The Getting of Wisdom

From Story Act 1, 2017

Last week at my favourite place, I had an epiphany, it’s a slight exaggeration to call it an epiphany perhaps it was more of an unexpected insight. Not a blinding knock-you-over insight into the meaning of life yet significant enough that it stayed with me and inspired me to write about it. But before I share what happened let me digress and tell you a little about my favourite place.

It’s a place that used to be ubiquitous but regrettably is fast disappearing which is disastrous for the planet as this place holds the wisdom of the world. I fear the day is coming when I’ll no longer be able to wile away hours losing myself by becoming disinterested in time, or in the normal routines of my everyday life. It’s generally quiet in my favourite place yet it doesn’t matter how many people are there I manage to tune out by tuning into myself, into a private conversation between me and whatever author is in my hands. It’s in this place where I grow my inside. I suspect that if you’re reading this you’ll also identify with the local bookshop as a favourite place.

Back to my insight…it was early morning as I waited patiently to pick up a book I’d ordered, Maps For Lost Lovers, a novel by Nadeem Aslam, a British-Pakistani writer recommended to me by a trusted reader friend. (Incidentally, the book is breathtakingly gorgeous. Equal parts tragic yet beautiful in its depiction of the lives of Pakistani immigrants in England’s north. Highly recommended.) It was here that I was privy to a conversation between Andrea – my book advisor/seller – and her purchaser let’s call her Patricia. It went like this…

Andrea: Have you read the book she wrote before this one?

Patricia: I think so but I can’t remember.

I read a book a day and I never remember anything I read…

And there it was…an insight into Patricia’s life…as well as my own. Patricia’s glib acceptance that she couldn’t recall anything she reads opened up a rabbit hole I dove right down into. I couldn’t help wonder if it was indeed possible to read a book a day and remember nothing. If so, what was the point of such experiences if they had no appreciable effect on who we are, what we think or how we live? Psychologically speaking why do anything that doesn’t help us ‘individuate’ to use Carl Jung’s concept. In broad terms to ‘individuate’ is to integrate both unconscious and conscious selves to reach our highest self, to become a wise being? Is it enough to spend hours of our lives in mindless activities, merely filling in time?

At the time I struggled to sort through a mishmash of feelings. Why had this seemingly innocuous conversation continued to puzzle me? Afterwards, as I reflected on my confusion, I identified wistfulfulness – what a luxury to be able to read a book a day; envy – oh, if only I had that much time to read; and a certain sadness for Patricia, for myself, for fellow humans. I thought about how much of our precious lives we waste by not remembering the who, why, where, when of encounters with others. Why is it that we so often refuse to engage deeply with others  writers, artists, politicians, historians, teachers, brothers, sisters, and on and on? Do we actually hate learning new things?

Or, is life really just one big Groundhog Day? Or, is ‘individuation’ or to use the colloquial the ‘getting of wisdom’ even possible in this overwrought, overstimulated life today? Staggeringly, it’s said that every two days we create as much information as we did up until 2003. But information is not knowledge, knowledge differs from understanding and understanding does not necessarily guarantee wisdom.

Wisdom has many beginnings but ultimately it’s recognised as an embodied quality (inside) revealed through a life lived with passion and grace (outside).

None of us is born wise. Through life’s struggles we either get it or not. Art points us in the right direction because by its very nature, it deals with humans in messy situations either railing against themselves or others, against the world, or against the natural elements. We can learn vicariously that in tragedy, protagonists often learn too late to listen inwardly and consequently destroy theirs and other’s lives. Think of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists – Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet – their inability to listen inwards reveals a hubris that brings them undone.

By listening inwards we enter the languages of feelings, of the senses, of the unspoken, of understanding the symbolic order – the world of art and culture. Listening inwards taps us into our inner teacher and inner conversations accessed through playfulness, through our preparedness to make-believe, through reflecting on the lives of others.

What if…? What happened here…? What are the circumstances that have led to this behaviour…? How would I behave in similar circumstances? Where is the Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet in me…?

Listening inwards may sound slightly esoteric but Jonathon Lear describes it as an eminently practical skill which involves three phases:

  1. naming the experience and the accompanying emotions (as above with Patricia and Andrea);
  2. increasing a practical skill of monitoring life experiences (going down the rabbit hole);
  3. interpreting the experience (understanding through analysis).

As I descended deeper into the rabbit hole I wondered if perhaps Patricia’s habit of spending her days reading enthralling narratives, meeting fascinating characters, following intricate plots, might possibly stay with her more consciously if she learnt to practice what psychoanalyst and paediatrician DW Winnicott describes as growing ‘an inside'. My suspicion about Patricia’s and my own lack of stickiness in using experiences to learn from suggests our inner and outer worlds may not be in unison. Incidentally, they’re accessed by two distinctly different modes of thought, and housed in different hemispheres of the brain so it does require joined up conversations. The brilliant American educationalist Parker Palmer explains the concept of growing an inside in the following way: ‘...the inner life of any great thing will be incomprehensible to me until I develop and deepen an inner life of my own. I cannot know in another being what I do not know in myself.’

In re-surfacing from the rabbit hole to the outer worlds it’s important to regularly visit one’s favourite places anywhere where books, writers, artists, ideas, theories, narratives link both these inner and the outer worlds. This reciprocal interplay between each other – writer and reader, mother and daughter, poet and audience, artist and percipient that helps make our life experiences challenging, nourishing and meaningful. It’s at the bookshop and the theatre, where I encountered Jung’s challenge to find the myth I was unconsciously living by to assist in growing an inside. He writes:

“‘What is the myth you are living’ I found no answer to this question, and had to admit I was not living a myth, or even in a myth … So, took it upon myself to get to know ‘my’ myth and I regarded this as the task of tasks.

I reflected that I needed to take more time consciously recognising my inner myth more knowingly hopefully placing me on Wisdom Road. We all have inner teachers to guide us in locating these myths all we need to do is invite them into our conversations. At the same time, it’s useful to appreciate that paradox – when things that don’t automatically make sense enriches our lives and helps us understand the deeper complexities of life. We can’t do this alone. Inner work demands both solitude and community artists, performers, writers, poets, characters whose lives we’ll never live. By connecting and having inner and outer conversations we become more connected to ourselves as well as others.

Thanks Andrea and Patricia for taking me down the rabbit hole. I’ve learned lots about myself and how art can teach me even more.


Jonathan Lear’s ideas on ‘listening inward' can be found in, Freud (2005). DW Winnicott’s theory of ‘growing an inside’ is located in, Playing and Reality (1971). Parker Palmer’s quote on the ‘inner life’ is from his book titled, A Hidden Wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life (2004). Carl Jung’s thoughts on ‘myth’ and ‘individuation’ are written in, The Undiscovered Self: The dilemma of the individual in modern society (2006).

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Professor Judith McLean

Professor Judith McLean is the Chair in Arts Education, a joint appointment between Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) where she holds the role of Scholar in Residence. Judith’s career is distinguished by her breadth and diversity of experience as an arts educator, artist and cultural leader across Australia. She is currently a Director on the Board of Tourism and Events Queensland, and leads QUT’s executive programs using arts based practices in the corporate and government sectors.