Learning the Meaning of Wisdom Through Experience and Perspective

The meaning of wisdom isn’t about what you know so much as how you use that knowledge. It’s the reason the word calls to mind images of older, more experienced folks: The longer you live, the better you know how to live. That’s not to say you have to be older to pick up a little wisdom, though. Sometimes, all you need is to live through an experience or challenge and come out of it a newer, wiser person.

Take my example: For a long time, I was very much a “bootstraps” kind of person. When I heard people complain about a bad job, no money, or bills piling up, I always wondered to myself why they didn’t just do better by knuckling down, working harder, and trying to improve themselves.

It was easy to think that at the time: I had a high-paying job, as did my wife, and things were great. But then downsizing came, and the rug got ripped out from under me. The 401(k) money I drained went fast. Jobs didn’t come nearly as quick. As a guy with a new baby son, it was legitimately terrifying. It’s humbling having to do things such as call the bank and explain why the mortgage payment is late again or beg the car company not to send the repo man. I began to see the frustration that disadvantaged people feel, especially those who didn’t have the privileges in life that I always had.

I came to understand that, as hard as it was on us, some people had it even worse — and they had no immediate way to make it better. In the end, though, this isn’t about money or socioeconomic status. It’s about a simple idea: Everyone’s the hero of their own story, and everyone’s trying their best. It’s about giving people a little credit and a little credibility. It might be easy to point out what someone’s doing wrong from afar, but that’s usually because you don’t have the whole story.

In a nutshell, the meaning of wisdom is all about grasping that. I’m still far from a wise person, but at least I understand that I don’t have all the answers. My circumstances are different from everyone else’s, and that means I really have no place to judge what anyone else is doing — not any more than they have a right to judge me and my decisions.

I can’t look back on those down years in a positive light, and I wouldn’t wish what we went through on my worst enemy, but from a perspective standpoint, it was invaluable. It gave me tools that I apply to all sorts of situations today.

I think of the meaning of wisdom as understanding that there’s no way to understand everything. Instead, wisdom is about trying to fill the gaps with a different sort of understanding: the kind that gives people credit for what they’ve done instead of dismissing them for what they haven’t. I don’t have to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand where they’re coming from because now I know their path is just as challenging and valid as mine.

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