Is it possible to find wise leaders in this era dominated by 30-second soundbites, cable news demands for conflict, twitter-length pronouncements that take the place of rational discourse, and increasingly short — or nonexistent — attention spans?
I began thinking anew about wisdom after hearing the Rev. Emily Griffin speak a few weeks ago on how those who are wise stay afloat in a figurative sea of rising waters. Those thoughts were carried forward in one new book that has been on my nightstand, along with another I’ve returned to in recent months. Both included perspectives on wisdom, insight, and discernment. Making the link between wisdom and leadership followed later as — with increasing frustration — I watched two nights of the Democratic presidential debates on CNN at the end of July.
First, consider how we know that someone is wise. The writers I have been reading suggest that wisdom includes meaningful self-knowledge as well as an important outward-facing impact.
Defining wisdom as “knowledge translated into action,” Emily struck a chord and helped begin my walk down this path. We all know people who are full of information and who have an answer for everything. But are these people wise? Emily’s thoughts about the fruit of wisdom being in the “works of our hands” suggest perhaps not:
“. . . wisdom is less about mastering floods of information; it’s more about riding the waves so they don’t drown or paralyze us. . . . Wisdom is what helps us to set direction and move together to get there.
But it’s not all about knowing the terrain in advance. Wisdom also helps us to handle new situations that we’ve neither predicted nor prepared for. . . . Wisdom isn’t about intellectual feats of strength; it has to do with what we learn from our elders and from our own experience — and how that comes out in the works of our hands, in the ways we treat each other, in our capacity to respond with calm and grace when anger and judgment are so much easier.”
Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, in a 1992 lecture entitled The Source of Self-Regard, speaks to the confusion between information and wisdom:
“In all of our education, whether it’s in institutions or not, in homes or streets or wherever, whether it’s scholarly or whether it’s experiential, there is a kind of a progression. We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other, being able to distinguish among and between them, that is, knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about. And if we agree that purposeful progression exists, then you will see… that it’s easy, and it’s seductive, to assume that data is really knowledge. Or that information is, indeed, wisdom. Or that knowledge can exist without data. And how easy, and how effortlessly, one can parade and disguise itself as another. And how quickly we can forget that wisdom without knowledge, wisdom without any data, is just a hunch.”
In her 2016 book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett also speaks to the idea of translating knowledge into action. She notes that one of the qualities of wisdom “is about joining inner life with our outer presence in the world. The litmus test of wisdom is the imprint it makes on the world around it.”
I have certainly known individuals who take the wisdom of their inner life and use it to shape a better world. I suspect you do as well. As we are facing critical decisions about what type of country we expect to be, however, our political and media culture seem hard-pressed to develop and sustain a process to help us choose a wise leader.
Lincoln Douglas Debates commemorative stamp from 1958 (Credit: U.S. Government, Post Office Department – U.S. Post Office Hi-res scan of postage stamp by Gwillhickers., Public Domain)
When Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen A. Douglas debated in 1858, largely on the question of expansion of slavery into the territories, one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute rejoinder. The candidates alternated speaking first. Although Lincoln lost that race in the legislature (after winning a plurality of the votes), his fame rose because of the wisdom that came through the coverage of the original debates and a publication of the texts from those events. In the 1860 presidential election that mattered, the people clearly had some sense of the wisdom that could lead the country through its most existential crisis to date.
However, facing another crisis of our democracy, we’ve had four “debates” that asked for 60-, 30-, and 15-second responses (and a “show of hands” in the first set of debates) to complicated questions that will not be decided in less than two minutes. Critical issues, such as Russia’s attacks on our democracy and the response of American enablers to those attacks, were not even covered. Instead, what we saw was politics as reality TV. James Poniewozik, the New York Times media critic, noted that “Each night of the debate began with a hyperdramatic clip reel suited to an ‘Amazing Race’ finale, giving candidates thumbnail descriptions and setting up the night’s story arcs.”
We elected one unqualified reality TV star by not taking wisdom seriously. A key question going forward is, can we get past the idea that politics is a reality show? Hank Stuever, the Washington Post TV critic, answers with, “Not if CNN has anything to do with it.”*
“CNN’s format facilitated a frenetic game of human darts, with questions designed to goad the jabbing. It was a never-ending two-night competition of lightning rounds, in 30- and 15-second rebuttals to one-minute answers. . . . (It) never quite achieved the mood of actual discourse.
Instead, we were watching CNN make television — pieces and bites and clips of which it can repurpose into more programming fodder . . .”
I suspect that there are candidates for president (and many other offices across the country) who have the ability to be wise leaders, to help us “handle new situations that we’ve neither predicted nor prepared for.” But will we demand that our political parties and the media give us the opportunity to find them? In the press for a new type of political coverage, I believe we have to support those conversations and forums that give us the chance to weigh, over time, the wisdom of the candidates. Conversely, we have to take our eyes and ears away from those platforms that simply want to turn our politics into another version of The Bachelorette. Unfortunately, we find it hard to devote the time, focus, and energy to dig deep into the reality behind the campaign and media marketing. It is so much easier to jump to websites and click on stories with headlines that reinforce our beliefs but don’t tell us anything of substance. We have information but not knowledge or wisdom.
One final, and perhaps hopeful note: the text Emily uses from the Book of Proverbs, found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, defines Wisdom as a “she” who exists at the dawn of creation. That helps us, as Emily notes, to “sense the fullness of what it means to be created in the image of God.” No endorsements here . . . just something to think about in interesting times.
Have a good week.
More to come…
*Stuever also had an insightful comment about the misuse of the beautiful and historic Fox Theatre in Detroit, a resplendent space that I’ve been privileged to visit. He noted: “Even the set for the debate in Detroit’s Fox Theatre, which CNN boasts took 100 people eight days to build (using 25 cameras, 500-plus lights and 40,000 pounds of equipment), seemed like a vulgar example of what we’ve turned our politics into. It overwhelmed the sturdy and ornate authenticity of the palatial 5,000-seat theater, which was constructed in 1928 and built to last. CNN’s frantic impermanence insulted the structure’s beauty.” I would add, that impermanence also insulted our wisdom.