Over the last two years, I interviewed nine women I admire as wise, all a generation older than I am, and asked them each twenty questions about relationships and life. Their responses deeply resonated with me and urged me on in my own search for wisdom. I gathered their insights into a book called Warm Cup of Wisdom: Inspirational Insights on Relationships and Life, published in June 2014.
Since then, I’ve often been asked: What did you learn?
At first, I was too close to the project to find an easy answer. But now, with the benefit of time for reflection, I can see more clearly what I learned from these women—and from my own process of seeking wisdom. Here are the top ten.
- Wisdom and humility are directly related. People who think they are already wise usually are not. People who think they can judge who is wise and unwise usually are not either! (That would be me, before I started this project.)
- Young people sometimes have great insights, too. Recently, I was talking to my twenty-something daughter about “difficult people.” She says you should try to hear them and validate them. I often recall this now. When I clash with a difficult person, I think: what is that person’s intention? If it is good, I try to say out loud that I hear that. This is still a learning edge for me.
- Wisdom can sometimes be relative. For instance, when I asked about raising teenagers, some of these women said to be more trusting and some said, “Forget trust! That doesn’t work!” I concluded that it depends on the parenting style, as well as the individual kid. Some parents need to be less strict, some stricter. The key is balance. That’s where the wisdom can be found.
- In relating to adult children, the key is to show your respect, as well as love. Give advice only if asked. (Recently I’ve been talking to older adults who say their children can get very bossy. That’s another issue!)
- Having perspective on yourself is key. My goal is to be able to rise above each difficult situation and see how I am reacting to it and why. If I can clearly see my own role, I am more likely to handle the situation better.
- Inner talk is vital. It helps to learn to treat yourself as your own best friend, to nurture yourself and not to beat yourself up. Comfort yourself and gently learn from mistakes. Take charge of the troublesome inner voices—the whining child, the snappish one, the self-pitier—and make sure your best self is in charge.
- Stand up for yourself and make sure you get what you need—but in a loving way that considers the needs of those you love.
- Giving back to others is important, but it can start with friends and family. It doesn’t have to mean serving meals to strangers, starting a non-profit organization, or working for world peace. But it can—and when it does, that is hugely meaningful.
- Role models and mentors help tremendously. I highly recommend sitting down with older people you admire and asking them these questions. After I did this, I gained nine loving mentors—and I’d like to continue to cultivate these deep friendships. Someday I’d like to be able to pass on wisdom to others, too.
- Wisdom and faith. I’m eager to understand more about the role of faith in wisdom. I’d love to learn how women of other faiths—and no faith—express their wisdom. When it comes to leading a meaningful life and relating well to others, I suspect that the core of wisdom is the same across all religions and cultures, just expressed in different words. But I could be wrong.
I am planning a second book on wisdom now. I’d like to interview nine older women of different faiths than my own: Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, perhaps also Mormon, Baha’i, evangelical Christian. Maybe even a woman who is secular, agnostic, or atheist.
I would ask them each the same twenty questions I asked of these first nine wise women. I have listed them below. My new, underlying question would be this:
Is wisdom the same across all faiths?
How do these women of varying faiths express their wisdom in ways that differ from my worldview, which is progressive Christian? That will be a fascinating project.
Do you know someone you’d recommend that I interview? Let me know!
Here are the twenty questions I asked of people I admire as wise:
- Defining wisdom. How would you define wisdom—and why?
- Speaking Up. Tell about a time when you learned to speak up and make sure your voice was heard.
- Choosing happiness. What are your basic beliefs about happiness? Has your thinking about that changed? Do you think happiness is due to circumstances, to inborn traits, or to choice?
- Sustaining through hard times. During tough times, what sustains you and gives you hope?
- Rethinking forgiveness. Can we truly forgive? If so, how?
- Redirecting at midlife. Tell about choices you made at midlife to move in new directions. How do you make a meaningful life for yourself after retirement and/or empty nest?
- Finding your calling. What choices have you made about work (whether paid or volunteer) and how does that reflect your core values? What advice would you give to others about finding their calling, including changes at midlife?
- Raising teenagers. What did you learn about parenting when your kids were teenagers? What advice could you give to somebody else who’s going through a rough time? What do you wish you’d known before you went into it?
- Relating to adult children. What is the best way for parents to interact with their grown children?
- Lasting marriage. What are some keys to a good, lasting marriage?
- Healing difficult relationships. When you’re feeling estranged or angry with someone, what have you learned about healing relationships? What have you learned about dealing with people you perceive to be “difficult”?
- Managing anger. Over the years, what have you learned about how to deal with or express your anger?
- Emerging from dark places. When you’re feeling negative – whether depressed or anxious or judgmental or self-pitying – how do you get yourself out of it?
- Recovering from failure. How do you bounce back from setbacks or failures?
- Rethinking aging. What have you learned, from your own experience and that of your friends, about the best frame of mind for facing face aging and health declines?
- Moving on from loss. Tell about a deep loss in your life and what you learned about ways you cope with personal loss. How were you able to move on?
- Preventing regrets. What do you wish you had done differently, particularly in your 40s and 50s? What regrets do you have?
- Evolving faith. How has faith informed or guided important moments and decisions? How has your faith changed over the years?
- Making a difference. What do you do to try to “make a difference”? Do you do volunteer work or give back to the community? If so, what is the importance of that to your life?
- Seeking peace and hope. When are you most at peace? What keeps you moving forward into hope? Where do you look for inspiration?