What is most important in life?

If you have a deep longing to grow, you are in the right place. It will not be easy or quick. It will cost you great time and effort. You will fail and search your soul and sacrifice. If you are up for it, then you are in the right place. and are looking to grow in a profound way which will not be easy nor quick but will cost you great time, effort, failure, soul searching, and sacrifice, then you are in the right place.

This is the beginning of a multiple part series called, “Fundamentals of Wisdom” where I explore, define, and guide you towards what is most important in life.

It strikes me odd that our culture so rarely reflects deeply on what it is to flourish. What makes a life truly meaningful? What is it to thrive deeply? We go through so much of life not stopping to ask ourselves: what is most important in life? Do you have a compelling answer? I'm here to help you find one.

You have a deep innate hunger to grow, to experience love, to live a meaningful life. It’s natural to who you are. You see, we all have a strong desire to grow even if we don’t fully have words for what that growth specifically is.

Yet life is difficult and the way of growth and wisdom is anything but easy.

In my work as a clinical psychotherapist my job is to help people grow. In the last decade I have seen hundreds of people come to me in their darkest moments with a dream. Despite their struggle they have a deep longing for change but they do not know the way. They lack the skills and perspective to get where they want to go. To become who they dare to dream of. So they seek me out to help them in the way of growth.

As I work with these courageous men and women I’ve seen people experience a radical journey of transformation.

A journey of understanding and overcoming trauma, addictions, struggles, and fears

A journey to hope

A journey to connection and intimacy

A journey to belonging

A journey to new ways of viewing the world

A journey of purpose and gratitude and joy

Yet I’ve seen that there is something missing in my work with clients. Despite the great decades of work of traditional psychology and the more recent contributions of positive psychology, over the years I’ve looked around and asked some fundamental questions.

Questions like:

What is the good life?

How do we know if someone is thriving?

Who is flourishing?

While common sense can begin to answer these important questions, when I ask people what makes a thriving life or what makes one wise, I haven’t found a clear and compelling enough answer. I’ve heard bits and pieces, but I have not found a clear, comprehensive, and relevant philosophy for what a thriving life truly is.

So I have set out to create a philosophy of wisdom, a mental model of the good life. In creating this system of wisdom I first seek to help myself answer these fundamental questions, and ultimately to help you grow in wisdom.

Since I believe wisdom is the single most important pursuit of our lives, I figure that my attempt to put together this philosophy of wisdom could benefit others. I hope that's you.

The most important question

Let me ask you, what is most important in life?

Yes, what is most important in life? This is a simple question with profound implications.

It’s fair to say that not only is this a question you probably don’t ask yourself regularly, but perhaps you’ve never asked yourself. Yet, it’s obvious that it’s a valuable question to ask and answer well.

I want to answer that question for you today and convince you of why my answer is one worth living for and pursuing.

So, what is most important in life?

In a single word: wisdom.

Wisdom is more important for you than wealth, success, or even love. Wisdom is more important than your own freedom. Without wisdom you will ruin all of these things. Or never get there to begin with.

Let’s look at wealth. Without wisdom, you will limit the money you can make. Not only that, but if you make money, without wisdom you will still come to ruin and will not live a life of meaning, purpose, and peace. I’ve known many wealthy people who are miserable.

How about success? You can climb to the top of the mountain of success in whatever career or calling you have, but if you do not live wisely, it will ring empty and hollow at the summit.

“But Josh” you say, “how can love not be the most important in life?” It’s important, yes, but without wisdom, you will never grow in deep and abiding love with others. Without wisdom you will let conflict, fear, resentment, and selfishness creep in and your despite your best intentions you will poison the relationships you most care about, and that is one of the greatest tragedies you could experience.

Even freedom. Yes freedom, or liberty, that greatest of American ideals is not most important. I have talked to and studied those who have lost their freedom and been imprisoned. And I can tell you that your freedom is not the most important in your life. Because if you do not live wisely, then your freedom will be wasted. And if you lose your freedom and are not wise then you will be most miserable.

Even imprisonment has not stopped the wise from thriving. For the ultimate freedom is choosing wise attitudes and actions regardless of what around you is occurring.

One of the greatest books written in the 20th century, “Man’s search for Meaning” was written by Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a victim to incredible suffering and the loss of his freedom.

One of our world’s great leaders in recent history, Desmond Tutu, was not stopped by imprisonment. Ghandi, thrived despite being imprisoned. Or consider the leadership and influence of Martin Luther King Jr. despite his limited freedoms as a black man.

And some of the most read words in human history were written from prison by the man known as Paul the Apostle:

“ Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

You need wisdom, for it is the most important thing you can pursue.

But before we go further, we must dig into this wisdom thing more and understand what it is exactly.

Wisdom Defined

What is wisdom? Many people I’ve asked can’t really give a clear answer to such an important question.

Let’s first focus on a simple definition for wisdom, and then we’ll break it down into it’s specific elements.

Wisdom = Virtuous skill in living.

Let's break that down.

Virtue - behavior showing high moral standards.

Skill - the ability to do something well; expertise.

Living - not one-time acts, or rare acts of kindness. what is a life well lived?

What you do matters. Yes, of course what you think, is a part of wisdom. But if what you think doesn’t actually impact what you do, you aren’t really wise. So wisdom must be defined by what we actually do. How we behave. And if we have great skill at something but it harms others and creates more suffering, we aren’t wise.

Being cunning is not Wisdom.

Someone may be skilled at taking advantage of other people. They may be a master manipulator, or incredibly good at controlling and using people to get their own way. We probably all know someone with great charisma and skill with people who are basically selfish and out for themselves and believe that the end justifies the means.

Skillful exploitation of people is never wisdom. Using authority for selfish gain always leads to hurting others, to poverty, to suffering. No, this may have short term gain for the individual, but never goes well in the long run. Exploiting others never gives peace, serenity, or hope. It leads to fear, anger, and arrogance. And taking from others never adds up to enough.

So wisdom must be virtuous. To have virtue, you must act for the good of the community. If your actions are not in some way helpful to others then they are not good. Virtue ethics is a kind of philosophy that asks what are virtues?, and to a lesser degree, how do we grow in them? Aristotle is the most famous of the early virtue ethicists. Thomas Aquinas continued and refined this. Many since these great thinkers have reflected on virtue. Today, I'll share some of the top virtues that I think are most important to living the good life.

But too often philosophy fails us and stays merely as an intellectual exercise. Wisdom is not high-minded irrelevant naval gazing. This isn’t about the esoteric ivory tower of academia where reputation and politics play into what and how things are studied more than what matters: people’s lives.

Virtues are skills that shape how someone lives. There are many virtues that lead to a life of character, love, and wisdom. Here are a few of the most important. Kindness, generosity, friendship, patience, hope, prudence, simplicity, self control, humility, self sacrifice, faithfulness, truthfulness, hope, emotional and social intelligence, curiosity, rational thinking, and creativity. We will explore these virtues in greater detail elsewhere. Without these virtues, friendships turn to bitter rivalry. Without these virtues, marriages will not last. Without these virtues, boys will not become men and women will not be treated with respect and people will be judged poorly and treated hatefully. Without these virtues humanity cannot survive, let alone thrive.

Wisdom is not for the elite few. You don’t need the highest IQ, the best grades, or a high paying career. You don’t need to be a 1%-er.

Wisdom is about both contemplation and action. It’s about gaining a thoughtful perspective and then acting upon it.

What will it take to do it?

Wisdom is a learnable skill

And the exciting truth is not just that wisdom is valuable but that wisdom can be learned. You can grow in wisdom. Like any craft, wisdom is a skill that can be practiced and you can improve over time. For many people wisdom has remained as an ethereal, seemingly unreachable destination, something for other people, for the old and perhaps irrelevant.

Not only can wisdom be learned, anyone can grow in wisdom. Yes, you can learn and grow in wisdom. In order to effectively become wise it takes desire and an intentional practice. In my work I’ve set out to help you do just that.

Wisdom is recognized by the ancients

These fundamentals of wisdom are not new. Wisdom is not the latest trend. They aren’t something I just came up with to optimize your life in 3 easy steps, with little to no commitment.

I hope to share with you ancient principles; ideas and insights people have been practicing for millennium, and modern psychology and research is beginning only recently in human history to study and see their effectiveness.

There is a way to grow in the skills of wisdom, to grow in virtue, to experience flourishing.

I call them the Fundamentals of Wisdom.

We are spiritual, social, embodied beings.

To become wise, you need to grow in three fundamentals of wisdom: presence, community, and practice.

Deep presence.

Loving and honest community.

Transformational practices.

These three categories are both simple, perhaps obvious, yet profound. They interact with and feed one another in surprising and powerful ways. Without one of these fundamentals, you cannot grow to become wise. They are all essential.

Fundamentals of Wisdom
Fundamentals of Wisdom

In the future we will explore these fundamentals in great detail.

To summarize, you can think of these fundamentals in the following ways:

Presence - Your thoughts and mindset, mindfulness, meditation, prayer, your self talk, what you notice, and how you respond internally to the world around you. This is how present you are to each moment. How loving and open and vulnerable you are with others. How connected you are to God.

Community - who you know, love, and serve. Generosity and service. The connections you make in life and how you treat people.

Practice - your habits and craft. What you repeatedly choose to do that forms you over time. Being intentional with specific practices will bring you and your community powerful transformation over time.

Here is another way to break it down: the 3 fundamentals of wisdom are about being, loving, and doing.

Fundamentals redefined

The time is now

The coronavirus brings uncertainty at both individual and global levels that is the most unique season we find ourselves in since the Second World War. How then, are we to respond?

By seeking wisdom.

There has never been a greater need for you to grow in wisdom. Our culture screams with shallowness, overwhelms us with distractions, and many voices draw us towards a life of comfort, living out of fear, feeling insignificant, or pursuing selfishness.

The challenge and resistance to growing in wisdom is real. If you seek to live a life of significance, a life of thriving, you will face difficulties and challenges. It won’t come easy or quick. But growth can come and you can begin to see changes in your perspective, attitude, and actions.

The reality is that if you want to thrive in this short life of yours, wisdom should be valued and sought above all else in your life.

Is it worth it?

Let me ask you some questions:

Do you want a life of deep purpose? Do you want to know how to make better decisions? Do you want to make better meaning of the pain and wounds you have experienced? Do you want to be more resilient? Do you want to thrive? Do you want to grow in connection with others, or experience deeper intimacy with your spouse?

If you can say yes to these questions, then you can say yes, it IS worth it to grow in wisdom.

But wisdom won’t come without commitment and sacrifice.

Mere mental consent is not enough. Even strong belief is not enough. You must follow up and add action to your belief, or the reality is that you are in denial or you don’t truly believe what you are saying.

What we repeatedly choose and what we love are the two essentials aspects that will determine who you become.

If you want to live a life of deep purpose and significance, if you want to grow in resilience to meet the challenges that face you, if you want to handle situations with peace that used to confuse you, become wise.

Thank you for considering what is most important in life. You must ask yourself if you are willing to do what it takes to pursue wisdom. Stick around, I have a lot more to say about growing in wisdom and virtuous skill in living.

Your influence and legacy and purpose will rise or fall to the extent of your wisdom, community, practices, and character.

In the future I’ll be exploring how to grow in wisdom in much more depth. I’d love to hear any questions you have about this.

Take care, and live wisely. 

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