Words are cultural artifacts. Each one with its own history. Each one with its own ancestors, its early forms, its early influences. Because the letters that make up words are so familiar to us, we forget that they are images, they are symbols. And words are, at their essence, strings of symbols, that in turn, symbolize.
Far enough back, our ancestors decided to start writing down symbols. What began with cave paintings, dirt scrapings and woodcarvings has evolved for tens of thousands of years into what we now use every day.
The word in question today is wisdom. If we can trace where this word has come from, will it give us any clues as to how to learn to be wise? Will it help point us towards the essence of wisdom?
While I have been studying wisdom (as it pertains to emotional health) in many ways for much of the past decade, now I am trying to extract those lessons and place them in a progression. If we were to try to teach these skills, what is the best design for a wisdom curriculum?
If one were to design a curriculum, one is trying to design a path. In order to best design a path, we need a sense of where we hope to end up. So in searching for the beginning, we are searching for the destination.
So here is our challenge: we need to sketch out a profile of that distant state of wisdom. What does a wise adult look like? Can we recognize them by their actions? By the way they treat others? By the way they treat themselves?
Is wisdom akin to emotional health? Are there many emotionally healthy people left in society? Is wisdom the elusive dominion of a lucky or hard-working few ? Or is wisdom a progression we all can access?
Is wisdom a place you reach, or is it an ideal, a goal, an unreachable mountaintop? Have the likes of Gandhi and the Buddha reached the peak? Is there one singular peak of wisdom or is it a mountain range with many zeniths?
If we look to the origin of the word wisdom, we see the collision of two words, wise and the suffix -dom. The word wise comes from old European origins (possibly as old at 3000 BC), meaning “to see, to know.” The word wise and vision come from the same historical root.
The suffix –dom refers to dominion, the domain, the estate. This contemporary definition of this suffix is domain, collection of persons, or a state of conditions.
If wisdom is this state of vision,
this domain of clear perception,
this province of sound judgment,
perhaps it is indeed best viewed as a distant hilltop.
Some place tough to reach. Some place with a broad vantage.
That place beyond years of tests and lessons.