Wisdom, an unfailing antidote

roses
roses
Roses in Israel. S. Ross-Lazarov

I have previously written about wisdom, in my post Introduction to a Philosopher. Today, I would like to reflect further on wisdom and its application. To start off, here are some quotes from Bahá’u’lláh’s writings concerning the importance of wisdom:

“Be thou guided by wisdom under all conditions.” ~ Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 175

“Be ye guided by wisdom in all your doings, and cleave ye tenaciously unto it.” ~ Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 198

“We cherish the hope that everyone may be adorned with the vesture of true wisdom, the basis of the government of the world.” ~ Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 167

“Fix your gaze upon wisdom in all things, for it is an unfailing antidote.” ~ Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 257

My computer’s dictionary defines wisdom as “the state or condition, the rank or status, of having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Those things sound positive, to be sure, but why does Bahá’u’lláh call wisdom “an unfailing antidote”? What is wisdom an antidote for? Why does Bahá’u’lláh so emphasize wisdom?

Let’s look at Patti Kelley Criswell’s book, A Smart Girl’s Guide to Friendship Troubles: Dealing with Fights, Being Left Out and the Whole Popularity Thing (American Girl, 2003). (This is a book in American Girl’s advice series Be Your Best, which is written for girls around the ages of eight or ten.)

As with the other books in the Be Your Best series, I recommend this book. I conclude that junior high is such an intense time because all the weirdness of life starts to happen to you in junior high. Life’s complexity begins to emerge, and then it simply stays with you as you add the decades to your book of life. Dealing with bullies, peer pressure, miscommunication, people making demands, people growing and changing, people drifting apart and coming together – this is the social stuff of life. And all the while you’re trying to manage this social stuff, you’re also trying to figure out your own path, trying to figure out how to contribute your best gifts, how to fulfill your responsibilities in the most artistic and uplifting way.

So the principles that junior high kids are trying to learn also apply to those of us for whom junior high has happily faded into a nostalgic haze. (What changes as you get older, perhaps, is that you have more responsibility as you’re trying to navigate the weirdness.) Thus, reading advice compilations like the Smart Girl’s Guides is like getting an overview of the topic at hand, so succinct that you can read it in half an hour. The series is also written with an optimism and cheerfulness that are really enjoyable.

Thus, in A Smart Girl’s Guide to Friendship Troubles, Criswell helps us consider how to handle social processes with elan. (Criswell is a social worker in private practice in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She specializes in working with adolescent girls and their families.) Almost at the end of the book (on page 80 of 87), Criswell advises, “Listen to the wise girl inside you.” She writes this in a section called, “Feeling good about yourself.” I find this section so interesting, I’d like to share with you the full text:

You want to be confident about who you are and what you believe in. When you’re confident, you feel safe and in control of your life. Confidence helps you withstand rejection, even betrayal, because you know that it doesn’t matter what the rule setters think about you. What matters is what you think about yourself.

How do you get to be confident?

Listen to the wise girl inside you. Don’t stay with lousy friends just because you don’t want to be alone. Being alone now and then in life is good. It helps you understand yourself in a new way and brings a special kind of contentment. And when you’re happy with yourself, you set the stage for really good friendships.

Think of a plant. Give it sunshine, water, good soil, and room to grow, and it will flourish, right? People are the same way. That wise girl inside needs attention, patience, and care, too. You need to nourish yourself with things that interest you, with the love of your family, and with hopes and dreams for the future.

When your self-esteem gets knocked around, you may need to do a little repair work, the same way you’d gather up a plant and put it back in the soil if it got knocked off the shelf.

In Criswell’s presentation, we can sense the strength and vision that we associate with people who are wise. I can see in my mind the wise old woman who isn’t afraid to sit alone if she has to, who is so experienced in the dynamics of life that she can see straight through the theater of the moment, and who knows that the young need her to state the truth she sees.

It’s interesting that Criswell associates wisdom with confidence. What do you make of that? Perhaps confidence comes from experience and understanding. Perhaps enough experience solving problems and making things work eventually leads to an experience of confidence – like an expert in any field, you have a pretty good idea of how things will work well. This is sometimes described in the Bahá’í community as “confidence galvanized by experience.”

The achievement of wisdom and its accompanying confidence is more important for effective living than we might first imagine. Another arena in which wisdom is discussed directly is mental health – in particular, in therapeutic interventions for people struggling to manage borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Although BPD is a complex disorder that is difficult to diagnose and very difficult to live with, progress is being made. One of my favorite family-oriented resources for learning how to move ahead in the context of BPD is Shari Manning’s book Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder: How to Keep Out-Of-Control Emotions from Destroying Your Relationship (The Guildford Press, 2011). Manning explains the dynamics of BPD with practicality and compassion, then presents step-by-step guides for negotiating the rocky shoals of everyday interactions.

As I understand Manning’s explanation, the core challenge that people suffering from BPD face is emotional dysregulation. This means that they are unable to stop their own intensifying spirals of emotion. Whereas most of us can distract ourselves, cheer ourselves up, or calm ourselves down, folks suffering from BPD cannot. This leads to further dysregulation, in behavior and thought and even in identity, and can lead to unrelenting crisis. This is a destroyer of lives.

Marsha Linehan, a psychology researcher at the University of Washington, is one of the pioneers of therapeutic intervention for BPD. Linehan developed a system of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). One of the ideas in DBT is “wise mind,” the antidote to crisis. As Manning describes it,

What we in DBT call “wise mind” is the synthesis of emotion and reason. Wise mind can be used at any point, at the beginning of the crisis or as the crisis is building. It may seem that the goal is to get your loved one to leave emotions out of the picture and use only reason. This would be really difficult for an emotional person, and asking her to get rid of emotion in decision making could be so drastically invalidating that she would not consider the options that emerge. So, moving to a place where she asks herself to consider the emotions and the logical solution to a problem may be effective.

There are several ways to access wise mind. Most of them involve breathing and “listening” to the wisdom inside, as opposed to “thinking” about the problems. Try this practice to understand the difference: breathe in and out. Don’t change the way you breathe to make it deeper; just breathe naturally. As you breathe, on the inhaled breath, ask yourself a question about something that may be troubling you. On the exhalation, listen for the answer. Don’t think about the answer; just listen. Sometimes you may not hear anything. Keep doing it. Sooner or later, an answer will pop into your head and you will hear it. This is usually the wisdom of your solution. The problem, of course, is that we often know what the wise answer is and don’t act on the wisdom.… (p. 175)

If the breathing and listening exercise does not reveal a solution, Manning recommends to then do a “pros and cons” – a cost-benefit analysis of alternative actions. Laying out the pros and cons of alternative actions – actually writing them down and looking over the list for the wisest set of effects – can really help clarify the options and their likely impacts.

If the “pros and cons” analysis also doesn’t reveal a solution, Manning finally recommends,

Simply ask what would be the wise thing to do. If your loved one is in DBT, she’ll be familiar with the terminology and you can ask, “What does your wise mind say?” Otherwise just ask, “What is the wise thing to do here?” It is amazing to me that people, even in the heat of emotion, can usually tell others what the wise decision is. Again, it is following the wisdom that is often hard for all of us. (p. 176)

While the audiences that Criswell and Manning address are distinct, and their challenges may appear on the surface to be quite different, their underlying issues are related. As Criswell says to her youthful readers, “You want to be confident about who you are and what you believe in. When you’re confident, you feel safe and in control of your life. … Listen to the wise girl inside you.” The families that Manning counsels also urge their loved ones to listen to their wise minds to recognize their own truth, to use their emotion and logic together to recognize and undertake wise actions, so that crisis can be averted, and so that life can proceed smoothly toward increasing well-being.

As I think about these real-life applications of wisdom, I understand more concretely Bahá’u’lláh’s admonition, “Fix your gaze upon wisdom in all things, for it is an unfailing antidote,” and why He says, “Above all else, the greatest gift and the most wondrous blessing hath ever been and will continue to be Wisdom. It is man’s unfailing Protector.” Appreciating the well-being that the holistic and practical decision-making processes of wisdom can endow, I can also understand, at least a little, why Bahá’u’lláh encourages us,

Drink your fill from the well-spring of wisdom, and walk ye in the garden of wisdom, and soar ye in the atmosphere of wisdom, and speak forth with wisdom and eloquence. Thus biddeth you your Lord, the Almighty, the All-Knowing. ~ Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 213

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