The Wisdom to Know the Difference

By Jim Selman | Bio

Think about the positive attributes of growing older, and ‘wisdom’ will always appear near the top of the list. Until recently, I had assumed ‘wisdom’ was a kind of ‘right knowledge’. Every time someone says the Serenity Prayer, I am reminded of this attribute again.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I wonder if I do know the difference.

On one level, I have learned a degree of serenity and think I am more or less accepting of most things in life. Yet I still fret about our political leadership, the drift toward corporate oligarchy, the environment, TV programming, traffic and a hundred other things that I think should be different than they are. It is true that I am less apoplectic about them as I grow older, but I still resist and want reality to conform to my will, my standards and my vision for what can or should be. All of these things, of course, normally fall into the ‘things I cannot change’ category. In the ‘things that I can change’ category are exercise, diet, and, to the extent I can, being of service to others.

If I stop and think about it, I do know the difference, so I guess that makes me wise.

Not so fast, I say—do I really know what wisdom is?

A little time with a dictionary and I learn that wisdom isn’t knowledge at all. The consensus of dictionary writers: wisdom is a form of action. That is, it is exercising good judgment. If this is so, then the question becomes:

What actions am I taking and what choices am I making about the things that I can change and the things that I can’t change?

From this perspective, my attention is less on my circumstances and more on my choices. In a way, I am learning that it makes little or no difference what I think (I am not in control of most of my thinking anyway). What matters are my commitments in a given moment. If I am committed to doing something about political leadership, TV programming or the environment, then I can act, if even only to write a letter. If I am not committed, then I can give up the complaints and live life on life’s terms. By the same token, if I don’t take action in all the areas where I conceivably do have control, I don’t need to beat myself up so much. I just need to be aware of and responsible for my choices.

“The wisdom to know the difference” really boils down to having the presence and clarity to choose, to exercise ‘good judgment’.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the presence and clarity to choose between the two.”