Human beings are like rats: We like to acquire things. I recall a rat I once took care of for a friend. I had never known a rat before, so it was a learning experience. The most striking thing about the rat to me was that it had a home, a little dome in which to eat in private, and it liked to store all the food it could acquire there.
It had a food bowl in its cage, but it never ate at the bowl. When I put food in its bowl, the rat would hurry over and pick through the day’s winnings, stuffing as many valuable items into its mouth that would fit and stowing them in its house–and with a sense of urgency! Not knowing exactly what a rat likes to eat, I gave it biscuits, seed, nuts, vegetables, and sometimes fruit. From time to time, I would hear it eating in its home, but I had no idea what it was eating. I assumed it took the food it wanted to eat and left the rest.
When I cleaned its cage and lifted its home up for the first time, I discovered the things it didn’t like to eat but wanted to add to its larder anyway. I learned that rats are indeed like people. They have things they want to use now and things they want to accumulate for some future time that may never come. The desire to possess something that might be useful someday but not today wasn’t invented by humans.
Wealth in Material
In the human world, we have material wealth in addition to food that we acquire and use. We own land, homes, vehicles, appliances, clothing, and a whole gamut of personal items. We take it to a level of abstraction never known before modern technology: Wealth in the form of numbers in an account that exists in a computer system. Like the rat, we acquire and accumulate wealth because we want to use it in our daily lives but also because it has some value that makes us desire having more of it.
Our society has become one obsessed with quantities rather than function. We fill our larders for the future, then continue filling beyond present and future need. Worse, we fill our larders so that we can compare them to the larders of other people and feel happy we are ahead of them. At the end of a person’s life, this turns out to be an absurdity similar to a pet rat stowing great piles of unwanted food when it’s well fed every day. The desire to acquire takes on a life of its own, providing a sense of satisfaction when nothing is accomplished but to move something from one place to another.
Wealth in Knowledge
Knowledge is very similar to this. Like wealth, knowledge can be acquired, and it has value because of its usefulness. Knowledge makes it possible to accomplish tasks, solve problems, and acquire new abilities. Knowledge can also be lost when it isn’t used.
If I want to translate an ancient language to English, I have to acquire the knowledge about both languages, my readers, and the original author of the ancient text. Otherwise, the translation will be inaccurate or impossible to comprehend.
Knowledge, though, like material wealth, activates the rat in people. We like to acquire it for reasons other than its use. We want to know everything about a subject and become an expert in it. We want to defeat others in debates by never having the wrong answer. We want to have complete certainty about the unknown. We want to enjoy the pleasure of learning new things.
A single person can study a subject and never reach the end of all the knowledge that can be acquired about it. They can become very admiring of themselves and other people who have become experts in a topic, yet they may only know a fraction of all the knowledge about it that exists. There is simply too much to learn in a single life span. The acquisition of knowledge, like material, can become an endeavor without a purpose beyond piling more into one place.
Wealth in Wisdom
This brings me to another subject: Wisdom.
Wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge. It answers “Why?” questions, like why we value one thing more than another, for example. In discussing wealth of material and knowledge, I’ve been careful to avoid mixing in wisdom. People can do the same thing for foolish or wise reasons.
A person can acquire great financial wealth for the purpose of creating a charity that can help society as a whole, or they can acquire great wealth to control society with the power than it makes possible. Knowing which goal is wise and which is foolish is the acquisition of wisdom.
Like material and knowledge, wisdom comes in different kinds. There is wisdom about what is wise in our personal lives. Why are we in a given career? Why do we have the friends and relationships that we choose? Why are we pursuing the long-term goals that we’ve set for ourselves? These are difficult questions whose answers change over the years. The answers never seem to be final. Experience and perspective as we move through life make us re-assess the answers. Often, though, we neglect asking these questions until the answers become so obsolete that we have to stop and rethink our lives.
There is also wisdom about society. We have individual lives, but we exist in larger societies that have their own goals and group wisdom. A company can begin life making a given product that’s innovative and useful. It changes people’s lives for the better. Over time, the company’s purpose can change from providing that innovation to simply controlling a stream of income. The answers to its “Why?” questions can go unquestioned for far longer than an individual person’s do, and its wisdom can dwindle away or grow depending on whether its managers and employees make a habit of asking them or not.
Wisdom also can be about a person’s inner life, which is the kind of wisdom religions and philosophies like Buddhism acquire. This type of wisdom draws conclusions about basic questions like why we are unhappy and why we are satisfied in one situation or another. They ask questions that drive all the other forms of wisdom. They are the core questions whose answers inform the “Why?” questions about relationships, careers, and society.
Unfortunately, these core questions are also often the last “Why?” questions that we ask, and many people only ask them in times of crisis and turmoil. They don’t spend enough time developing the answers, and so personal and societal wisdom goes underdeveloped, being based on poor answers to these core “Why?” questions.
Societies and people who make a conscious habit of acquiring wisdom have a better sense of purpose, have the ability to correct themselves, and have the flexibility to adapt to change. When wisdom is neglected, we become more mechanical in our behavior and thinking. Habits are difficult to change, systems are difficult to reform, and ideological paradigms become inflexible.
Modern society in America has become very good at acquiring wealth in material and knowledge but not wisdom, and this turning away from wisdom has been exported around the world. It is to me the root cause of many crises that we face in the world, such as income inequality, ethnic conflicts, or ecological disaster, and only wisdom will allow us to solve them.