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Where did wisdom go?

Do you know anyone in your life that you would describe as being wise? Not think or feel in your heart that they are wise, but really say it out loud to them and say it to others?

If you do and you would, you are part of a minority today.

Wisdom is a fading artifact of the last century. In the world today, it is an anachronism, either seen as hopelessly old-fashioned, or, even worse, seen as a threat to contemporary culture. Where did our culture of wisdom go?

We are losing our vocabulary to be wise.

One of the keys to being wise is to not be unwise. We could say the key is to not be foolish, but like many words, the word foolish has fallen from favor and is slowly exiting our vocabulary. Like the stilted vocabulary in George Orwell’s 1984 where unvarnished words like doubleplusgood replaced expressive words like excellent and fabulous, our vocabulary, especially our emotional vocabulary, is shrinking and becoming more harsh. We are more likely to call some an idiot than a fool. Even though the terms are different, they have merged in everyday language. And that is when we are being nice. Otherwise, we are likely to simply say that someone is a dumba--, especially when we talk about them behind their back.

Where is our culture of wisdom?

When we destroyed our culture of learning, we destroyed our culture of wisdom. At one time, a gracious way to start of speech would be to say, “I took some time to make a few notes to share with you today.” It implied that you took the time to study, learn, and share the best. I knew an older gentleman who never gave a speech without using notecards. But that would be unacceptably old-fashioned today. At some point we shifted our values. We no longer value the prepared thought, but rather, the extemporaneous one – even when it is more vocal than verifiable.

We do not value the weight of the advice we share anymore and we are too afraid to share it when we do. We are like the intelligent child in a classroom full of bullies, we are too shy to provide the correct answer even though we know it. We have learned to be silent under the threat of being accused of being judgmental. Instead, others value only the fact that we are providing an individual and spontaneous opinion. Worst yet, they only value the opinion of an individual when it mirrors the opinion of the masses. It is a bottomless paradox. Our point of reference itself has no reference but our own groundless opinions – likely to be of dubious value in a world that lacks learning.

Our culture of wisdom has evaporated with the loss of a contemporary culture of learning. So, what do we value? Instead of valuing wisdom and insight, today we value reaction, especially a quick one. We are more concerned with likes, subscribes, and emoticons than we are with insightful opinion. In the rush to react, we have lost the time to be thoughtful and wise. The viral tweet or video of today is forgotten tomorrow. The sad part is this, we are typically reacting to someone else’s reaction. We don’t even know what we are talking about anymore because it simply is not important. Only the reaction is important and that has the thinnest façade of meaningful participation. It is no wonder that we are not wise. We do not value it.

We cannot be wise if we cannot examine ourselves.

Another modern trait that makes wisdom difficult is our lack of patience. Learning takes time and so it requires patience, especially when we are faced with adversity. We barely have the patience to endure discomfort much less adversity. It is not a surprise that we cannot learn from it. When we encounter difficulty, we are more likely to quickly shift the conversation to blame or rescue. We either focus our energy on fault-finding in others or on demands that someone rescue us. Even when we are rescued, we are likely to view it as an entitlement rather than with gratitude. In our hurry, we have forgotten that we have the capability to rescue ourselves. We have forgotten that wisdom often lies on the other side of adversity.

Wisdom is not found by criticizing others.

Our modern propensity to find fault in everyone and everything but ourselves has led to the erosion of another trait. We have lost the ability to regret our past actions. The modern calculus is simple, if it is not my fault, there is nothing to regret. This way of thinking strips an essential quality away from us. Wisdom requires that we look inward and self-reflect. Without self-reflection there is no self-examination. If Socrates’ dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living is true, then we have a lot of work to do. But, if our energy is always focused outward, examining the faults of others, we will never stop and look inward to examine our own.

It is also discouraging that, along with our dissappearing culture of learning, we have lost our culture of politeness. It means we have lost more than our ability to interact graciously with others. It means we have lost our abiity to be humble. Humility requires that we put ourselves second and make room for others – not likely in today’s polarized world. The modern ego simply will not allow it. We have made ourselves unteachable, because we have made ourselves unapproachable. Unable to defer for even a moment to others, we have made ourselves thorny and hard of hearing. It is no wonder that no one teaches anyone else today. Even if approached, they would not listen.

To have a rebirth of wisdom will require that we once again value it. I had a college professor once who called nonconformists penguins. It seems that nonconformists enforce strict rules of conformity within their own sub-group. They are all nonconforming in the same way, all penguins. But the paradoxical rules of contemporary individualism and nonconformity do not allow us to value wisdom. Modern culture has a loud, demanding, shallow, and angry voice. The voice of wisdom is thoughtful and quiet. It is no wonder that we cannot hear it anymore.

For more insights see my books and blog at

Or, my YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit is Emile Guillemot on Unsplash)

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