I recently watched a TV show featuring a spirituality expert who answered the audience’s questions. In response to the first question, the expert taught a mini-lesson that was insightful, clever, eloquent, and wise.
And it had absolutely nothing to do with the question.
It was as if the expert had a few things that he wanted to say, and he was determined to deliver his prepared speech, whether or not it was relevant. It made me wonder if he’d even heard the question at all. It made me wonder why he even bothered with the pretext of Q & A and didn’t just teach a one-man lesson. And it also made me wonder if I should bother watching the rest of the show.
Fortunately, I did continue watching and found that the non-answer turned out to be an anomaly. For the rest of the show, the guest expert’s responses were helpful, heartfelt, and relevant.
So the episode served as a reminder not to give up on someone too quickly. It was also a reminder to avoid the trap that’s so easy to fall into (for spirituality experts or anyone else): The Wisdom Trap–in other words, putting more focus on being (or seeming) wise than on actually listening to and connecting with others.
This is a totally understandable trap. After all, doesn’t it feel great to share pithy nuggets of wisdom? Isn’t it natural to relish one’s ability to tell metaphorical teaching tales? And doesn’t everyone enjoy being able to convey their deep, profound insights on life? Of course–we all like to feel (and be) wise!
And sometimes that’s what’s called for: for instance, when delivering a sermon, a lecture, or a commencement address. And sometimes it’s not what’s called for: for instance, when talking to a friend or responding to someone’s very specific question about a very specific situation.
In those cases, what’s usually called for is, first and foremost, to listen. To treat the person as an individual. To see them. To hear them. To recognize their specific situation. And to be present with them.
Oftentimes, a person isn’t looking for advice or wisdom. They’re not looking for you to “fix” their situation. They merely want to be seen and heard. They want to know that they’re not invisible and not alone.
When someone does welcome another person’s perspective or advice, however, it’s still important to have an actual two-way conversation, rather than deliver a prepared speech (minus the podium). It’s important to talk with them rather than at them. It’s important to really see them, hear them, and treat them as an individual. And it’s important to remember that it’s about them–not about you, and certainly not about you coming across as clever, insightful, or wise. It’s about two people making a genuine, authentic connection.
Yes, sometimes wisdom may pop up as a sort of incidental byproduct during such a conversation, but it shouldn’t be the focus or the goal. Yes, it’s nice to have someone tell you that you’re so wise, but it’s even nicer to have them tell you that you’re so helpful. And it’s nicer still to have them tell you that you’re a true friend.
I realize that this approach won’t necessarily get you booked on national TV shows (although it might–after all, it would be rather refreshing). It won’t necessarily lead to bestsellers or catapult you to celebrity status (or, then again, maybe it will). And it probably won’t get your words retweeted or turned into Facebook art. (I don’t see, “Mmm… I hear ya,” or, “I’m right here with you, buddy” going viral!) But it will create true bonds. It will help. It will heal.
Now, let me be clear: I’m all for wisdom. I love powerful lessons, inspiring stories, and pithy quotable/tweetable nuggets. But it’s important to remember that wisdom exists to serve people–not vice versa. Wisdom is a means to an end, not the end in itself.
When we care more about appearing wise than about other people, we’ve fallen into “the wisdom trap.” When we care more about making true, meaningful connections–with or without “wisdom”–then we’ve got our priorities straight…and we’re being truly wise!
(photo by frugo)