What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? I had the occasion to ponder that question during a recent group discussion and discovered that I’m not entirely sure of the answer.
However we define them, I guess it’s safe to say that knowledge and wisdom are both qualities that are supposed to increase with age. And, if that’s true, we seniors should have a respectable level of each.
The meaning of “knowledge” seems pretty straightforward. I suppose we could say that it is the accumulation of facts (most being presumably true) which we have acquired in our lifetime and have remembered and maybe even know how to apply properly. You can probably come up with a better definition, but it’s something like that.
Defining “wisdom” doesn’t seem to be quite so easy, although I’m pretty sure it’s not the same thing as knowledge. It’s a bit more nuanced, and I have had a hard time finding the right words for it. Maybe it’s just one of those things that you know when you see it. And I do think I’ve seen it.
One of the most knowledgeable and wisest people I ever knew was my mentor, Morton Grant, MD. There is a legendary story about him, which seems to provide some insight into the meaning of wisdom. I can’t vouch for its veracity, but it is certainly consistent with his nature and is a good story that makes a good point.
For whatever reason, Dr. Grant did not sit for his board examinations early on in his career (he was probably too occupied with advancing the frontiers of our knowledge in glaucoma). By the time he got around to it, he was already well recognized as a world leader in the field of glaucoma. Of course, he passed the written exam without difficulty and then presented to sit for his oral exams.
The examiner for the glaucoma section must have felt a bit intimidated by the stature of his examinee and probably also felt understandably deferential. At any rate, he began with a straightforward question like, “Please describe the pathway that aqueous humor takes in leaving the eye.” Dr. Grant thought for a while and then in his inimitable manner said, “Gosh, I’m not sure.”
Dr. Grant undoubtedly knew as much as anyone living at that time about the aqueous outflow pathways. But he also knew how much we don’t know about the subject and, rather than simply regurgitating some incomplete facts, he stated the truth. And maybe that is the meaning of wisdom: to know (and admit) what we don’t know.
As seniors, you and I are probably recognizing more each day how much there is that we don’t know. And it would be nice to think that that recognition is a sign of our maturing wisdom. Or at least of a modicum of humility. And maybe those two go hand in glove: wisdom and humility.
I suppose, had we been paying attention in our younger days, we might have recognized these attributes of wisdom and humility in many of our seniors, as I did in Dr. Grant (albeit not fully until later years). And now the new younger generations may be watching us, and wouldn’t it be nice if they could see at least a spark of those values reflected in our lives. What better legacy could we leave?