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Zak of All Trades: Looking for wise in all the wrong places

February 28, 2014

When I was a teenager, someone gave me this compliment: "You are wise beyond your years..."

I wasn't quite sure how to take it, but I knew that it was a compliment, and so I thanked the person who said it. And even though I don't think he was just trying to blow smoke up my leg, I didn't exactly agree with him.

In fact, I'm still not sure that I agree with his assessment of the scenario. But there's one thing that I am sure of — it was one of the greatest compliments he could give me.

Wisdom is definitely a character trait that I look up to in other
people — folks of all ages who I would say are wise beyond their years.

Looking back on my life up to this point, several people stand out as wise figures. As a guy, I've looked up to the male role models in my life, and I consider them quite wise — from my father to my grandfathers to my uncles. The family connection carries over to my brother, as well, who I think is quite wise for a man his age.

But my attraction to wise role models isn't limited to my family tree, as I can remember mentors and friends in each stage of my life — from Sunday School teachers over the years to a spiritual mentor named Art to folks who were just willing to hang out with me and talk to me in my college years (a time when I probably needed a wise presence more than ever).

I remember these people and still look up to them today — whether they're in my life or not — because wisdom has always been a quality that I recognized as admirable and worth striving toward.

Now, many would say that wisdom is kind of like an accent — you don't do anything to obtain it, but you either kind-of have it or you don't. They see it as a two-sided coin. There's wisdom, and there's book smarts. You work hard and put in your time, you can learn things and become book smart. But they figure that you can't work toward wisdom.

So, from the get-go, many people probably assumed my quest for wisdom was a futile one. And for a while, I probably assumed that it was just a crapshoot, where I was either destined to go down in history (not-so-famous history, anyhow) as either one who was gifted with wisdom or one who could never be wise. At least I could strive toward book smarts, right?

Yet, I always viewed it as a quest — an adventure — and I took some steps along the way to at least try to set myself up to receive the gift.

The first thing I did, I already hinted on — I hung around others who I thought were wise. Much like beauty, wisdom — to an extent, at least — is in the eye of the beholder.

If I think someone is wise and worth seeking advice from, it really doesn't matter all that much to me what you think of them. I value their opinion and their advice, and so I seek it. So, I've always tried to keep folks like that close at hand.

As one who enjoys reading, I've also tried to read classic pieces by those who have been considered wise over the years. One place
where I often turn is to my Bible — my favorite piece of classic literature — which says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline," (Proverbs 1.7). I like that line about fools despising wisdom and discipline. Something in it just resonates with me.

But I also learned along the way that it's important for me to test
and try things — in fact, I think that's the most important and the most-often ignored step in pursuing wisdom.

A lot of times, we hear something — or read it on the Internet — and just because it's been said or regurgitated a bunch of times, we think that it must be wise.

Seeking wise quotes? There's an app for that! (No, seriously... there is.) Or, try a quick-and-simple search for "wise quote" and you'll come up with these:

• Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something. — Plato

• Wise men don't need advice. Fools won't take it. — Benjamin Franklin
A similar search, however, will also lead you to the recognition that testing and trying is an essential part of seeking wisdom. For example:
• Never give up on something you can't go a day without thinking about. — Author Unknown

First of all, anonymous quotes are never a good thing, but there are still some that are wiser than others. And upon first read-through, many might think that this quote would fit into the wise category somewhere. But a bit of trying and testing leads us to numerous counter-examples — like addictive drugs or nuclear warfare.

If you can't go a day without thinking about those things, give them up anyhow.

The "author" of this quote, without a doubt, meant for it to be inspirational, and a quick Internet search shows that it has been quite inspirational, as it's been made into many fancy drawings and I'm sure shared and liked on numerous social media sites. But inspirational and wise are not synonymous. And so we test it, and we try it.

Which brings me back to square one: the phrase "wise beyond his years." Children can say the darndest things, and we're aware of that, but they can also say the wisest things. Kids these days — as has always been the case, I think — are pretty darn smart, but it's more than smart. They're wise, too.

Our Questions With Kids series has been a hoot so far, and I'm looking forward to moving forward with it, because some of the answers we get from these kids are hilarious, some are cute and some are just wise — kids being wise beyond their years.

Because of the phrase "wise beyond your years" and others like it, I was always certain that wisdom is something that we must seek and find, something that we grow into. But perhaps one of the wiser things I've ever come to is that wisdom isn't just for the elderly — I think we all have it in us.

Now, sure, there are still folks who I consider wise beyond all years and who I will continue to turn to when I need advice on something. And I'll continue to test and try things to make sure that I'm responsible in my quest for wisdom — or greater wisdom.

But if a six-year-old, first-grade student is able to display wisdom, I know that it's something that can be obtained or tapped into early in life. And so I can continue to seek it, because I do truly believe that "only the fool despises wisdom."

So seek it, surround yourself with it and test and try it — especially if you find it on the Internet.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit and is far from wise beyond his years.

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