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Some Characteristics of Wisdom

Tom Atlee · September 2003

Wisdom is applied appreciation of the wholeness of life.

Someone or something is wise to the extent he, she or it arises from and embraces life's wholeness. Through wisdom we become vehicles or channels for wholeness on behalf of life.

The better we understand wisdom, the more we will be able to understand its applications to (and in) our democratic systems. With such understandings we, as communities and nations, can then apply democratic wisdom to the pressing problems we face in the 21st Century.

Some of the hallmark chacteristics of wisdom are:

It embraces the BIG PICTURE -- in any situation, it seeks to take into consideration the long term, the full story, both objective and subjective worlds, holistic and system sciences, Spirit, context, and other deep, broad realities.

It uses MULTIPLE WAYS OF KNOWING -- for example, it uses heart, intuition, story and spirit as well as facts and reason -- and often arises out of authentic dialogue among diverse people or perspectives.

It is INCLUSIVE AND OPEN -- to diversity, novelty, otherness, nuance, disturbance, and other things that are often ignored, excluded or suppressed, thus being particularly fair and comprehensive in its approaches and mindful that "there is always more to it than that."

It is INSIGHTFUL AND APPROPRIATE -- even as it is inclusive and vast in its embrace of reality, it cuts to the essence of what needs to be understood in a situation -- the most relevant realities that need to be worked with -- particularly the underlying dynamics, the hidden resources (often masquerading as problems) and the long-term consequences.

It is HUMBLE AND RECEPTIVE -- recognizing the limitations and relativity of all perspectives and knowledge, it tolerates (and even appreciates or surrenders to) uncertainty, paradox, mystery and complexity, and so is able to entertain (and is often interested in dialoging with and learning about) diverse viewpoints, information and possibilities, while being unattached to any particular one, disinclined to blame and lighthearted about the efforts of life.

It SERVES LIFE -- caring for and appreciating the sacredness (or unique integrity and value) of all beings and living systems, it tends to focus on where life (and passion) are most vivid, and on what is important for life's healing and flourishing, and so it tends to produce (or catalyze) broadly beneficial outcomes.

It is GROUNDED IN RELATIONSHIP -- appreciating, practicing, embodying and nurturing interconnectedness among all things, it serves harmony, balance, dialogue, co-evolution and healthy feedback that supports and creatively uses diversity and authenticity.

It has an ELEGANT SIMPLICITY -- using no more (resources, words, force, etc.) than necessary and often economizing through cooperation (seeing problems as resources and enemies as allies) and elegant alignment with the realities of the situation.

It has INTEGRITY -- embodying courageous commitment to truth -- particularly one's truth to oneself and one's experience -- which can manifest as steadfastness or flexibility, depending on where the alliance with truth leads.

It has PRESENCE -- a hard to define but compelling quality of imminent, centered, mature realness that is grounded in deeper/higher realities (such as experience, Spirit and silence) and so naturally evokes respect, resonance, trust, and the stirrings of greater Life.

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