Home Essays by IJ Singh Benign Neglect

Benign Neglect

by nishaan@magazine

There are important matters in life that we all overlook, despite the best of intentions – such as credit cards, unpaid bills, birthdays and anniversaries, and timely medical advice, even matters of race and gender that have become the lightning rods of our times. 

We brush them aside with a lightness of spirit and invariably rue the cost later.  This kind of neglect turns out to be not so benign, after all.  People who are demonstrably intelligent are not always wise, and even those who are otherwise smart sometimes act such that their behavior belies their intelligence. 

So then, what exactly is wisdom and how does it differ from intelligence?

It is easier to talk about people or things, not so easy to dissect complex ideas, and concepts about what is wisdom or what makes love are about as abstract as they can get.  The issue — parsing the difference between IQ and wisdom — is not only difficult, it is also universal, eternal, esoteric, complex, and without beginning or end.  It has occupied the best minds in ages past and will continue to do so for ages to come.  Interested readers may explore our current general understanding of the issues of intelligence and wisdom in the New York Times, Magazine section, May 6, 2007.

What we think is “being wise” often depends upon the culture around us.  We cannot judge wisdom outside the cultural context.  But there are elements in it that transcend geography and culture.

Philosophers and sages have debated it forever, and there are as many answers as there are wise talking heads.  Can wisdom be quantified?  Is it different from intelligence?  Can it be taught?  Is it always a product of age or experience? 

The connection of wisdom to age is not unexpected, but we all know that it does not always hold.  The world abounds in foolish old people, as well as in those that are wise beyond their years.  Remember that a number of Gurus – Hargobind, Harkishan and Gobind Singh — were exceedingly young when they ascended to the office.  Jesus was hardly an old man, though he was wise.  Certainly Socrates and Guru Amardas make the case for the age-old wisdom that wisdom might be a gift tied to age.

Keep in mind that although good judgment may come from experience, experience itself is often a product of bad judgment.  Even these tautologies reflect probabilities, not certainties.

The formal study of intelligence has been with us for over a century, ever since Binet reported on learning-impaired Parisian children in the early 1900s.  Now, there are as many critics and new technologies as there are practitioners.  The currently accepted view based on the cognitive psychologist Robert Sternberg’s “Triarchic” theory attempts to measure intelligence from three independent abilities: Analytic, Practical and Creative.

Socrates may have been to define wisdom as knowledge combined with virtue.  Wisdom, however, has no clear path to a definition or measuring techniques; a formal academic exploration of “wisdom” in western academia might be no older than 50 to 60 years.   It is often credited to a New Yorker, Vivian Clayton, who pursued it as a graduate student at the University of Southern California in the early 1970s.

Clayton looked at wisdom as a three-legged stool, comprising cognition or the acquisition of knowledge, reflection or analysis of information, and for both to be filtered through emotion, which would be the affective component. 

IQ tests perhaps only measure one or two features, not all three.  Even if they do measure all three, IQ tests neglect their interaction that is critical.  That quality of interaction deserves a name, and that is “wisdom.”

The Hebrew word for wisdom is chochmah, which evokes properties of both the heart and mind.  That sounds nice, but does not make it any easier to comprehend.  One way is to look at the word encompassing both judgment and compassion.  Since judgment and compassion both come from experience, wisdom is often associated with age.  But age is no guarantee of wisdom.  The old are not always wise, the young not always foolish or impulsive.

Since knowledge results from information, it would show an inverted “U” curve with diverging arms, degrading rapidly over a lifetime after its peak is attained — so much for looking for the enlightenment that comes with age.

Information is essential to knowledge, but wisdom seems to transcend this requirement, too.  Some of those that we think of as the wisest of humanity –Solomon, Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, and Nanak — never went to college.  My almost half a century of experience in academia assures me that not all those who have earned PhDs are wise, even though they may have a sky high IQ.  In other words, it is not wisdom when a person’s IQ is off the chart but one can barely detect a heartbeat.

If one cannot earn wisdom by taking a course in college, and experience doesn’t guarantee it, how, then, do you get it?

hyen wisdom. be too sure of one’but he  admission of ignorance.he asks us to use the intellect to admit ignorance

Does wisdom then become a gift that comes to us as Grace – unexplained, perhaps even unearned?

In an incomplete but final analysis, we are looking at a complex interaction of IQ and experience that results in wisdom that, almost like a sixth sense, is greater than the sum of its parts.  In wisdom, knowledge lays the groundwork, but it is coupled with an understanding of the uncertainty of knowledge; emotion is central, but detachment in action is essential.  In many ways, in exploring wisdom, we stand astride the nexus of intellect and emotion.

In many places and in many ways, Guru Granth tells us to discard intellectual gymnastics and mental acrobatics in the pursuit of wisdom.  Thus is a distinction drawn between wisdom that acts with calm deliberation and the cleverness of the mind that can sometimes make its own dead-end maze!

The Sikh savant, Bhai Gurdas (Vaar 28, Pauri 5, Line 5) tells us “Gurshikhi da bujhnaa(n) bujh abujh hovae lae bikhey”; literally, he asks us to use the intellect to acknowledge the limits of knowledge; in other words, the roots of wisdom lie in the admission of ignorance.  I am not a fan of Mahatma Gandhi, but I agree with him that “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.” I believe that the message of Gurbani repeatedly points out that mere IQ is not enough, and may even mislead us; it becomes wisdom when humility and compassion direct and guide it.

Compassion is the beginning of wisdom.  Wisdom takes root when we learn to treat the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and the foolishness of friends, with benign neglect.  And that brings me to the idea that wisdom is calmness in action.  To me that describes the concept of sehaj that underlies a Sikh life, which we Sikhs often define as an existence of equipoise and balance – a centered life as the Zen might say.  “Older people “disattend” negative information, claims Laura Cartensen of Stanford University, in a discussion of age-related wisdom.  Substitute “age” with “wise” and I would agree that the wise blank out negativity, as the basis for action.

Flailing around such contradictions took me to William James, who in his 1890 classic The Principles of Psychology said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

And from there we step back into time with a similar idea.  Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, says the Bible (Mathews, 18-35).  

And then, in a magical leap, my mind went to the period in the 17th and 18th centuries when Sikhs were hunted by the government of that time.  There was no judicial process in that unjust society.  Yet, Sikh teaching taught them to treat the enemy kindly and fairly, and remain ready to forgive. 

Today, centuries later, we remember those times and the people in the daily Ardaas — congregational prayer — of the Sikhs.  A mandated line in it exhorts us to honor and remember those who overlooked the injustices done to them – dekh kay unditth keeta.

This line stands just as true today.

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