“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7, New International Version, © 1984)
I read that Bible verse early in what I call my “therapy years”. I was 27, working as an Art Director for an industry publishing company, and deeply involved in my church (in fact I would soon be off on my church-supported stint as a “smuggler for Jesus” in Europe).
The immediate impact of that verse was to make me feel better about paying for my ongoing therapy sessions (with a Christian psychologist) after I had used up my annual insurance benefit for outpatient therapy. I was facing about three months, I think, of paying full-fare for my “wisdom”, and it seemed like an awful lot of money.
I don’t regret paying that money. I don’t miss it. I think I made the right choice. But I have been wondering a bit about how to quantify the effects of the years of self-examination, therapy, counseling, reading, journaling and psychic-visiting that followed.
I find I must seriously consider the possibility that much of the calm and happiness that now mark my life are as much the product of natural processes that influenced my physiology, (in most particular my brain) as they are the earned result of all of my navel-gazing.
It could be argued that the single most remarkable thing about us humans is the capacity we have to use our minds to “step outside of ourselves” and observe our own behavior. We can act instinctively, react quickly, and yet at the same time (or shortly thereafter) notice what we are doing and analyze it. It is a rather amazing ability, and one that we point to as a large part of what defines us as “humans”. But at every level beneath this one (both cognitive and physiological), we are still such animals, really. I know that we give this idea a nod in many ways, and yet I don’t know how much we really give it its due.
As a young man, it was probably obvious to everyone but me how driven my behavior was by the testosterone pulsing in my system. I would sometimes find myself in a sexual situation that a part of my mind — had it the courage to speak up — would have asked of the rest of me: “But, do you really want to be here?”. (The answer would, at times, have been “No”).
(Is this the dilemma that Paul talks about in the Bible as well? “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15, New International Version, © 1984)? Such questions troubled me as a young, enthusiastic Christian).
We know now — thanks to science — that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 27. So in that sense it’s not surprising that the late-mid-twenties marked the beginning of my “therapy years”. I was a young professional out in the world, with enough experience to begin to question whether the way I engaged that world was really optimal.
We read about the “mid life crisis” that hits forty-year-old men, but I was a bit early for that. And yet, when I hit thirty, I found myself in another period of re-examination. I did a bit more therapy, and read a lot of self-help literature (which was coming out like a flood in the popular press then). “New Age” ideas had also become popular enough to be considered “mainstream”, and so I found an easy substitute for my my abandoned Christian belief system (as well as a whole new set of “enlightened” ideas and techniques to try out in order to achieve emotional stability and “happiness”).
I worked that New Age angle for about as long as I’d worked my Christianity (roughly 15 years), eventually finding a psychic who had a technique of deeply affirming me as an individual that set me on a quest for my new Holy Grail of total self-acceptance (a quest that eventually led me to abandon the “spell of belief” altogether).
But I can remember many years made up of long, painful days trying to find a way out of depression or anxiety into a brighter world, using any tool, tip or technique that presented itself.
Eventually, the clouds began to lift. And over a rather long period of time, I found myself feeling more and more like a complete and coherent being, a process that took a long time to get rolling but, once it did, created a sort of momentum that was its own positive feedback loop. And then, one day, I realized that I was actually happy and getting happier, becoming increasingly content with the way I saw the world and the person I was in that world. And one night the familiar catalog of past events that I had mulled, autopsied, and replayed in endless mental loops for years and years suddenly lost their psychic punch. The past, it would seem, had finally slipped into irrelevance.
The story I would have told you then would have been one of pride in all of the “self work” I had done. I was proud that I had consistently made the choice to “buy wisdom”, to look inward and face my demons and — most importantly — have the courage to be willing to be completely accepting of whoever it was “Bob” turned out to be. It was, indeed, a point of pride, and of no small comfort when I compared my humble external accomplishments to my peers who had families and houses and such. Others may have gained the world, but I had gained my soul!
But now I’m not so sure. Not about my current persistent happiness or the man I’ve turned out to be, but about just what the major factors in that process really were.
For it turns out that there is science to be considered here: for not long after my young male brain had matured, it began its cognitive decline into the decay of the thirties and forties. But with a twist: for it seems that the aging brain works to compensate for the “Swiss cheese-like” holes forming in our gray matter by creating new synaptic connections between the hemispheres of the brain. So what I thought was the product of my deep introspection and analysis — namely my new-found ability to synthesize thought and emotion — was more likely the result of this natural patch-work happening inside my skull. And then, of course, there is the seemingly inevitable age-related drop in male testosterone levels (that goes a long, long way to mellowing out a man).
After a few years of those lower testosterone levels, I found myself much less the jittery lone-wolf I had been before, and was more like a cat that didn’t mind curling up and purring with people now and again. People I had known for years almost overnight became beloved friends whom I treasured. I became a loving man.
Then came the years when I was seeing people I knew in the obituaries every week (most in the year leading up to the death of my father at age 91). When my dad died, I was just about exactly half his age. Suddenly I was thrust into another period of reflection, only now I was looking back on a life of learning my professional, artistic skills from the perspective of the master pondering his path to that mastery. And after a couple rough years of transition into “middle age” that followed, I finally decided that my primary job would no longer be my own self-discovery and growth, but that the remaining years (at least until the next phase hit) would be to get on with doing all that I could with all that I had for as long as I could.
And then finally, after all of that, I hit a time in my life where I began to feel that I had, after all, gained a good bit of wisdom. I wasn’t ready to be a yogi on a mountaintop – - I had to much yet to do with the remnant of youth still in my physical body and brain — but I did have that sense that if it all ended tomorrow, I had, at least, achieved that much with my life.
But now I wonder just how much of that wisdom came from all of my questing and questioning, anguish and acquiring, and how much was mostly the result of having simply stayed alive long enough for my brain to move through the phases of the first fifty years of my life? It’s impossible to know.
(In fairness to my introspective self, I think that what I am really looking at here is the issue of emotional equilibrium and emotional intelligence — the sort of self-knowing that allows us to make decisions based on a certain clarity about what we feel, desire and need, not our storehouse of general knowledge or acquired technical skills, though the former helps in the application and appreciation of the latter, perhaps more than the acquisition of the latter inevitably brings about the former).
In short, it is not impossible to believe that a good deal of what I would like to take “credit” for (in terms of my general “happiness” or “contentment”) is pretty much pure biology that I have dressed up in a contemporary “personal growth” narrative.
This viewpoint has the appeal of injecting a bit of humility into the way I view the “wisdom” I have acquired in my lifetime. And that, to me, is a fairly good indicator of the amount of “truth” in the idea. It’s something I like about science: it puts us in our place in a particular way. Meaning that it doesn’t degrade us (as another person might for their own gain), but neither does it give us license to think of ourselves as more clever than we actually are. Science is, I think, the single best mirror we have in which to behold our true selves. Everything else is wishing and fear.
Does this mean, then, that all the reading, counseling, praying, thinking and wondering I did in my teens, twenties, thirties and forties was a waste of time, energy and money? No, I don’t think I can say that. After all, I had to fill those difficult years with something, and I did, at least, choose to occupy myself some useful actives (I went to art school, for example, and worked a series of professional jobs, continuing to seize opportunities to develop my natural artistic talents into professional abilities). But when it comes to all of the “self-help” work, I think it will remain an open question whether it was anywhere near as effective as I needed to believe it was at the time!
And so I’m left with this: not knowing, completely, from whence I — as the individual I now am — sprang.
My DNA, of course, was there from the start, and I was lucky enough to have a family that saw to it that I didn’t starve or get eaten by hyenas. I was educated and socialized by my parents and siblings so that I could make my own way in the world. I had opportunities for counseling when my melancholic and anxious personality was more than I could handle. I had time alone to think…and think…and think (perhaps a bit too much of that). And I had a talent for art and expression that gave me a place to invest time and education that eventually became a deeply satisfying career. But in so many ways I am simply a male animal that has had the good fortune to live long enough to mature through the sequential phases of childhood into a mature adult who is now able to enjoy his life free from many of the uncomfortable by-products of DNA’s insistent urge to procreate.
After eons of the biological evolution that led to my own human parents, I have navigated the tumbling whitewater of my individual evolutionary path and lived to pop out the other side — onto calmer waters where evolution doesn’t give a rip about what happens to me next. It is a fluke of history that I am alive in a time where so many of us get to live as long as we do in this post-evolutionary land of (potentially) enjoyable existence. And though I can’t completely credit my own wisdom for getting me here, maybe I can borrow back just a bit of that satisfaction — suspect though it is — in recognizing that I do have the wisdom to recognize who and what I am.