August 2013

Thinking about What I Don’t Know


I enjoy reading the clever signs on church marquees. Today I saw one that read, “Some questions even Google can’t answer.” It got me thinking about different kinds of learning. Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

It seems these days that the more easily we can look up facts the less many of us are inclined to dig deep, research, reach conclusions or develop insights. There is more emphasis on “what” than on “why” or “what if.”

I’m probably as guilty as anyone, doing an on-line search and quickly following a few links before moving on. I’m busy and, well, maybe that was enough.

But was it enough? It depends on what I was looking for. If it’s a recipe for apple sauce, maybe there aren’t significant consequences to not finding the best site. If it’s comparing prices of airline tickets, the worst case is that maybe I won’t save as much money as I might have.

Abdul-Baha, son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote that knowledge and wisdom are at the very foundation of human progress, and he encouraged developing broad vision. I take this to mean that I should recognize the distinctions between information, knowledge and wisdom; and I must devote time and energy to reach higher levels when that is my goal.

I’m not suggesting that information should be overlooked. Indeed, without it, where would science or math be? We need to know facts and to have reliable ways not only to develop but also to disseminate information. This is often achieved through formal education and publishing, just to name two practical means.

Moving beyond information, we delve into knowledge, which entails investigation, searching through evidence, and applying what we have learned. This is the realm of innovation and invention.

As challenging as it can be to move from information to knowledge, achieving wisdom can take a lifetime. In seeking wisdom we exercise critical judgment, discern among possibly conflicting choices, consider long-term impacts, resolve ambiguity, weigh the interplay of mercy and justice, and deal with other such larger concepts.

Wisdom is not achieved solely by sitting on a mountaintop in silent reflection; rather it comes through full engagement in the social realm. One of the best ways to achieve it is through “consultation.” By this I mean discussing a question with others who have a sincere interest in the outcome, who agree that truth is more important than being right, and who can put their egos aside rather than stubbornly defend their position. Once agreement has been reached then all must uphold it, even if it does not concur with their initial ideas.

This suggests to me that wisdom requires patience, courage and faith in the outcome; and those qualities in turn require maturity. Perhaps this is why “wisdom” is so often associated with older persons. I don’t know about you, but I think attaining wisdom is a worthy lifetime goal.


© Jaellayna Palmer 2013