4 Steps on the Path to Wisdom

Practical steps toward wisdom during the time of COVID-19.

Posted Nov 18, 2020

Michael Krahn/Unsplash
Source: Michael Krahn/Unsplash

This guest post is by Mark McMinn.

Shortly after publishing a book titled The Science of Virtue, a colleague asked how it felt to have literally written the book on virtue. I shuddered quite a lot at that thought, quickly clarifying that it’s a book about positive psychology, and that I certainly didn’t intend to hold myself up as an exemplar of virtue.

I recall the day I hobbled into Starbucks to start the first chapter, engulfed by the irony of writing on wisdom the day after I allowed my 55-year-old body to enjoy 2 hours of flag football with graduate students. That day of writing was also a day of pain and anguish where I could barely walk. Even moving my fingers over the keyboard seemed to hurt. It still makes me smile to know I was writing about wisdom after demonstrating so little.

Some people are slow learners, I guess, because now I’m writing (with Paul McLaughlin) an entire book on wisdom. Some who see the title will assume that Paul and I are incredibly wise, and Paul may well be that, but the view from inside my own life isn’t so flattering.

Still, we must write the book, and it’s not just because we signed a contract to do so. This is a book that needs to be written—and hopefully read—in a day where wisdom seems hard to find. The rest of this paragraph could simply write itself: pandemic, political upheaval, incredible polarization, hurricanes and wildfires that may be related to climate change. It’s not difficult to recognize how much we need wisdom.

When Paul was a doctoral student, he walked into my office and announced that he wanted to do his dissertation on wisdom. I smiled, assured him that was a great topic for his previous graduate work in theology and philosophy, but that psychologists don’t really study wisdom. He went to the library and proved me wrong. Psychologists all over the world have been studying wisdom for a long time, and I have spent a good deal of the last decade catching up. Paul went on to do a fascinating dissertation on wisdom, and, like most students, he disappeared into postdoctoral work, getting licensed, and finding his first job. 

Then out of the blue Paul emailed about a visit to Oregon and asked if we could have breakfast (yes, this was a pre-Covid breakfast, back when people could meet indoors without endangering the world). As part of our conversation, he informed me that he still thinks about wisdom. A lot. One thing led to another, and now we’re writing this book, which will be published by Templeton Press in early 2022.

We suggest four ascending steps on the path to wisdom.  

First, we need knowledge to be wise. We know wisdom and knowledge aren’t the same thing, in part because we all have the same relative at the Thanksgiving table complaining about how smart his new boss thinks she is. But still, wisdom requires knowledge. This is a deep knowing of what matters, likely not too swayed by the latest technologies or political battles. Take a moment to think of the wisest person you know. Does the person have all the latest gadgets? Do they have lots of bumper stickers on their car?

Second, we need detachment – the ability to hold contrary notions and not reach for simplistic solutions. This is difficult these days because our world has become so polarized that we might be accused of being unsafe if we see any merit in an opposing argument. Paul and I argue for “sage spaces” as an alternative to “safe spaces.”

Third, wisdom requires tranquility. We don’t mean that we should just hum our way through an easy life. Quite the opposite; life can be very difficult, and when facing personal and collective tragedies, we naturally enter into places of worry, fear, depression, and alarm. Becoming wise doesn’t numb us to these feelings, but it helps us move through them into places of peace.

Finally, wisdom brings transcendence as it calls us outside ourselves to higher awareness and insight. As much as we value the science of wisdom, something is missing when it comes to spirituality and transcendence. We spend the final portion of this book on this topic.

The year 2020 has taken an incredible toll on the earth and its inhabitants. How can we start mending the wounds of our times? There is no panacea, but our best path forward will be stepping toward wisdom. This calls us out of our ideological silos, outside of our preconceptions and little ways of searching for truth, and into a broader flow of lived humanity. 

And a vaccine would be nice, too.

Mark McMinn, used with permission
Source: Mark McMinn, used with permission

Mark R. McMinn, Ph.D., ABPP, is Scholar-in-Residence and Professor Emeritus at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. He specializes in positive psychology and the integration of faith and psychology. His latest book, with Megan Anna Neff, is Embodying Integration: A Fresh Look at Christianity in the Therapy Room (IVP Academic, 2020).