Wisdom is commonly defined as having experience, knowledge, and sound judgment. Based on that dictionary definition, it’s attained slowly across time, by living and learning, and not instantly from a jagged bolt of lightning from above, like in children’s cartoons. It’s certainly not the same thing as cognition or intelligence. And it’s hard to quantify or measure, except for subjective comparison of before-and-after spiritual selfies.
In the serenity prayer we ask God for three things: acceptance of the things we cannot change, and courage to change what we can. The last and, in my view, most critical component, is the wisdom to distinguish between the two. I’ve struggled with this simple yet powerful triumvirate for decades, usually unsure when acceptance should prevail over courage. As a recovering ACA, I also focus on three areas that closely correspond to the prayer: eliminating denial by fully accepting the reality of how it is or was, mourning any lingering losses with the courage to know that my grief is ultimately healing and has a bottom, and wise gentle re-parenting.
In my experience, acceptance has required a bodily submission, a certain peaceful state of being without struggle, gut-butterflies, racing heart, cold-wet hands, dry mouth, or other dis-ease. It’s a steady flow of deep breath, inhaling that fills my stomach and an even heartbeat. Change, on the other hand, always started with a flint strike against steel in my mind. When a visiting idea sparked a positive new vision or possibility, and then remained like a barn owl hooting at me nightly, that energy compelled the actions necessary to realize the change. I could construct a plan to get me there, making adjustments as needed, and follow it like a treasure hunter. Some forms of change, like releasing belongings that no longer serve my life, could be achieved quickly. Typically, deeper change took time and commitment. Change has been and still is exhilarating for me as a creative expression of life and adventure even when it is scary, and especially when it ripens gradually like a juicy mango. Every new day is another chance to create the change I seek, if that is my choice.
However, that third element, wisdom, was and still is, much more elusive. Is it a spiritual gift; delicate God whispers, my own small inner knowing voice? Is it happening now, at this very moment? Did it happen yesterday or last week? Was it there when I was in resentment or fear? Do I have any at all, or just hopeful pipe dreams? I am working on strengthening this aspect by giving myself permission to listen and not act, like a caring parent might; by adding language to my vocabulary so I can know what’s going on, “naming it and claiming it” accurately; and by being willing to choose inaction without judging it as family-of-origin passivity. The wisdom willingness has taken a long time and some days I feel like I’m watching grass grow. It’s totally imperceptible.
With no prompting or religious teaching, I prayed, hands intertwined, while in my crib, they said. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old. They said I would ask God for help. It was a likely coping mechanism for the already palpable stress and fear that choked out joy in that apartment like heavy smog on the 405 in rush hour. I do recall a defining incident around the same time like it happened yesterday.
I was attending a “pajama party” and that’s why I was in the car with my pj’s on. I asked no questions about the party, and compared to modern kids I was kind of backward and slow. Where was my curiosity? Reflecting on it with experienced eyes, it’s clear they just didn’t want to bother with an explanation or having to contend with my childish fear of a tonsillectomy. They had a hard time providing for me emotionally; talking took energy and focus they didn’t have to give me. They were busy in their own drama, endlessly playing hide and seek with each other. This was another of many instances when I was merely an owned object, tended to by resentful, distracted caretakers. I woke up alone in the hospital, scared and confused. Sadly, they were incapable of understanding that this simple lie would lay the groundwork for a lifetime of misplaced trust, distancing distrust, and hyper-vigilance.
After watching their punishing silence and hysterical dramas I chose to be different. I wouldn’t let life overwhelm me and make me a victim; I would take action. I wouldn’t go on and on, complaining and telling the same sad stories while doing nothing to fix whatever the problem was or accept responsibility for my role in it as they had done. I wouldn’t go under medical or emotional anesthesia without my consent.
At nine years old I lied to get a job to afford a winter coat when I experienced economic insecurity. At sixteen I had my own apartment and worked at the bookstore while I barely attended college. Each semester I had to justify my absences. That was the beginning of a lifetime of taking action to gain mastery over circumstances and fears, muscling my way to faux solutions in relationships, marriages, locations and business dealings of all kinds that just weren’t right or honest or ready. I couldn’t see my faulty strategy or anticipate the problems I was creating for myself. All I knew was that I was in control, taking action and not long-suffering like them.
Today, I am hopeful that I have gained some wisdom along the way and in the rooms. It’s hard to know for sure. I still have the tendency to choose action and change instead of acceptance and peace as knee-jerk reactions. Am I a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread, or can I trust in higher power’s just-in-time guidance? I can let smaller issues and disappointments go without stewing over them or demanding immediate actionable solutions but on the larger “life” issues it’s a tougher row to hoe to remain expectant. At the end of the day, I am just a human work in process, grateful for survival and the ability to grow along spiritual lines. Wisdom is a spiritual fruit that ripens slowly, and cannot be rushed, bought or controlled. I pray that I continue to make loving space for it to grow in me.