Wisdom to Know the Difference

Wisdom and Peace

We were at the prison, leading the Recovery Church circle, when the question came up, “What do you want in life?”

The young man to my right had shown himself to be inquisitive, seeking information and knowledge, asking questions, eager for education, appreciating debate. I wondered aloud if he wanted wisdom.

“No,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m wise enough.”

But of course. Wisdom is too often hard won. He had been through a violent childhood, betrayals and loneliness, a chronic illness, and years of incarceration. Through it all, he had come to understand much about himself, the world, and that which sustains us and tears us apart. Why would he want to experience more hurt just to gain a little more insight?

Instead, he said, he wanted peace.

I wonder, though. Does not wisdom bring us a measure of peace?

Woman with eyes closed, face serene - showing wisdom, peace, and courage

Wisdom, Kindness, and Letting Go

Wisdom teaches us to live in the world with grace and kindness. At the same time, wisdom understands that kindness is not always soft and passive. It is never kind to tolerate cruelty. Knowing this, wisdom helps us wield kindness without confusing it with manipulation or abuse, and in that ability to stand up to power with gentle confidence, lies serenity.

Peace can also be found in the wisdom that allows us to let go. Oddly enough, this wisdom also reminds us to embrace life passionately and love it fiercely, no matter what. I see this when I sit with dying patients who are able to mourn, surrender, and say their tender good-byes to everything, including themselves, with a serenity that comes of having lived and loved fully.

In Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” [1] we ask for the “wisdom to know the difference” between what we can and cannot control. In such wisdom, lies peace.

How do we find a wisdom like that?

God and the Serenity Prayer

In The Way of Serenity, his book about the Serenity Prayer, Father Jonathan Morris suggests that spiritual discernment is a necessary step if we want to “know the difference” between two ways to live or work or be. He invites us to examine ourselves, our minds and hearts, over a period of time. As we follow one option, do we experience peace and serenity? Do we feel closer to God, find it easier to pray, and love those around us? Or does the opposite occur? [2]

By asking such questions, we discover wisdom. For Morris, though, it’s not our own pondering, nor is it guidance from other people, no matter how old or experienced, that allows us know what we must do. True wisdom, he tells us, comes from God. To support this idea, he quotes Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

In other words, we should take God seriously, should honor and respect God. This means, we should seek to please God, to care “more about what God thinks than about what others think.” [3] We should seek God’s will for us, listen for God’s voice, and honor the guidance God offers. This will help us discern what is right and good and holy. It will help us know when to speak out for change and when to accept life as it comes.

Compassion and Love as Reflections of Wisdom

For the Dalai Lama, wisdom is the most important part of our intelligence, but we lose that wise intelligence when “our minds are dominated by anger.” [4] Whether we are seeking God’s insight or not, if anger clouds our thinking, we can no longer distinguish between right and wrong. Rather than choosing crusades with care, we battle uselessly against whatever annoys or threatens us, as if tilting at windmills. Then we ignore that which most needs our attention: our own capacity for compassion and love. We decide we cannot change our inner selves. In this, no serenity lies.

To find peace, the Dalai Lama tells us, we should focus on developing a real love, based not on our attachment to friends and family, but on an altruistic response to the suffering of every being. He calls this an “[u]ndiscriminating, spontaneous, and unlimited compassion” for the world and all those in it. [5] Based in wisdom, such compassion leads to peace and serenity.

An Impediment to Wisdom

I suspect it can go the other way, as well. A lack of peace and serenity can impede wisdom.

Recently, I was startled by the deep frustration and impatience I heard from one of the nurses at the hospital where I work. Because of the circumstances, I was not able to seek to understand her underlying fear or doubt or grief, so I do not know what internal pain caused her to speak with such annoyance, but when I went to her with a question about a patient’s search for his cell phone, she cried out, “I can’t believe patients expect us to keep track of their phones. We work so hard for them, and they get mad because they can’t find their phones. Well, it’s not our fault.”

This is the anger that gets in our way of our wisdom. It impedes our compassion. Caught up in her own wounds, the nurse seemed unable to consider what the patient felt.

The man was seriously ill with cancer. He was already annoyed at being in the hospital because he had a deadline coming up at work and felt powerless to do anything about it. To make matters worse, he wasn’t allowed to get out of bed when he wanted. Used to controlling his life and his actions, he felt abandoned, helpless, and scared, but was too proud to admit this. For him, that phone was his connection to others. It gave him a sense of agency, because at least he knew how to control this electronic object. Without it, he felt adrift, even useless. Although he asked repeatedly for help locating it, no one had followed through. Probably staff felt vexed by his persistence, but to him, it seemed no one cared.

The Wisdom of Considering Others

With wisdom, we can think about others and feel compassion for them. We can address what can be changed and provide comfort to ease the suffering of that which cannot. Wisdom helps us understand the difference.

Of course, the nurse probably felt overwhelmed. Having more to do during her shift than she could possibly get to, she may have felt that she had no time for unexpected problems. She could not cope. In this situation, what could the nurse control?

The classic response to this question is to suggest that we cannot control the actions of others, nor can we control the random nature of reality, but we can control how we respond to that which is our life. Indeed, when I am at work, at least, I do attempt to control my responses, regardless of the pain or chaos in my own personal life.

Trying to Control Everyone Else

Some days I do a better or worse job of this. In my early twenties, I worked for a short time as a barmaid. I did not suffer fools, gladly or not. Though at times, I ignored the rude looks and comments men made at me, thinking it wasn’t worth the effort to respond, at other times I chided them, cursed them, threw things, and kicked them out.

Did wisdom help me know when I might change a person or at least get some boor to shut up? When I was silent, was that wisdom?

I doubt it. At that young age, I acted more out of my feelings of threat, annoyance, frustration, and anger than from any kind of wisdom. I didn’t know what I could change and what I couldn’t. I was trying to change everything and everyone, except, perhaps, myself.

Understanding Our Personal Story

How much insight does this nurse have into her own hurt and fear? Is she aware of her childhood wounds? Does she realize how they compel her to behave now that she is an adult? Has she wrestled with right and wrong, independence and helplessness, responsibility and incapacity? By exploring ourselves and our worldview in this way, we develop a wisdom that guides us in responding to neediness, unkindness, and attack. By delving into our own suffering and offering ourselves comfort rather than shame, we become more compassionate, kind, and loving with everyone.

Such wisdom does not automatically come with age. To become wise, we must listen, ask for guidance from something larger than ourselves. We must learn from our experiences and question our beliefs, whether those beliefs are religious, political, or simply assumptions we make about how the world works and what life is. This is not easy. To be open to new ideas, to new revelations, is hard enough, because it’s scary when our worldview is threatened. But the deepest and most compassionate wisdom comes when, though our world crashes down around us and our heart cracks open, we still find the capacity to love.

The Wisdom of the Aged

I sometimes marveled at the wisdom my mother showed even though her dementia left her, at times, barely able to complete a sentence.

One day, apropos of nothing in particular that I can remember, she told me, “No one is perfect, but you can sure break your heart trying to be.” Another time, she helped me understand what makes memory loss so heart-breaking. I thought her poor memory would make her feel confused, but she said it made her feel lonely. “Because you can’t remember someone you saw just yesterday. And you can’t think about the nice parts of the visit and dream about seeing them again.”

Perhaps because of my experience with my mother, I am not surprised when patients with deep dementia offer me startling wisdom. This wisdom is not just an intelligence, an insight. To be wisdom, it must also contain compassion and love.

Compassion, Love, and Wisdom

The other day, I visited with a woman in her early 90’s who staff expected would die within the next few days. The woman knew who she was, but not much else. She didn’t realize she was in a hospital, for instance. Though I introduced myself to her, she didn’t seem to know what my role was, though she suspected I was religious. She also understood that I was there to help her, so she asked me for water, and I helped her drink.

After a while, she requested a prayer.

“What do you want me to pray for?” I asked.

“Peace and harmony for all mankind,” she said.

Smiling, I prayed for that. I also prayed for her and her family.

Then I asked if there was anything else I could do.

“Enjoy life,” she told me, her words firm and clear.

I felt blessed.

The Wisdom to See and Know

We talked a little longer, nothing of consequence, and some of what she told me I couldn’t understand. Her accent was thick from her Eastern European roots, and dementia may have garbled her words. I did make out that she thought I was going to take her to church. It took a while, but at last she understood she would not be able to go to church at that time.

“Then you go on your own,” she said.

I told her I would. So, with a few more words and a kiss on her forehead, I left.

How often we have the opportunity to bless one another. This woman seemed to understand what she could change and what she could not. She did not wear herself out trying to influence the course of her life. Instead, she used her compassion, her kindness, her loving heart to remain open to what came before her. I felt touched, seen more clearly by her than I am sometimes seen by those whose minds are sharp and whose brains are quick. To see, to know, to listen – this is wisdom.

Developing Wisdom

Though my mother never “feared the Lord,” being not at all religious, she managed to develop the gentle kindness that comes from truly embodying our lives, from knowing and forgiving our pain. The elderly patient believed deeply in a loving and gracious God who could make the world right. She respected and trusted this God. From that God, she felt accepted unconditionally, and in her wisdom, she passed that acceptance on to me.

I suspect there’s little in this life we can actually control. To give up our need for such control is wisdom. If I am fortunate, I will find that kind of wisdom at the end of my life, if not before.

I also hope to act as if I understand that, while we can control more than we may realize, we do not gain such control by chastising ourselves or others. Force of will and determination do not help us control ourselves any more than they help us control the world. Nor does shouting about or praying for or demanding the change we wish to see. Instead, change comes from acceptance, compassion, and loving action.

We can control how much acceptance, compassion, and love we bring to the world. When we acknowledge this, we move that much closer to the wisdom that allows us to give up to God what is out of our control. We also move that much closer to peace.

In faith and fondness,



  1. God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
  2. Morris, Jonathan, The Way of Serenity: Finding Peace and Happiness in the Serenity Prayer, Electronic reproduction, New York: HarperOne, 2014, Chapter 35.
  3. Ibid Chapter 34.
  4. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, “Compassion as the Pillar of World Peace,”Transforming Terror : Remembering the Soul of the World, edited by Karin Lofthus Carrington, and Susan Griffin, University of California Press, 2011, 186.
  5. Ibid 185.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens