On the surface, it seems like knowledge is always a good thing. The more we know, the more prepared we can be for the various things we might encounter in our lives. In our modern day, we have amassed so much knowledge that it can sometimes feel like there is no situation that we can’t deal with simply by looking it up from the vast databases that comprise the global internet system. “Knowledge is power” as the saying goes, and there is some truth in that statement.
However, like most things in life it’s the deeper and more difficult part of how to use that knowledge that tends to get overlooked in the hectic and impatient society we live in today. It’s one thing to understand how and why something works; it’s quite another to figure out the best way to use that information for the best possible outcome. To the woe of many people who place knowledge at the pinnacle of existence, in the end it is experience that gives value to information.
This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Information is critically important, and without it we would have no ability for even basic survival. Knowing how to find food and shelter and defend ourselves from danger are critical elements of human existence. However, it’s one thing to know the steps required to do something and another to actually have done it and figured out how to be successful at it. Having a checklist doesn’t mean you’re actually capable of accomplishing the tasks. It’s only once you’ve done it that you know.
The interesting thing about wisdom is that it teaches us things we never knew we had to learn. No matter how complete a volume of knowledge might be, it will never include all the little details that one learns by actually performing a task. You might get a high level summary of the major steps, or even a partial list of the minor elements involved, but a book has no way of telling you how you will individually cope with performing a task. It is only through experience that you are able to learn what your abilities are.
In our modern day arrogance, experience has become far less important than adding to our checklist of things we “know”. We used to believe that older generations held far more value than we did because they had already gone through all the things we still have to experience. They knew about love and life and how to find happiness because they already did it. Now, however, we think we have the magic key to the perfect life in the form of a shapeless mass of conflicting information. We forgot the lesson that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Information without context is completely useless. It’s one thing to know that two plus two equals four, but if we don’t have some understanding of how to use that information to make it productive in some way, that knowledge does no one any good. Experience using this simple mathematical equation in the real world is what makes this theoretical information something important to know. Anything that can’t be moved from the realm of intellectual thought into practical application is a pointless endeavor.
Obviously, there are some things that on the surface don’t appear to have a practical application, and this is what clouds the issue. Things like art and music aren’t particularly practical from a productivity standpoint, but they have real world value in what they can inspire us to do. Philosophical debate led to the rise of the concepts of individual liberty upon which the foundation of America was laid. Esoteric thinking in the fields of mathematics led to amazing discoveries in the field of physics, which is opening up fantastic new doors to world changing technologies.
This is where the confusion lies. How do we determine what kind of thinking is useful? Wisdom has already provided the answer. We have to experience it and go through whatever the consequences turn out to be. Unfortunately, this means that some are going to have to suffer to learn the lessons of things we haven’t figure out yet. Sometimes these can be very serious consequences, including death. Many times there simply isn’t any way to know how things are going to turn out. You just have to jump and and find out.
Where we run into problems is when we already have the wisdom at our disposal and choose to ignore it. The problem with our modern knowledge- and theory-centric culture is that we no longer place any value on what people went through in the past. In our arrogance we’ve decided that they simply didn’t do it right in the past, and we know what to do now to make it work. Rather than accepting that certain ideas simply don’t work in the real world, we ignore the consequences of the past in pursuit of ideals that were never viable in the first place. People continue to suffer because we can’t let go.
In the end, wisdom is far more important than knowing many things. It is wisdom that allows us to apply what knowledge we have in the best possible way. Knowledge should be something we acquire to enhance our own experiences and provide us with better ways to move through the world, but not be a false shield against things we’ve decided we don’t like. Until you’ve actually lived through whatever it is you’re dealing with, you can’t know for sure what the right course of action is. In almost any case, experience will always trump knowledge.
What do you think about wisdom? Do you know many things but have little experience? How has access to vast amounts of knowledge improved your life? Can you learn more from actually going through things in life? We tend to favor the acquisition of information over participation, but we do this at our peril. It is better to learn how we deal with things ourselves rather than hoping that a single bit of information will allow us to cope. This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom.