“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”
― Albert Einstein
In the last post, The Path of Wisdom: Parenting the Inner Child, we defined wisdom as, “the ability to determine the best course of action in a given situation, and the wherewithal to follow through with it”.
While we saw that much of the time the ability to determine the best course of action is a matter of common sense (i.e., if you are overweight, the best course of action is to go on a diet), there will still be those times when we struggle with issues or problems that don’t have the clearest solutions, or where the best course of action is clouded by guilt or bitterness over something from the past, or anxiety about the future.
What I aim to do in this post is to provide some practical tips on how to determine the best course of action when we are facing a problem or issue.
The first question
Whenever a problem or issue presents itself, the very first question to ask is, “Can I do anything about it at this point in time?” If the answer is no, then we are left with only two options:
- accept things as they are and be at peace; or
- resist things as they are and experience suffering
That’s pretty much it – acceptance and peace, or resistance and suffering. Too often there are situations where circumstances leave us unable to act, yet we rail against reality which only leads to suffering – suffering for ourselves, and for anyone around us on whom we take out our resulting bad mood.
And it often happens that one of the reasons why we’re unable to act is that the issue is something arising out of our past where we either feel guilty about what we’ve done, or we’re bitter about what was done to us.
If the issue involves guilt over having hurt someone, the best we can do is try and make amends if possible. Sometimes that’s possible, but unfortunately sometimes it’s either not possible or not practical. In those instances, we are again faced with the choice of acceptance of the way things are and peace, or resistance to how things are and suffering.
The best course of action when we’ve hurt someone and can’t make amends is to accept that it’s happened, learn from it, and compassionately move forward understanding that we are all fallible human beings and we all make mistakes. As long as we’ve learned from it such that we don’t hurt others in the same way, then at least some good will have come from it.
If the issue is some other decision we regret and nothing can be done to change or rectify it, then once again we’re left with acceptance and peace, or resistance and suffering.
At other times, issues from the past may stem from us being hurt by someone else. This often gives rise to ongoing anger and/or bitterness. As difficult as it may seem, the best course of action is to utilize the “F” word and forgive – not necessarily for them, but for you.
What’s important to realize is that forgiveness is actually another form of letting go. What you are letting go of is the self-destructive anger, bitterness, and even desire for revenge that being hurt can cause. Those feelings aren’t peace, they’re poison. In fact, it’s been said that not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. So true.
And forgiveness does not necessarily mean that you have to interact with the person you’re forgiving. If, for example, you’ve been physically abused and escaped from that environment, forgiveness does not mean going back. What it does mean, however, is letting go of the acidic feelings that are eating away at our hearts and preventing us from being at peace.
What we sometimes fail to see is that when we don’t forgive, we keep the very people who hurt us locked in our hearts day in and day out along with all of the bitter passions and poisons associated with them. That’s no way to live. I can tell you from experience that once I realized I was carrying around the (thankfully few) people who have hurt me, I politely escorted them out of my heart and closed the door behind them. Life is way too short to be carrying around anybody that may have wounded us.
This can also be an opportunity to exercise compassion. As Thic Naht Hahn says, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending”.
Sometimes compassion can play a role to where interaction is again possible with the person that hurt you, but at others times, as in the case of ongoing abusive situations, compassion will need to be felt from a distance – maybe even a long distance.
Yet no matter what the circumstance, if the situation cannot be changed, the only options available to us are to accept things the way they are and be at peace, or resist them and cause ourselves untold suffering.
Resistance to the way things are when you can’t do anything about it is not only not the best course of action, but to use an analogy my father was fond of, it’s tantamount to bouncing our heads off a brick wall. I’m pretty sure that’s not wisdom by anyone’s definition.
The second question
Now, if the answer to whether we can do anything about a problem or issue is yes, then we come to the second question:, “Is it wise to act on this problem”? Another way of asking that question according to our definition of wisdom would be, “What is the best course of action in this circumstance at this time?”
Here the answer may not always be so clear. This could relate to such diverse questions as, “Should I change my major?” or “Should I leave my job?” or “Should I go and live in another country?”
When unsure about the best course of action, there are a number of guideposts along the decision-making path that can be of immense help:
This is arguably one of the most important factors to look at when making an important decision: What are my values with respect to this decision?
To determine your values ask yourself questions such as, “What’s really important to me in my heart of hearts?” or “What qualities or virtues do I really want to develop?” or even “If I had all the money in the world (and after travelling to all the places on my bucket list), what would I want to do with my life?”
One question that can also help clarify our values is, “When I die, what would I want people to say about me?” That last question can be a real eye-opener because what we would want people to say about us may not be the way we are presently living our lives.
Whatever we decide our values are, when faced with a problem or issue that needs resolving and the best course of action isn’t clear, begin by asking whether any contemplated courses of action are in keeping with our values.
Affect on others
Zen is all about the alleviation of suffering. When making a decision where the best course of action isn’t entirely clear, we need to ask whether we will be causing others to suffer by making that decision, and if yes, is it really worth it. This question is in effect a corollary to our core values.
If your problem or issue involves something you’re not familiar with, make Google your friend (no I don’t own shares in the company). Information leads to knowledge, and knowledge, as they say, is power. When trying to resolve a problem or issue, you can’t be too informed.
Advice from others
The best bet is to pick the brain of a person who has dealt with a similar problem or issue, or at least someone whose opinion and judgement you trust and value. This can be a friend or even a professional depending on the issue.
Sometimes just getting someone else’s perspective can result in an “aha” moment.
Ultimately, however, it’s your life and the final decision has to be yours based on what’s right for you.
Pros and cons
Writing things down on paper can very often lead to a clarification of the problem or issue. Too often we go around with so many things bouncing around in our heads that we can sometimes feel overwhelmed by it all.
In the same way that writing down a To Do list can give us an objective view of what needs to be done, writing a list of pros and cons when the best course of action is unclear can really help us to get some objective distance between our cluttered brains and the pluses and minuses of a given situation. Sometimes a list of pros and cons is all you’ll end up needing.
This doesn’t necessarily involve meditating on the problem, but rather just following the breath and letting thoughts go rather than inviting them in. This can be another way of relieving the pressure on an already stressed mind and help it to work more efficiently.
While prayer may seem at odds with a Zen blog, keep in mind that Zen does not concern itself with the existence of God and can therefore be practiced by anyone including people of faith who believe in the power of prayer. If you are one of those people, by all means utilize prayer when facing a problem or difficult circumstance.
Don’t make any rash decisions. Too often we impulsively rush into a course of action and end up regretting the decision.
Do get at least one good night’s sleep before you make a final decision. Studies have shown that our brains do all kinds of things while we’re sleeping including processing information, making creative neural connections, and even getting rid of old unused connections. There really is something to the old saying, “I’ll sleep on it”.
Let go of limiting beliefs and the fear of failure
If you’re thinking of doing something that involves risk and makes you wonder whether you’re capable of a given course of action, chances are you are more than capable – and in any event, there’s only one way to find out. Better to have ventured out and fallen short than be on your deathbed kicking yourself for not having tried.
Remember too that ‘failure’ is all a matter of perspective. The story goes that when Thomas Edison was asked how he felt about having failed over 1,000 times before finally getting the light bulb to work, he is said to have replied, “I didn’t fail, I just figured out 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb”.
Whether or not he actually said that, we can look at falling short of a goal in one of two ways: as a failure, or as a learning experience. ‘Failure’ is a word charged with negativity and cynicism. ‘Learning experience’ is grounded in reality and serves to better prepare us for what lies ahead in life.
As for me, I’m throwing my hat in with Edison and Einstein and seeing what cynics call ‘failure’ as a learning experience and one more step towards the acquisition of wisdom.
When we can’t do anything about a situation:
1. accept things as they are
2. resist things as they are and experience suffering
Guidepost for determining the best course of action:
That’s all for now, thanks for stopping by and see you soon.