By Chauncey Bell
When we enter into a conversation about some action where we are concerned to act wisely, usually our attention is on intervening in some set of current behaviors, to bring about possible futures that will not otherwise happen, and to lead people away from other futures that would be better avoided. I am grateful to James Gosling (Sun Microsystems, inventor of Java) for introducing me to the use of the word “goofy” for pointing to situations in which sincere, otherwise intelligent people behave in ways that are wildly inconsistent with their ambitions, declarations and/or capabilities. A whole lot of behavior in organizations, including much of what we call bureaucratic behavior is “goofy.”
Wisdom is born in a concern for action to take care of things that matter to people, and it is fundamentally connected to human bodies and language. Wisdom is something that we ascribe after some actions are taken in response to some set of circumstances that we find in our world. The actions can be of word or deed, but they are not purely cognitive actions.
Some change, or learning, or new adaptation is possible in the moment of such actions. The wise person has his/her attention on different things than those who are primarily absorbed in everyday activities. Before the actions, there was a continuity of circumstances, but in the moment of action, the whole world changes. Deep caring and solidarity is evidenced in the way that the ‘wise’ party acts to take care of things that matter to the futures of the other party.
Wisdom happens in the right kinds of conversations and practices, and in the right kinds of communities. It is not a solitary occupation. Buddhist monks who spend years or even decades apparently alone and silent, are participating in conversations that have been going on for generations.
The ‘wise’ party in an event of wisdom is using the moment of change to illuminate, emphasize, and expand some human ethical values. Wisdom is about getting the best out of individuals and communities of people, and inventing futures and relationships from a new, expanded point of departure. To be wise is to be able to observe deep and abiding stabilities and regularities in the world. We are each born unable to care for ourselves; the sun comes up every morning and goes down every night; each of us will die, and we do not know or control the moment of our death. At the same time, to be wise in action is more about changes than it is about these regularities that are the foundations of wisdom.
At the moment of the intervention (about which we will subsequently say, ‘That was wise’), it is not clear that the intended beneficiary of the wisdom actually has the qualities, virtues, or skills that are called forth by the ‘wise action.’ The wise speaker or actor is, in effect, making a bet that that the other parties have those qualities, virtues, or skills as possibilities, is inviting those parties to commit themselves to learn and grow, and is inventing a future out of that invention and invitation.