The Wisdom to Know the Difference

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.  – Reinhold Niebuhr

Wisdom is something humans have sought after since the Garden of Eden. But, as in that story of Eve and Adam, we often attempt to acquire wisdom from the wrong places.

The fruit that Satan offered to Eve was not from the tree of wisdom. The bite in Eve’s hand that successfully seduced Adam was not a magical morsel of discernment. Instead, the forbidden package contained only the knowledge of good and evil.

Knowledge is only an element in the equation that presents us with wisdom. Wisdom demands more than knowing. From experience we know that wisdom isn’t fully realized unless we act on that wisdom.

The most memorable quotes from all sources are those that impart wisdom. Almost anyone can say something wise. Some people are better at it than others. Perhaps you have a collection of “best sayings” from famous people or your peculiar uncle. Regardless, we all take solace in grasping wisdom and making an effort to align our lives with its direction.

My job is to think about conflict and peace. The contrast between the two is quite stark. Yet, if you chart them on a line, you’ll often find that the distance between them can be very small.

The difference between conflict and peace is what I call complete wisdom.

Complete Wisdom = Knowing + Action

I am constantly searching for ways to help myself and others move from a state of conflict to a realm of peace. As such, I am constantly searching for complete wisdom.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve found much of what I’m looking for in the sacred texts. While I’m certain that there are concentrations of wisdom nuggets in many locations, my recent studies have led me to what is for me the mother lode of wisdom thought — Proverbs 18.

Serenity Prayer

In the coming weeks or months or even a year, I’ll be taking a closer look at these writings from King Solomon who, according to Scripture, was the wisest man to walk this earth. And as a conflict management person, I’ll be viewing his words from the unique perspective found in that open field between conflict and peace.

In the meantime, I hope that you will adopt Niebuhr’s prayer as one of your daily devotions. Serenity and courage can be yours.

Take a Small Step

For whatever the reason, I sat with my legs crossed as the other speaker made her presentation. Thirty minutes. I thought about how ill-advised my position was several times.

Yet, I convinced myself that there was a sophisticated look to the way I was sitting. It was only for a little while. No harm could come from this innocent posture.

As the previous speaker made her closing remarks, I shifted in my chair and looked down at my notes. I really didn’t ever see my notes, because I became aware of something much more important. My right leg was asleep.

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You know what it’s like. Initially, it’s all mental. No feeling. But as time marches on and sensation begins to return, you feel the tingling and the realization overtakes you: “Until this passes, walking will almost be impossible.”

It’s not paralysis. Instead, you are keenly aware that every movement with the impaired leg will be challenging and painful — perhaps even perilous.

But the moment comes, as it came for me, that you have to take that first step.

Fortunately for me, I had on a wireless microphone. So following the introduction that seemed far too short. I stood and began addressing the audience from where I had been seated. There was no podium, so it didn’t seem too awkward . . . at first. But the chairs were at the back of the stage. I soon realized that I had to take a step toward the audience, I had to begin to move. So, I waited for my moment, summoned every ounce of will within me, and took a very small step.

I can’t say that it was pleasant. But the movement did a number of things.

First, it brought a degree of confidence. I hadn’t fallen down. I hadn’t revealed my discomfort to the audience. I was making progress in my presentation.

Second, that step increased the flow of blood to my impaired leg. Sure, the tingling was intensifying. But recovery was imminent. Taking the small step boosted my ability to move.

Third, moving that tiny distance gave me a new perspective on my audience. I could see that I would need to move a lot to keep them engaged. I saw a clearer path to success. It wasn’t going to happen from the back of the stage.

And finally, all of the anxiety over that first step changed my future. I probably won’t cross my legs like that any more. And, if I do, I will know that the consequences are temporary and can be overcome by beginning with even the smallest of steps.

In dealing with life’s problems, we are often brought to a state of near-paralysis. The challenge seems too great. In this short series, From The Smallest of Things, we’ve pointed to the way that small things can tackle even big problems. You must Create a Small Space in your heart, you must Breathe a Small Prayer, you must Allow a Small Answer, and finally you must do something — you must take a step, even if it’s small.

Much like dealing with the stress of a leg that’s fallen asleep, we must best the forces that keep us from moving toward a solution. Remember that once you’ve paused and prepared, taking even the smallest action can:

  • Instill a new level of confidence in you. Realizing that you can move and negotiate and respond will bring a brighter outlook to your day.
  • Overcome the inertia. Movement energizes us. The new experience of doing something — anything — stimulates our creativity and works out the stiffness in our thinking and our willingness to act.
  • Give us new insight. We are able to look at the problem from a new angle. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it first appeared. Or sometimes it is worse. Regardless, we have a better idea of what we’re facing.
  • Better prepare us for our future decisions and actions. We learn through our experiences, even the smallest ones.

We like stories about courageous people — the heroes. You know what makes a hero? One small step.


Allow a Small Answer

You can hear it, can’t you? That constant, high-pitch squeal that settles around us every minute of every day. Some times it drowns out conversation or simply obliterates certain sounds. At it’s most intense, it scrambles thought. Ever present, ever annoying, it is the noisy companion to every moment we are awake.

Of course, not everyone hears it. Maybe you don’t. What I’ve just detailed is tinnitus. It is often described as a ringing in the ears, although mine is more like incessant feedback from a poorly regulated public address system.

Whatever it is, it is persistent and piercing. I have been known to beg this invisible assailant to stop, even for a little while. But it doesn’t.

In truth, I’m simply reaping the consequences of my youth. A few too many decibels, too many times, as I had the time of my life drumming for various amateur garage bands, college jazz ensembles, and even a semi-professional Eagles-like group.

John_Dolmayans_Drum_Kit__Super-Con_2007photo by r3v || cls on Flickr


Even with my present condition, I don’t think I would change those times of making music with friends and, a few times, playing before large crowds or recording an album. (Although, I think I would consider ear protection.) The truth is, all of the things I have experienced make up a part of the individual I’ve become. And, while I wish that I was different in some ways, I’ve come to see that God will use me as I am and where I am. There’s a simple beauty and strength to that.

In this series, I’ve been writing about overcoming our feelings of inadequacy and insignificance in the face of great — bigger than us — challenges. Because the truth is, God can employ whatever we have and are willing to give to make a difference. Thus far, I have highlighted a few things that we can use, with God’s help, to bring good to the world around us. First, I suggested that we Create a Small Place in our hearts that will allow room for God to work. Next, I recommended that we Breathe a Small Prayer to invite Him into that space.

The third step in moving from small things to great things is, once we’ve created a space and invited a higher power to share it with us, to allow ourselves to hear, consider, and respond to the small answer that will certainly come.

So what does tinnitus have to do with hearing small answers? Quite simply, just as the incessant tone in my ears can mask my perception of quality sounds, the consequences and the baggage of my past can prevent me from grasping and appreciating the obvious opportunities and solutions that are right in front of me.

The key is intentionally opening ourselves to the answer. Just as I seek ways to compensate for my tinnitus, I must develop techniques for hearing small answers. The parallels are remarkable:

  • With practice, I can mentally suppress the noise that prevents me from hearing. That means, that I must first recognize my life experience for what it is and make room for other thoughts and perspectives.
  • I can expand my understanding by concentrating on the context of the situation and what I’m perceiving.
  • I can move closer to those I’m seeking to understand and allow their voices to become louder. I can step into their perspective.
  • I can kindly and gently seek clarification on those things I couldn’t quite grasp.
  • I can join those around me in restating that small answer and deciding what our next steps might look like as we pursue solutions.

Some times we mistakenly believe that small answers are no match for big problems. Yet, time and again, we see that the difference in an average person and a remarkable person is the small space they create in their hearts, the small prayers they make that invite a larger presence, and their willingness to consider the small answers that appear.

I hope you’ll join me in quieting the inner noises that prevent our hearing of small, but elegant, answers.