Wealth and power as proxies for wisdom

August 5, 2012

People who accumulate wealth and power clearly have skills and talents, but I’m not sure they include what most people commonly regard as wisdom — insight, ability to see things from multiple perspectives, ability to remove self-interest and work towards the greater good.

Years ago, my mother and I were discussing on the phone something in the news about Dick Cheney, and all of a sudden I got curious about what my dad thought of him.  (I think my father subsequently became disillusioned with Cheney, so this anecdote is being presented for its concept, not for its particular usefulness as understanding my dad’s current politics.)  My mom said something along the lines that my dad admired his success and wealth in business and figured from that he must be smart/have something going on — I don’t remember the exact words, but something to the effect, in a positive way, that where there’s smoke there’s fire — where there’s success/wealth there’s smarts.  Something like that.

What I heard in this is that my dad sees reflected in someone like Cheney characteristics he has in himself and sees as strengths.  Smarts and financial acumen.  I don’t think it ever occurred to him to wonder whether such traits are a good match for political leadership.  Traits I would look for, like emotional maturity and fluid thinking, I don’t think ever occur to him to screen for.  He sort of looks for somebody like himself.  He’s not the hail-fellow-well-met sort, so he’s not looking for the candidate with whom he’d like to go out for a beer.

In our society, some influential group of people has come to believe that success at capitalism and the accumulation of wealth and power are good proxies for the qualities needed in political leadership.  Judging from the example of my dad, I suspect all this reflects is that these people are trying to select people with whom they feel some affinity.  It is not clear to me that these qualities are helpful criteria for selecting a leader who will be successful at governing and leading.

We’re usually blind to the weaknesses in our world view — in a sense, we don’t know what we don’t know.  If we lack the ability to understand other people, for example, we probably don’t realize that we do.  We may see that trait and its consequences as something else.  I know people whose behavior would clearly put them in the category of having a personality disorder, if we want to use currently accepted labels, who label themselves as (only) having Asperger’s Syndrome.  People who think they are helping, others may see as crossing a line into enabling.  Our vision of ourselves is limited, especially by habits of coping mechanisms designed to protect the self from seeing more than it can handle.

Where I see change would be most helpful is at the level of the private individual.  Like campaigns for improved physical fitness, I see the need for improved mental fitness.  We need to get to know ourselves and restore that self to health.  When we try to improve things by fighting with each other at levels removed from this basic issue, we get distracted into eddies that don’t lead anywhere.  There’s a song by Jewel that talks about not getting made useless by despair, I think; I would add not acceding to being made useless by distractions.   I am not terribly interested in getting caught up in superficial pursuits that keep us from doing the real work.  And the real work is not glamorous or salving to the ego, although we certainly need to be gentle with our egos and carefully increase our “workouts,” not try to be “weekend warriors” of mental improvement.

I sometimes find myself briefly experiencing the world as another person does.  Most of the time I find their set-up something I am relieved not to have to live with.  (There are exceptions — I have encountered some people who are so much better than I at being peaceful in the moment, for example — they inspire me to get there myself.)    I suspect each person has to travel the path they are on, that for them it suits.

In my previous work I have helped other people who want to, who have asked for help with, who are willing to become unstuck on their path.  I think when people have wanted my help with remaining stuck on their path, because for some reason that does not serve they have come to insist on that spot and its combination of benefits and costs, the universe has eventually figured out a way to end that deadly embrace for the long run.  I don’t think my calling is to provide support for something that does not serve.  Which is not to say that a relationship can’t be worked out that does serve, just that so long as I have willingness to (only) serve, the relationship may not be what the other person has in mind, a relationship that would feed their personal agenda, not serve their greater good.

For me the good news is that my own willingness is all I need, not the cooperation of the other person or even the understanding of what will end a dysfunctional relationship.  This is not to say I am not saddened by its ending, but I know that that loss, however painful, is nothing compared to the loss I will experience if I let go of my willingness to serve.  Maybe I should add that I’m always open if the other person should change their mind about wanting to follow their own agenda and instead become willing to serve.

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