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What Does It Mean to Be Wise?

The image of the wise old owl is solidly engrained in the human imagination. Whether you’re reading Greek mythology or “Winnie the Pooh,” if there is a wise animal in the cast of characters, it’s likely to be an owl. While this literary symbolism may have a lengthy, well-established history, it doesn’t necessarily mean that wisdom requires large eyes, lush feathers, sharp talons, nocturnal habits, or the ability to turn your head 270 degrees. What does it mean to be wise?

What Does It Mean to Be Wise?

According to poet and playwright Alden Nowlan, “The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.”

What does it mean to be wise? While the answer varies by culture and tradition, one thing seems clear: It’s more than a matter of simply accumulating facts and regurgitating them when asked to do so. Even a brief exploration of wisdom reveals that it is a complex concept with many parts that is often identified as much by what it isn’t as by what it is. To better understand wisdom, let’s explore some of the characteristics typically associated with it.


As reports, knowledge and wisdom may have a great deal in common, but when you dig a little deeper, they have unique meanings. While knowledge refers to your familiarity with facts, wisdom is an older word that means a person has proper judgement about what is right or true. Although the definitions sound quite similar, you’ll notice that having wisdom requires a greater level of understanding and application. While knowledge simply requires you to repeat a fact, wisdom demands that you know the relevant facts, identify them, and apply them appropriately. That’s much trickier.


When asked to name the wisest person they know, most people will name an older person. It’s not because white hair and wrinkles confer wisdom. It’s because the longer someone has lived, the more opportunities they’ve had to gain experience. A more varied and extensive list of experiences, especially if it’s paired with a healthy amount of knowledge, seems to go hand-in-hand with wisdom.


According to William James, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” When you become overly focused on a detail, you can lose sight of the big picture. When you have a strong sense of what truly matters, it’s easier to keep your attention on the things that are truly important. In fact, many argue that kindness and a willingness to consider how others are impacted are vital facets of wisdom.


In As You Like It, William Shakespeare wrote, “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” He’s not the only thinker to use this juxtaposition between wisdom and foolishness to great effect. What makes humility an inherent part of wisdom? A wise individual recognizes that there is always more to learn and has a willingness to listen and explore.


“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions,” says Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. The thirst for information and the willingness to seek it out are vital components in gathering both knowledge and experience. They also help shape your perspective of the world. When you recognize that, it’s easy to understand the argument that curiosity helps to fuel an individual accumulation of wisdom. Even if wisdom isn’t a personal goal, if you’re curious about the world around you, you’ll likely be set on a path toward greater wisdom by the information and experiences unlocked by your inquisitiveness.


What does it mean to be wise? Clearly, the idea is up for interpretation.

At Hearthside Senior Living, we’re blessed with a thriving community of wise and active seniors from a wide range of backgrounds. Our warm and inviting communities makes it easy for seniors to embrace a healthy lifestyle, with home-cooked and restaurant-style meals, exercise classes, and a nurse devoted to residents’ health and wellness. To learn more about our amenities and services, please contact us online.

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