by Frank Haber

What is positive about experiencing an existentially threatening crisis as human and humanity? Perhaps, it is the destruction of brittle old certainties prompting us to notice what really, really matters in life. When familiar routines cannot continue, assets lose their value and future perspectives become insecure, we are forced to develop novel routines, redefine values and set goals more sustainable than those we painfully had to let go off.

Different critical life events can provide us with that unique existential opportunity to reinvent ourselves amid crisis. On a small scale, we may imagine a chronically overworked individual surviving a heart attack to realize the futility of making more money than needed for living a good life. On a large scale, we may think of industrial nations confronted with the devastating impact of global warming finally acknowledging the unsustainable nature of relying on fossil fuels for too long. And most recently, of course, we wonder about large parts of our world’s population being scared by a horrible yet predictable pandemic completely overwhelming our underfinanced disease prevention and health care systems, causing massive amounts of avoidable fatalities around the world and leading to economic turbulences that will potentially destroy thousands of businesses and millions of jobs. Hoping that this crisis, too, will help us become better humans and societies, I want to share a series of reflections on wisdom as psychological construct that may help us to identify what we can learn from all this. While wisdom in general is defined as rich factual and procedural knowledge teaching us about conducive attitudes and behaviors for mastering life’s difficulties, I intend to focus on a different aspect of psychological ‘crisis wisdom’ every week. Today, I want to finish my post with a brief definition of the Berlin wisdom paradigm and give you an outlook on what I am going to share with you in the next weeks to come.

Psychological definition of wisdom

According Sternberg, who was one of the first American psychologists (Yale) defining this elusive concept in psychological terms regarded it as act of mental balancing. For him, wise individuals effectively coordinate their thinking, feeling and wanting by striving for the middle way between the extremes, by questioning their own knowledge and by maintaining a healthy emotional distance from the problems they deal with. Building upon Sternberg’s balance theory, Paul Baltes and his colleagues from the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development applied empirical methods for identifying what they called “the fundamental pragmatics of life”. From their analysis five main factors emerged constituting personal wisdom (1) RICH FACTUAL KNOWLEDGE about the conditions of human life (conditio humana) and its variations; (2) RICH PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE about strategies of judgment and knowing ways of dealing with life’s problems; (3) LIFESPAN CONTEXTUALISM as in having knowledge about multiple contexts of life, how they relate to each other and may change over time; (4) RELATIVISM as in awareness of differences regarding the values humans endorse, the goals they set and their preferences and priorities that are influenced by variables such as cultural norms, personality traits, etc. (5) UNCERTAINTY TOLERANCE, i.e. knowledge about the relative indeterminacy and unpredictability of life, awareness of one’s own limitations and ideas how to cope with situations difficult to ascertain and control. Even though wisdom can be acquired through experiences across the life-span, young people can be much wiser than old ones as this video of a 9 year-old boy impressively shows (youtube link).

Inspired by these and other theorists of wisdom, please find below the topics I am looking forward to explore with you:

The Wisdom of Radical Acceptance as Key to Change

  • The Wisdom of Balance and the Integration of Opposites
  • The Wisdom of Openness for Novelty
  • The Wisdom of an Uncertainty and Ambiguity Tolerance
  • The Wisdom of Sense of Responsibility and Interconnectedness
  • The Wisdom of Gratitude and Deep Sense of Appreciation
  • The Wisdom of the Here and Now
  • The Wisdom of Self-Compassion and Loving Kindness
  • The Wisdom of Life-Span Contextualism
  • The Wisdom of Humbleness and Freedom from Judgement
  • The Wisdom of Hope as Final Answer
Frank Haber is Psychological Counselor at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg and at Jacobs University Bremen
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