or being, he is out there so joyful on his path that people are drawn to learn about what he's up to. He loves everybody, is so generous with his affection, even though he chooses to live so differently from most of us. He doesn't need people to be like him in order to love them.
  • Her wisdom comes from a deep sense of self, she knows who she is and she shares it openly and lovingly. She is the kindest person I know, who steps up and puts her arms around you and welcomes you. She is completely present when you are speaking to her and she shares her years of experience in a way that is loving and just enough to make you feel better but not tell you what to do.
  • She is principled without being judgmental; forgives without strings attached. She lives each moment with gratitude and gratefulness. She embraces life and weathers change with dignity and generosity. She loves simply and grandly.

[Contribute to my “Who is the Wisest Person You Personally Know?” survey here. I’d love to hear from you.]

MEA instructor Dacher Keltner writes that the most common way people experience awe is by witnessing “moral beauty.” Interestingly, the most common words describing this type of wisdom were words of moral beauty: humility, compassion, equanimity, generosity, integrity, contentment, optimism, patience, and curiosity. In other words, the wisest people we know embody moral virtue.

A wise and maturing spirituality meets reality with greater intimacy, compassion and generosity. The wisest person I know I met at MEA, my dear friend Terces Engelhart. She told me once that nothing is fully understood until it is understood with love. It reminds me of that old Bible verse that we always hear at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Replace the word “love” with “wisdom” in the above, and you’ll see that the two are synonymous. It reminds me of another wise person I met at MEA, Father Richard Rohr. He told me: “My entire wish is to see love as wisdom and wisdom as love, until at last, the two are the same.”

Love and wisdom. Moral beauty. All embodied by the people closest to us. Wisdom and grace, surrounding us, holding us in the Light.

In almost all ancient society, wisdom is feminine, like Sophia in Greek, or Tara, the Buddhist goddess of compassion who teaches the wisdom of non-attachment.

Douglas Tsoi is a spiritual director and writes the newsletter Money and Meaning. He is a three-time MEA alum and has taught a MEA online course: “Soul Narration: Telling the Story of the Second Half of Your Life.” Contribute to his “Who is the Wisest Person You Personally Know?” survey here.]

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