I blog on the theme of practical wisdom for daily living at “The Wisdom of Les Miserables.”
Note: With the Thanksgiving/Christmas Season upon us, everything will be for sale and much of that will be “on sale.” One of the most important of our human needs is wisdom, which alone can bring us the joy and happiness we all say we want in life. The trouble is, we can’t buy it at any price. But what is wisdom and how do we get it? The following is an excerpt from my book, The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean.
From various modern renditions of wisdom, I have borrowed pieces and put them together in one statement that makes sense to me:
Wisdom is the ability, developed through experience, internal reflection and insight, to discern what is true and to exercise good judgment.
Let me share what this statement means to me.
. . . ability developed through experience
Becoming wise requires that I commit myself to observing the human story as lived by those who preceded me on this planet. Analyzing that great body of experience, with its successes and failures, virtues and vices, I need to compare it to my own unfolding story—my life circumstances, perceived problems, and decision-making processes.
Victor Hugo steeped himself in the history of the human condition. The fact that his political leanings shifted over his lifetime might be viewed—and would be in the contemporary American scene—as vacillation and expediency. I prefer to think of it as a reflection of his hope that someone along the political spectrum, at some point in his lifetime, might eventually “get it right.” He understood well the terrible consequences for society’s marginalized populations—les miserables—of failure to learn from the mistakes of the past.
. . . internal reflection
Based on what humanity has learned over time and what my own personal history and instincts reveal to me, I am called upon, at a given moment in time, to make the best evaluation of what I must do in similar historical circumstances. In other words, I assess what has worked in the past to my benefit and to the greater good of all—and what hasn’t.
Although Hugo’s personal habits and behaviors seemed eccentric at times, the author of Les Miserables possessed a rich interior life that combined personal faith in God and a keen desire to promote “liberty and justice for all.”
. . . and insight
Based on my observation of history and reflection on its meaning, I gain creative insight to develop a plan for living a satisfied and productive life and promoting the welfare of those around me and the world at large.
In Les Miserables, particularly in the life of protagonist Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo drew a map for human living that, if followed, would create a more just, rational, and beautiful world than most human beings live in today.
The evil portrayed in the persons of Inspector Javert and the Thenardiers (innkeepers), and in the legal and penal systems of the author’s time, is a model of inhuman behavior. Hugo plunges his readers into the hell of these characters and institutions and their modern global counterparts (corporate greed, genocide, inter- and intra-religious slaughter, domestic poverty, homelessness, displaced refugees, etc.). Where does the list end?
. . . to discern what is true and to exercise good judgment.
Experience, reflection, insight: these are essential ingredients in the search for and discernment of elusive truth. To the extent that truth is available and achievable, it leads me to sound judgment . . . to wisdom.
(c) 2013 by Alfred J. Garrotto
Alfred J. Garrotto is the author of the novel