After reading last week’s Schlagbyte about my mother’s prescription for maintaining your mental health, my sister Eyo wrote to me and said my Mom was a wise woman.

What is wisdom? It’s hard to define, and mental health professionals can’t agree on a single answer. It’s easier to agree what it is not. Wisdom is certainly not an intrinsic function of age (the old are not always wise, nor the young lacking in wisdom); although acquiring it is more likely after gaining some life experience and emotional maturity; and it is certainly not thinking you have it, because if think you are wise, you probably aren’t (Gandhi said, “it is unwise to be sure one’s own wisdom”).

Psychiatrists and psychologists do agree on some qualities of the wise (Sternberg, R.J. Wisdom: It’s Nature, Origin, and development, 1990). Wise people:
. Are other-centered as opposed to being self-centered
. Have a tendency toward humility
. Have a clear-eyed view of human nature
. Are emotionally resilient
. Have an ability to cope in the face of adversity
. Are open to other possibilities
. Exhibit compassion and forgiveness
. Have a knack for learning from their experiences.

I’m sure my mama was a wise woman, and equally sure I am not yet a wise man. I aspire to become one, but I’ve not yet mastered humility; I am still short, judgmental, and opinionated. I’m working on it. The great social psychologist Erik Erikson said this is the work of getting old. In his famous psychoanalytic treatise on the psychosocial stages of life development, he calls the final phase, the pursuit of ego integrity versus despair. The important work at this stage is to have struggled, reflected and learned from your life so you can come to self-acceptance and feel fulfilled. That’s what keeps you from fear and despair.


Wisdom is about learning from your experience — which means the journey is more important than the destination. Find a way to come to your days with joy, and remember your mama’s wisdom because it’s essential to the future of society.