The Quest for Wisdom

A baby wearing glasses pretending to readAt a recent event, I had the joy of watching a boy, no more than seven years old, exploring his world. His energy sparkled and his spirit was pure; he was an “old soul,” to say the least. As part of a “quest” he was asked to bring back the answer to the question “what is wisdom?” He waited patiently as my friend and I considered our reply. The answer was painstakingly difficult, and at best, only touched the surface of wisdom’s substance. “Wisdom is knowing and doing the right thing, even if it is the hardest thing to do.” Off he went, and there we stood, dumbfounded.

I continued to ponder the boy’s question, and our brief answer. I considered how often the universe asks us to do the wisest thing, which is often the thing that hurts the most. Yet, our humanness, and our desire to not suffer, or see others suffering, blocks us from doing that very thing. Instead of pushing through the pain, facing it, exploring the suffering, some chose not to do the wisest thing. It can seem counter intuitive. The wisest thing can be, in actuality, the choice that would hurt the most, initially, even if is more helpful in the long run.

Maybe you know that something in your life is not healthy, right for you, or even puts you in danger. Wisdom tells you “I need to stop this,” but the expectation of the pain from that decision overrules you. Instead of listening to your inner wisdom, you allow the fear of the suffering to take over. You do nothing, or the same thing. We do suffer, and will, but it is at the other side of suffering that wisdom develops. Wisdom comes from experiencing what is difficult, surviving it, healing from it, and ultimately, integrating what is learned.

Trying to Control What Can’t Be

To me, there is no greater example of the dichotomy between “wisdom and suffering” than when working with family members of someone abusing substances. As you know, the serenity prayer speaks of knowing the difference between what can and cannot be controlled, and the “wisdom to know the difference.” Yet, the knowledge of what can and cannot be controlled is not enough. It also requires behavioral changes and actually practicing acceptance of what cannot be controlled, by letting go. It truly can be the most painful thing. For example, despite an inner wisdom of what they need to do, whatever that looks like, a family’s fear of the suffering can hijack their willingness to listen to their inner wisdom. It can sound like “well, I know I should ___, but I just can’t” or “I know that I could do ____ differently when he/she does ____, but I don’t.”

Fixing It

To stop having to watch the loved one suffer and to push that pain away, a pattern of trying to “fix it” or “catch them before they fall” ensues. Some call it codependency, some call it enabling. But whatever you want to call it, it is a behavior pattern that is created to avoid suffering, yours and theirs. For example, “I can’t stand to see your withdrawal, or I can’t stand the fear of you dying, so I do whatever I can do to stop it.” I become “addicted to trying to fix it” because it helps maintain the illusion that I have some sense of control. Nevertheless, despite the wisdom of knowing what to do differently, the pain of not being in control, feels greater, and is therefore, avoided. Just as addiction seeks to stop the pain, the addiction to “fixing” can be overpowering.

Webster’s Dictionary focuses on the “knowing” part of being wise, but are you willing to consider the doing part of that wisdom? Whatever it is that you are faced with or fear in your life right now, are you willing to make the healthy choice, even if it is the most difficult? Even if it is the most painful and includes some kind of suffering, for you to really grow, will you hear wisdom’s call? Will you hear it, even if its message is the hardest thing to listen to?

© Copyright 2008 by By Sarah Jenkins, MC, LPC, CPsychol, therapist in Tempe, Arizona. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sandra

    Sandra

    May 12th, 2008 at 1:43 PM

    The sentence that, paraphrased, states the we learn from our past suffereing and mistakes how to do better in the future is a favorite for me. Many times there is no better way to learn than by doing, seeing the results, and then maybe having the opportunity at some point in the future to do it all over again, hopefully better.

  • gamecock96

    gamecock96

    May 12th, 2008 at 1:45 PM

    That is certainly a great lesson for all of us to take away from this! Not only do I learn best this way but I know that my kids have as well. We all want to succeed the first time around, but sometimes success is just a bit sweeter when we have been allowed to learn and grow from our mistakes in the past.

  • Donna

    Donna

    May 13th, 2008 at 2:51 AM

    This is me. I am an enabler and have been for most of my adult life. You do get a high from feeling like you are fixing things for others, and it has to stop. I guess I have so many feelings of needing to feel important and special and this is how they manifest themselves. This brief article has really opened my eyes to some things that I need to do to take ownership of some issues and deal with these. Thanks.

  • Sandy

    Sandy

    May 25th, 2008 at 9:30 AM

    There is so much in life that I guess I have had to learn the hard way but boy does it make that lesson stick with me for longer because I had to hurt to discover the truth.

  • Sarah Jenkins

    Sarah Jenkins

    May 31st, 2008 at 1:05 PM

    Ironically, I find that trying to be in the present moment helps the wisdom of “responding consciously” “show up” more. It is when we dance into the past, or future, that it makes it harder to really hear what is truly best for us, what our soul needs, even if it is difficult. Thanks so much for the feedback about the article and I’m glad that it struck an inner chord!

    Best wishes and light… Sarah

  • Sue Freeman

    Sue Freeman

    May 31st, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    I really enjoyed what you had to offer in this blog post. Your insight into “long term gain for short(er) term pain” is quite insightful. I try and work with my daughter, 6.75 years of age going on 35(!) with delaying gratification for something better, sweeter, richer and more sustaining than her basic instinctual reactions. Also studying transpersonal psychotherapy so the clarity of what you said I found most helpful. cheers

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