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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Chasing Wisdom

Paul showed up in my office a dozen years ago to tell me he wanted to do a dissertation on wisdom. Nodding politely, I tried to break the news gently that psychologists don't really study wisdom.

He went to the library and proved me wrong.

It turns out psychologists do study wisdom. Most of them are developmental psychologists, and most European, but there is vibrant science of wisdom that I simply didn't know about until Paul found it.

Paul went on to do a fascinating dissertation, testing a wisdom mentoring program for young adults in a local church, and then published it in a leading psychology journal.

Then he graduated and went to prison.

Well, that's the way he tells the story. He actually went to work as a psychologist at a prison before joining a private practice in San Diego. Several years ago, while visiting friends in Oregon, he asked about having breakfast, so we met at a local restaurant to catch up.

At some point in the conversation Paul said he wasn't quite done with wisdom. One thing led to another, and soon we had a book proposal ready to submit. We chose Templeton Press and were delighted when they responded with a contract.

Then at some point Paul moved north, back to Oregon, where we now have opportunity to meet for coffee and conversation with some regularity. Mentoring has morphed into friendship, and together we have chased wisdom for over a decade now. It's an elusive pursuit. Paul and I sometimes discuss how we fall short of wisdom in our personal lives even as we recognize how essential this virtue to be in a lifelong quest for improvement and growth.

This week, after some supply chain delays that plague many publishers these days, we each got our box of books delivered. A Time for Wisdom reflects a long collaboration with a student-turned-friend. Here is an except from the beginning:

Whoever came up with the term “ideological bubble” was an optimist. Bubbles are soft, pliable, transparent things, but in today’s world it seems more fitting to say we segregate into our ideological fortresses, or bunkers, or armories, or silos. Inside, it seems safe and comfortable as we interact with like-minded souls who share our basic worldviews, assumptions, and beliefs. These souls become our Facebook friends, confidants, and exemplars. We join them for dinner and drinks while enjoying stimulating conversations, we worship beside them, and we offer help when their plumbing clogs. These neighbors and friends provide us with all the affirmation we need to know that we are good people with solid values, even as others outside are poorly informed and less virtuous.
These days fortress interiors even come with tailored advertisements, newsfeeds, and Google searches so that we can easily see how correct we are about matters of ultimate importance. We can rally together and celebrate that we are not much like those who live in the fortress across the way, or maybe we forget the other exists at all—a peaceful Truman Show life. Sheltered, confident, and strident in our convictions, we find safety in knowing our ideological communities are strong and amply supplied. If we pop our head outside at all, it is for the purpose of lobbing a grenade. But then again, why risk that when we can launch those grenades from inside the safety of our own fortress, in 280 characters or less?
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns that, “team membership blinds people to the motives and morals of their opponents—and to the wisdom that is to be found scattered among diverse political ideologies” (2013, p. 318). Yet it seems that today we are increasingly pressured to be part of a team and to trumpet the virtues of our team’s ideologies without considering that other perspectives might also have merit.
In earlier days, a free press could stand outside the fray, glance inside the transparent enclaves, and report something that seemed like transcendent truth-telling. This was the backbone of a healthy democracy, being able to challenge and scrutinize ideas freely without fear of control by the government or other powerful organizations. Similarly, universities were places of relatively free exploration and inquiry, housing researchers and professors who enjoyed enough academic freedom to make their students ponder new and exciting frontiers. Many faith communities were also able to function above the bubbles as people met in synagogues and temples and churches throughout the world to explore and celebrate the possibility of a Truth that transcends human squabbles and differences.
In today’s era of ideological fortresses, media outlets are increasingly recruited to set up shop inside whatever sanctuary will increase their ratings and pay their bills. And today’s university is under siege, facing intense scrutiny to raise the banner of safety above critical analysis and free thinking. Faith communities also feel the pressure to align with particular political ideologies. Transcendent Truth is increasingly seen through the lens of polarized human experience.
Where are the truth-tellers now? Who will dare to move outside of their fortresses to have genuine curiosity and conversations with other daring souls? How many are willing to choose wisdom over safety so that we can learn to truly listen to one another, to consider multiple perspectives, to endure messy places, to hold ideas with humility and openness, and ultimately to offer the world a better way to live?
This is a dangerous book. Put it down now and send it back to Amazon, or take it back to your local bookstore if you are not willing to step outside the door of your fortress. Wisdom calls us out—out of our comfort zones, out of preconceptions, out of the constant flow of media enabling us to believe we are always reasonable and others always crazy, out of our self-complacency, out of our natural circles of conversation. And then wisdom calls us in—into a long tradition of those who have walked in humility and grace in complicated times, into a fellowship of diversity and disagreement and growth, into a place of tranquility and peace with ourselves and others that transcends our differences, into a place of curiosity and awe and wonder at how complex and beautiful and amazing this life can be.

Thank you, Paul, for proving me wrong when I said psychologists don't study wisdom.


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