From time to time, I am drawn back to this brief poem by William Stafford. He offers wise words about wisdom. It’s not easy to be wise about wisdom, since, when we presume to be wise, we are often, at just those moments, blinded by our own folly; or because it’s hard to resist the temptation to be trite, offering the equivalent of fortune cookie sayings or greeting card bromides. At any rate, Stafford says:
Wisdom is having things right in your life
and knowing why.
If you do not have things right in your life
you will be overwhelmed:
you may be heroic, but you will not be wise.
If you have things right in your life,
but you do not know why.
You are just lucky, and you will not move
in the little ways that encourage good fortune.
The saddest are those not right in their lives
who are acting to make things right for others:
they act only from the self—
and that self will never be right:
no luck, no help, no wisdom. (William Stafford, The Way it Is, p. 141)
If you’ve ever been the target, the project, for someone who’s “acting to make things right for others” without having things “right in their lives,” you know how much chaos they can create and how much damage they can do. Jesus warned about this kind of thing: “take the log out of your own eye before trying to do anything about the sawdust in your brother’s or sister’s eye.”
The greatest challenge Stafford offers me, though, is the connection he makes between feeling “overwhelmed” and not having “things right in your life.” Feeling overwhelmed is like a warning light on the dashboard. It’s not just a sign that my schedule is too tight, my days are too full and the expectations I feel are too demanding. It’s deeper and more important than un-jamming a jammed calendar. Feeling overwhelmed calls me to both reflection and action: it invites me to figure-out what’s not right, how it got that way, why it got that way, and work my way back to the place and pace of wisdom. I often can’t do it alone and I certainly can’t always do it quickly; but, then, wisdom includes the willingness to ask for help and the acknowledgement that real change almost never happens instantly.