In the 2001 movie K-Pax, Kevin Spacey plays a character who claims to be an alien from a peaceful, nonviolent planet. He seems baffled by the inability of humans to live peacefully with each other. In one scene he is explaining to his psychiatrist, Mark (played by Jeff Bridges), that doing the right thing is ingrained in the very fabric of the universe and is therefore easy (at least for the beings on K-Pax). In the kind of soft-spoken voice that could only derive from a being from an entirely peaceful, alien planet he simply quips that
Every being in the universe knows right from wrong, Mark.
Is he right?
Well, yes and no.
He is right in the sense that, going as far back as the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, there is a belief that all persons have a natural grasp of what is right and wrong for human beings. In fact, there is a sense in which each and every human person has a built in inclination to be attracted to what is good, right, truthful, beautiful, and just. This “natural inclination” or desire for goodness is the basis for the cultivation of our practical wisdom.
On the other hand, examples of the failure of individual persons and even entire institutions or societies to act appropriately upon this natural inclination are easily available. Aristotle writes that practical wisdom requires us to do the right thing, toward the right person(s), in the right way, at the right time, and with the right desires and emotions – that is, with joy. He actually thinks we should enjoy doing the right thing! There’s a lot to get right here, and there’s the rub. Practical wisdom is the whole package, the capacity to get each of these components right in the particular situations in which we must make judgments day in, day out.
Thus, it seems as if practical wisdom is a “moral” good, and in a sense that is true. But I like to call this particular virtue or skill “practical wisdom” (rather than, say, prudence) because it extends to all areas of life that demand decisive action based upon accurate judgment. This could include what we would normally think of as “moral” categories, but it also includes how we solve problems (from the mundane to the catastrophic), how we foster creativity and insight, how we cultivate healthy relationships, how we choose to take care of ourselves (or to not care for ourselves). All of these fall under the purview of practical wisdom.
Our greatest challenge is that we live in a culture that largely works against the kinds of habits and practices that facilitate and sustain the cultivation of practical wisdom. The market and housing crash of 2008 are the most recent and obvious examples in which the wholesale abnegation of responsibility for daily judgments added up to the near meltdown of our entire economic system. As these examples demonstrate, this cultural lack of wisdom harms not only ourselves as individuals but also our society as a whole.
Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharp write in Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to do the Right Thing that in response to this failure of wisdom, we tend to do one of two things: create new rules (often through legislation intended to dissuade negative behaviors), or create new incentives. It’s the old carrot and stick approach. But the problem with rules and incentives is that neither of these are the “right reasons” for why people make wise decisions. Human persons are more motivated when we are encouraged to pursue the right thing because it is truly good for us and for others. When these two right reasons come together – that is, when we pursue our good in conjunction with the good of others – it feels good to do the right thing. And it turns out that this internal “reward” is the best motivator of all.
So, how do we create the conditions within which people in our hectic society can actually get in touch with that sense of joy inherent in making good decisions? There are probably lots of answers to this question, but let me pose a few suggestions. First, we have to minimize, or find a way to move beyond, distractions. Edwin Friedman writes in A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix that most of us today are “data junkies” living in “data junkyards.” We have been programmed in our culture to think that more information, more data, will help us to make the right decisions. (Don’t get me wrong, data clearly has its place. We all need proper knowledge related to our particular fields of professional competency. Good information can help us to accurately perceive the context, which provides the basic parameters for the kind of decision that will be most appropriate and effective.)
However, data contains no inherent meaning that can guide us toward wise decisions. Data cannot indicate which human goods or values are most important. Data cannot indicate how to set priorities between competing values. (E.G., is a particular company “too big to fail,” or “too corrupt to allow to continue”?) Data cannot make decisions. The endless search for more information – whether it is big-picture data about an entire society or more mundane or frivolous data such as that found in social media – is one, giant distraction.
Which leads into my second suggestion: we need practices that get us back in touch with what is most essential to our own humanity in general, but also to our own internal sense of who we are. We need to be able to tap into our integrity, that which expresses our deepest values and manifests our best gifts. We also need to be in touch with the emotional processes that drive our decision-making, often at implicit or subconscious levels. If we’re constantly reacting to unconscious emotional “triggers,” we are not free to respond out of our own sense of integrity, creativity, power, and wisdom. The best example of these kinds of emotional processes in our culture is perhaps in politics. Why can’t we move beyond blaming the other party/group (it doesn’t matter who it is) into working together to resolve problems even amidst our differences? We’re stuck in an endless maze of data and emotional reactions (mostly blaming), but we have no sense of wisdom to guide us out of our current political impasse.
This is where the wisdom of mindfulness and contemplative practices can help us to access our innate practical wisdom. Training ourselves in mindfulness enables us to break that first habit of data addiction and perpetual distraction. As we slowly learn to cultivate a non-judgmental self-awareness we will also become more aware of the things that most frequently trigger our habitual emotional responses (and the destructive behaviors that follow). Practices such as focusing upon the breath, a sacred word, a mantra, a physical posture, etc., provide an opportunity to pause from pursuing more data, to pause from our normal emotional responses to the world around us. They also enable us to move into a receptive, contemplative space where we are able to get in touch with our sense of self, our integrity. In that space we access our deepest core of wisdom, our innate gifts, and there we access a kind of creativity that opens up new solutions to old problems. Great leaders have figured out a way to live out of that core of integrity amidst the sea of distractions, data, and emotional triggers that make up modern life. By their very presence they open up that same space for others around them to cultivate their own practical wisdom.
The great challenge for us as a culture today is to get in touch with this inherent wisdom in order to move beyond the impasses that keep us locked into frustrating and destructive patterns. There are movements in our culture today that can be found in every branch of the academy, in the corporate world, in the non-profit world, in government and public service sectors, that are paying attention to the wisdom of ancient traditions that teach basic mindfulness and contemplative skills. The task before us is to integrate these practices into the culture and decision-making matrices of those leaders whose decisions will shape the future.