I saw my dermatologist a while back. She looked me over in search of problematic skin developments because I once had a Basel Cell Carcinoma episode. (Note: when they carve on your ear, you can hear every scrape–it’s creepy.)
Anyway, I pointed to a dark spot on the back of my hand that had given me pause and she said, “Oh, that is a wisdom spot.” My dermatologist hails from China where they graciously refer to what I would have called an “age spot” (if I’d known what I was looking at) as a “wisdom spot.” This, in apparent deference to the biological reality that most of these spots are carried by, ahem, older folks. And, given traditional oriental respect for the aged and reverence for ancestors, there is a pervasive cultural mindset that associates age with wisdom.
Now, I know that the accumulation of years and wisdom do not necessarily travel together (I have met some folks who have not lived 75 years, but just one year, 75 times). But the wisdom/age couplet is more frequently observed than say, kindergarten and wisdom. Which brings me to this.
I have a concern that we no longer value wisdom. Wisdom has been replaced by its normally less mature cousin: smart. And smart itself is often been traded in for smart a**.
(Another note: some of you may stop reading here because you are offended by my asterisked version of the word “a**.” Sorry about that, but it is apropos for this particular post and, while I will bemoan the coarsening of culture, I here call it like I see it.)
Now, I have nothing against smart. Smart people have brought many advances, in multiple fields of endeavor. I, for one, am grateful that I can check my email, or text, or read the news headlines on my “smart” phone “anywhere” (I was going to say, “in the bathroom,” but my very wise ministry partner and wife said I should change that–so I did).
But I am afraid that western culture worships at the altar of “smart.” We see the intelligent and presume that with intelligence comes wisdom. But intelligence (smart) and wisdom are not partners as often as we would like to think.
It was smart that someone figured out how to mine the data and capture hundreds of thousands of social media connections. But was it wise that social media trolls used that data to try and manipulate voters? No. The lessons of wisdom often lag woefully behind “smart.” Wisdom takes time; wisdom takes reflection; wisdom benefits from, nay, depends on lived experience.
It seems our culture is in a desperate search for smarts and often that desperate search for smarts is itself reduced to settling for smart a**.
Good Will Hunting was a film in 1997 that featured the late Robin Williams and Matt Damon (the “Will Hunting” from the movie title). Damon’s character was an autodidact savant (wicked smaaht in his Bostonian native environs), particularly gifted in math, who was discovered by a professor at M.I.T. The trouble with the savant was that he was very fond of demonstrating his intelligence and most often did it in a smart a** way.
Inevitably, the tendency toward smart a**ness got him in trouble. He had trouble with the law and, when he found a woman he liked, he had trouble sustaining a relationship.
Williams’ character was a psychologist–wise, caring, insightful, bruised by the loss of his wife to cancer–who worked at the local community college and was engaged to help Damon’s character mute his smart a** tendencies and deflate his recurring self-destructive antics–to find a path towards becoming the Good Will Hunting.
The difference between Damon’s character’s smarts and Williams’ character’s wisdom? Lived smarts…validating actual “smartness” and discarding faux “smartness” (usually of the smart a** kind) through many laps around the life track.
After a particularly emotive, smart a** outbreak on the part of “Good Will,” Williams’ character looks at him and says, “So if I asked you about art you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling… “(when I) look at you, I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid.”
Eventually Williams’ character says to “Good Will,” “You’re just a kid; you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
Fast forward twenty years and smart a** tendencies have been magnified by social media. Witness the many posts, tweets, comments, emojis, and the unflagging determination on the part of many to underscore the “dis” in discourse–no matter what the subject.
Kids from 8 to 80 are contributing to the ever-growing smart a** quotient in our culture. There may be smarts, but the smarts are so often devoid of wisdom and couched in smart a**ness, that the only result is self-congratulatory applause from within one’s own “tribe.”
For us in the Christian community we cannot submit to or participate in this cultural crassness. We are called to be agents of salt and light, reflecting the image of Jesus and pointing to the source of real wisdom–God Himself. Because, in fact, wisdom is not the mere accumulation of information (see the previous post); wisdom is pointing beyond ourselves to that source of all wisdom.
The Ancient of Days is the source for all the wisdom of the ages and He most often expresses that biblically nurtured wisdom through the lived experience of those who have aged. A recent crop of soup commercials to the contrary, there is no “Wisest Kid.” There may be some very smart ones–and there are certainly some smart a** ones–but wise? I think not.
To be sure, there are moments in the lives of young persons when we recognize insights of a masterful quality. But, when those moments come, we call those folks, “wise beyond their years,” recognizing an atypical expression of youth-sprung wisdom.
“From the lips of children and infants” was not a call to abandon wisdom but to embrace the celebration of God’s presence among the people. “Out of the mouths of babes” is not a universal prescription for what ails humanity; it was a commendation of worship of Jesus in the face of religious hypocrisy on the part of those who should have known better.
What we all need to do–youngsters, oldsters, in betweensters, deniers of being oldsters–is immerse ourselves in God’s truth and grow in our personal understanding of the “way we should go.” Then, as we apply those truths in lived experience, we will grow into the kind of people who can be seen as wise–even if we’re not the smartest person in the room.
When we bask in the wisdom of God’s Word and we lean into the wisdom that God has packed into the lives of ever-maturing, more “seasoned” saints, we can begin ourselves the path toward acquired wisdom and shed the culture’s current default toward smart a**ness.
While being sensitive to the “new”–in terms of cultural engagement–we ought not forget the “old”–many of whom (not all, but many) are sitting in our churches who have the life battle scars as evidence of their ability to help us navigate contemporary struggles.