How do I become wise

society - What Makes People Wise?

A math teacher and his student. They talk about the subject matter. The student does not master the tasks and is ashamed of it. The teacher notices this, thinks about it for a moment and says: “You know, if you can't do something, that's my fault.” “Please?” Asks the student. “Well,” says the teacher, “it's my job to teach you about mathematics. If I can't do that, I've failed. Not you."

This short scene happened years ago somewhere in Germany. It wasn't just the student who was surprised. The teacher's colleagues found his attitude downright disconcerting. Reason: There are enough students who simply do not want to learn, no matter what is offered to them.

But the teacher stuck to his principle. He knew that, as a rule, you can't motivate people by putting pressure on them. Pressure only creates fear or counter pressure or both, and no positive identification is possible with that.

We think wisdom takes decades of life experience

So the math teacher was a wise man. And that was also surprising because he was still quite young, actually just out of college. Usually, to develop something like wisdom, one has to accumulate a few decades of life experience. At least that's what we think most of the time.

The question of whether someone has enough in their head to carry out a certain activity and the question of how to measure it keeps society busy. Age is often used as a criterion.

The office of Federal President can only be obtained by those who are at least 40 years old. Frank-Walter Steinmeier was 61 when he was elected. But was his date of birth decisive? Wasn't it more like his appearance? Steinmeier exudes deliberation - exactly the deliberation that one would want for the highest German state office.

Wisdom as a "virtue of understanding"

And that one would wish for today, for example, by Emmanuel Macron. When he was elected French President in 2017, the then 39-year-old was considered a young reformer, a guarantor of ecology and economic growth. So young and already so smart! Today he looks more like an embittered elite boy who does not understand why it is not loved by everyone. So does age play a role in the ability to gain insight?

Depends on. Horst Seehofer will soon be 70. So far, however, he has not noticed that with his eternal tussle for party power and ministerial office - well, let's put it cautiously: his reputation has not increased. Angela Merkel, five years younger than Seehofer, is showing him how to leave with dignity. And once again it dwarfs its two predecessors in the Chancellery.

We generally call someone wise when he or she understands something about the meaning of life. Or, not quite so grandly: when she or he shows a certain certainty of judgment on difficult life issues. Aristotle called wisdom a "virtue of the understanding". The Old Testament "Book of Wisdom" defines wisdom (among other things) as holy, tender, clear and humane. See Gandhi. See Hildegard von Bingen. See Dalai Lama.

Does age protect a bit from folly? The unequal presidents Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) and Emmanuel Macron. Source: Gregor Fischer / dpa

If you go back enough to the linguistic roots of the adjective “wise”, you come across the Sanskrit word “Veda”, the original meaning of which is “see”. So you have to take a look first, you have to see what something looks like before you judge it. And what do you see then? The most famous phrase about wisdom is that of Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.” Those who are wise know that their understanding of the world is not enough to understand the world.

And only when you know that are you (sometimes) able to see some of the things behind things. The emotional wounds behind the destructive rage of a youth. The inner emptiness behind the torrent of words of an official. The scared little boy behind the oh-so-great-looking boss. And then you develop an understanding of them. And forbearance with yourself, because you will never fully understand another.

Incidentally, this has a lot less to do with intelligence than it does with feeling. You can also be clever in a cunning or even cunning way. Kant saw cleverness simply as an instrument for increasing one's own well-being. In no religion, however, would anyone be considered wise who placed self-interest above that of community.

Experience makes it easier to understand other points of view

The brain researchers who wanted to find out some time ago that humans have no free will and are only executing a series of electrical impulses in their heads are certainly very clever people. But wise? You could also have said that music is a sequence of differing noises. To grasp the spirit and the feeling of what one hears in the concert hall (or perceives in conversation with the other person), it takes more than cleverness - and more than electrical impulses.

Nor is it actually primarily about life experience if we assume that older people are more wise than younger people. Experience only helps in one point: Anyone who has lived long has most likely seen more than a younger person. And therefore thinks more is possible, including things that do not fit into your own concept of life. This makes it easier to understand other points of view. And that's why grandma and grandpa may have more tolerance than the parents' generation when the grandchildren look for their own paths in life.

Younger people make decisions faster

The psychologists and gerontologists Paul Baltes (died 2006) and Ursula Staudinger (now at Columbia University in New York) have intensively researched the subject of wisdom. Staudinger once remarked that with increasing age people can no longer process new developments so well: "There is a risk of becoming narrow-minded." On the other hand, old people know from experience that nothing in life is certain and can use it handle better than boy.

In a study at the University of Michigan, psychologists found that younger people make judgments quickly, while older people prefer to look at a problem from different perspectives first - regardless of IQ, educational level and economic status.

Openness for life and a dose of humility

With Paul Baltes it reads in such a way that wisdom consists of a "rich factual knowledge about fundamental questions of life and a rich strategic knowledge about how to deal with these questions". His colleague Judith Glück, today a professor of psychology in Klagenfurt, again cites curiosity as the most important prerequisite for this: that one is always ready to embrace new experiences, different ways of thinking, and changes.

You don't need a white head or wrinkles on your face for wisdom. Openness for life and a good dose of humility are enough. If you still have compassion, but don't let it overwhelm you, and if you don't take yourself and your own views too seriously, but always critically question them - then you are well on the way to becoming wise. And when you know that you will never get there, you are almost there.

From Bert Strebe