Everyone wants to be wise, yet that term is usually reserved for the elderly, people whose years of experience is said to have given them the insight and understanding that cannot be learned from a book or in school. But is this thinking correct? Can’t we “wise up” before we hit our sixtieth birthdays? Must we wait so long to reap the benefits of wisdom?
I believe the answer is yes, and the solution is to actively encourage people to broaden their perspectives. That is essentially the basis of wisdom after all. Perspective shows us a vision of the world that opens our minds; it gives us something to compare and evaluate our experiences against. Without it, we are limited to our self-centered views of existence. We become mere animal, seeing only what affects us, our happiness and our survival. Language, art, technology – those are all great achievements that separate humans from other animals, but I would argue that the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives is equal or greater to those other accomplishments. And just as we must cultivate an appreciation for art or master a new technology, we must be willing to work and sacrifice to see beyond our own myopic perspectives.
Let me give you an example of what I mean about the wisdom that perspective provides.
When I was in seventh grade, I forced my friends to listen to Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” on repeat for an embarrassingly long time, completely convinced its lyrics captured the pain I was feeling after being rejected by my childhood sweetheart in favor of an older woman, one of the popular 8th graders at my school. The heartbreak I felt back then was very real, yet now that I am in my 30s, I can’t help but laugh at my 12-year-old self.
This is the power of perspective. The older me has had many more heart breaks since 7th grade – some caused by cheating boyfriends, others by personal failures, and the majority stemming from family turmoil – and as a result, my teenage misery is now merely a funny story. This isn’t surprising to most of us; after all, how many times has someone told you, in an attempt at consolation after an embarrassing incident, that you’ll “look back on this and laugh years from now”? And while you may have wanted to punch them in the face at that moment, much of the time, those seemingly trite words were proven true.
Still, viewing the world from our own limited experience of it is as instinctive as breathing; even if my older self could travel back in time and explain to my younger self that this boy would mean nothing to me in another year, that I would have many other crushes, and would even be the crushee on several occasions, I don’t know if I would have been any less devastated. After all, your first heartbreak is exactly that, your first. You have nothing to compare it to.
This would seem to suggest that you cannot teach perspective to people, and while that may be partially true, it is not a good enough reason to forgo any attempts to do so. In spite of the inherent self-centeredness of the young, we do not have to be that way. We all learn through repetition, and so while an attempt to teach perspective may fail at first, well, you know what they say about failing to succeed: try again.
Think of those people who seem to have been born with the capability of seeing life from the mountain top. We often call them “old souls”, those individuals whose few years on this earth don’t correspond with their insight and understanding of the world and its inhabitants. Yet, usually these individuals share some things in common that can account for their seemingly premature insight. More often than not, they are acute observers, or survivors of a traumatic experience, or voracious readers. The existence of these “old souls” demonstrates that perspective, and hence wisdom, is not something reserved for the elderly. We do not have to have endured and suffered many years on this planet to earn the understanding the older generations have acquired over their decades on earth. Yet, it is something we must actively cultivate for ourselves and teach to our youth if we wish the young to possess the perspective of the more mature. Fortunately, this effort is worthwhile. Having a broad perspective is the basis of wisdom, the vital component to contentment, the essential element in compassion. So how do we go about gaining this perspective?
While perspective can arise after enduring traumatic experiences, I am not suggesting we go around traumatizing the youth. (It is, however, a way to put a positive spin on the less savory events a friend or loved one may experience.) Fortunately, there is an easy way we can teach perspective in schools, particularly through reading. Think of the multitude of experiences, feelings, biases, and conversations that we are exposed to while reading a book, providing readers with one of the important benefits of literature, which is to force us to look beyond our own worldview. In fact, studies have shown that those who read tend to be more empathetic humans, and I have no doubt that is due to the broadening of perspective that coincides with the reading of others’ stories. Reading is the cheap, easy way to expose ourselves to the myriad of experiences, feelings, and choices human beings can face. Students who analyze Night can learn how inhumane humans can be, racists who study Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird may perhaps relent in their prejudiced worldview, and teenagers who read Oliver Twist may even find gratitude for their parents. I am not saying that this is a certainty, but it is indisputable that the more we “walk in each other’s footsteps” the more paths we have to compare to our own, thus ensuring a less narcissistic perspective.
Both schools and parents can encourage reading as a means of gaining this less selfish worldview, however, there are other means to this end as well as pitfalls to avoid that endanger this endeavor. Parents, for example, can prevent their children (and themselves) from indulging in some of the “reality” TV shows or idolization of celebrity lifestyles that are promoted in tabloid magazines and television. These sources of entertainment give us, and more importantly, the impressionable youth, a distorted perspective. They skew our view of the world, making us think these individuals live lives far removed from the trivial and mundane tasks that make up most of our days. Instead of generating appreciation for what one has, they create ingratitude for what one has not.
And lastly, in addition to avoiding being subjugated to the distorted lifestyles in the media and to vicariously experiencing what we may otherwise never actually experience through literature, we can gain wisdom by seeking out new, sometimes difficult, life experiences. This is where I expect the most resistance, yet it is also the most surefire and the swiftest means to broadening our perspective. Let me give you another example to illustrate what I mean.
A few years ago I went on a “volunteer vacation” to the Dominican Republic. During this experience, I endured stifling hot and humid days filled with manual labor, giant centipedes and equally enormous and disgustingly hairy tarantulas, and an absence of television, internet, air-conditioning or even privacy. And I paid handsomely for this experience, as much or more than it would have cost me to take an extravagant trip abroad. My friends and family, while outwardly expressing admiration for my sacrifices, were clearly confused by my choice.
Yet, I would not give up my experience in the Dominican Republic for the most luxurious vacation elsewhere. I learned more about myself, my good fortune, my fortitude, and my limitations on that trip than I have in any other experience. Yes, there were moments of longing for a private toilet or shower, hot water, or a bed that was not covered in my sweat and mosquito netting, but without those deprivations, I would not have grown as much as I did in those few weeks. I would not have gained the perspective that now makes me ashamed of the abundance most of us take for granted.
Don’t worry. I am not advocating that parents forego all trips to Disneyland or that schools stop field trips to museums; just that every now and then, you choose the more formidable, less comfortable path. Instead of going to see Cars 3 with your children, go to a homeless shelter to pass out blankets and food. Yes, enjoy a trip to the Bahamas this year, but next year, spend the same amount of time and money in Appalachia, helping those who don’t have the option of a vacation. You may not come back with a gorgeous tan or pictures with Mickey and Minnie, but you will come back with all the wisdom that a broadened perspective provides.