Day 44: The unwise wisdom of wisdom quotes

Day 44

Grana er jo straight som bare det

Read quotes of wisdom and re-write them in small practical action steps for yourself.

A good quote is a good thing. It’s short, yet pithy, and it makes you smile or nod or perhaps even think. But it will rarely give you new insights. And quotes of wisdom? Nothing more than confirmation of your prejudices and excuses for continuing in the same way.

How so? Let me explain.

To find wisdom quotes, I went here. I don’t know anything about that site, but it seems that they have a user-generated ranking of the best wisdom quotes, so that should be a good place to start.

The top-ranked quote is this: Giving up doesn’t always mean you are weak; sometimes it means that you are strong enough to let go.

Of all the wisdom in the world, the highest is an excuse to give up. It takes for granted that everyone thinks you’re weak when you give up, which isn’t true, and it doesn’t say anything about when or how one should give up. Just this general truism that sometimes it’s easier to give up, and sometimes it’s easier to go on.

Quote no. 2: Promises mean everything, but after they are broken, sorry means nothing. Sorry means nothing? If I pour too much pepper into my wife’s soup, it doesn’t mean anything whether I say I’m sorry or whether I laugh my evil laughter? And promises mean everything? That’s what my youngest son says: you promised to take us to the Tivoli today dad! No matter the circumstances, no matter that his brother is being born at this very moment, I made a promise and that means everything.

Quote no. 3: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Apart from the God bit, I think this is wise. However, it’s also very vague and doesn’t really help you to choose. Who doesn’t want the courage to change the things which can and should be changed? Who doesn’t want this wisdom? I interpret it as a call to be more serene and less agitated about life in general — but that fits my personality. My wife could interpret it as a call to be more of a change-maker. We would both claim that our interpretation is better, wiser, than the other’s.

Quote no 4: Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. These two are impossible to separate: you are a mix of what you think you are and what others think you are. And how many times haven’t you been wrong about who you really are and what you really want? We do not have souls; we do not have one stable, unchangeable, fixed core called “character”. It would be nice to have one, though: you would always be right about your own motives and thoughts. Alas, no-one is.

Quote no. 5: Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens. Someone who listens might be wise or quite the opposite. (I should know, I am usually a listener.) It cannot be true that wisdom only listens, that would make the listener unable to share his wisdom, would perhaps even make him unable to choose what of all the things he has heard is worth keeping and what he should throw away. It’s a good thing to say, though: we all think that others talk too much, especially about themselves, and this can always be used as a weapon against them. You speak too much, I listen, I am the wiser. But it’s not true. Wisdom must speak sometimes to share, knowledge must listen sometimes to learn, and wisdom without knowledge is like a very deep but very narrow river where no ships can pass.

Quote no. 6: The longer the explanation, the bigger the lie. Not true. Next. (If it’s a lie: the longer the explanation, the less convincing you are, the more new facts you must make up. It’s bigger in the sense that the story you make up is more complicated — but a simple untruthful “no” can be a much bigger lie than an elaborated story, in the sense that it can be more direct lying involved.)

Quote no. 7: The road to success is not straight. There is a curb called Failure, a loop called Confusion; speed bumps called Friends; red lights called Enemies;caution lights called Family. You will have flats called jobs. But, if you have a spare called Determination; an engine called Perseverance; insurance called Faith, and a driver called Jesus, you will make it to a place called Success!! The double exclamation point says it all.

There are many other quotes on this web page, some appeal to me, some not, some I find wise, some are downright unwise. But here’s the thing: the ones I like, I like because they fit my world-view.

It has to be that way. You cannot change your mind because of a simple sentence. You cannot learn anything new just by being told a vague truism which can be interpreted in many ways. It might feel that way, but that’s only because you have thought something similar already. Take anyone of the quotes above — eg number 6. I remember thinking as a child the very same thing: if I ask someone if he has got my basketball, and his answer is very elaborate and long, he has probably hidden the basketball himself somewhere. It feels good to read that very same thought now, the quote feels wise, not least because I felt very wise myself when I had the very same idea twenty years ago. My favourite wisdom quotes are the ones which make me feel wiser.

But that doesn’t make them wise. To be wise is to be challenged and to test your beliefs constantly. You might be wrong, you are wrong, you just don’t know which of your beliefs are untrue. It’s not pleasurable to be wrong. But truth has got nothing to do with pleasure. To be wise is to prefer truth over pleasure, to want to know the truth — and then sometimes choose pleasure instead, if the truth is unbearable. Wisdom is not to choose untruthful pleasure automatically. Wisdom is not seeking self-confirmation because it feels better.

But that’s what you do when you read wisdom quotes. It takes more than an ambiguous sentence to challenge your world-view, to learn something new, to challenge your beliefs, to get out of your ideological trenches. It takes more than a sentence taken out of context to teach you anything.

A quote is a quote because it comes from someone famous. Either this is irrelevant (a truth is a truth no matter who says it), or this shows that a quote isn’t just a sentence, ther’s an entire philosophy behind it — and in that case, you cannot understand the meaning unless you know a lot more about that philosophy than you can learn from the quote.

In other words, a quote is like one instrument from an entire orchestra. It might play the most catchy and memorable part of the piece, but it’s still not the entire thing, and when you try to sing it, people around you will beg you to stop unless they already know the entire piece themselves. In which case they might even join in — but they still will sing only that one voice. And they still will have a hard time convincing others how awesome the entire piece based on the one voice they know by heart. (I always hated Nirvana until I heard them for myself.)

Wisdom is seeing the entire picture and understanding how everything works together to create a unity.

I will not go hunting for wisdom quotes. I prefer my wisdom whole.


4 thoughts on “Day 44: The unwise wisdom of wisdom quotes

  1. A very interesting post! I publish proverbs every Thursday on my blog and I like that they are short, pithy and succinct. But they are not absolutisms, even though on the surface they purport to be just that. I think they are a good guide, but you are right, they cannot make you wise, just make you think about actions. It is the start of something that might lead to wisdom; it starts the reflective process. And the proverbs have been used for many generations, so have wonderful, but general advice that can be interpreted individually, according to the person’s world view. I love your words: ” a quote is like one instrument from an entire orchestra” – is that your words? I would like to publish those words on my ‘Proverbial Thursday’ feature. I would of course, attribute that to your blog and yourself, unless you indicate to me otherwise.

    • Thank you! Yes, that’s my words, I don’t think I’ve read them or heard them before. And I agree, proverbs can be a good guide to wisdom- if you interpret them correctly.

  2. Pingback: Proverbial Thursday – Proverbs from around the World | Something to Ponder About

  3. Pingback: Day 75: When is tough too tough? | On Old Age

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