Wisdom never knows best

There is, of course, wisdom which comes from knowledge and experience. Burning your hand on a hot stove teaches you something about the optimal way of interacting with stoves.

And yet, it seems, there are few things as dangerous as the belief of expertise.

That is – just because my knowledge and experience has led me to certain conclusions, doesn’t make those conclusions Truth or even best. My knowledge and experience still has value – but it doesn’t capture the whole story.

Think of this in terms of microagressions, for example – a white person, no harm intended, asks a non-white person where he’s from.

The asker thinks he’s making small talk. The person being asked thinks their identity as an American is being questioned. Both perspectives are valid.

In the case of microagressions, it’s important to educate those in positions of power about how such statements may be received. Even if no harm was intended – there’s a problem if harm was the result.

But thinking more broadly, it’s not always clear who’s behavior needs to be corrected.

I remember this great Christopher Durang play – Laughing Wild. A woman opens talking about buying fish in the grocery store. Another person was in her way. She waits. The person doesn’t move. She doesn’t know what to do. She gets increasingly frustrated. Eventually she punches the guy. Serves him right for being so terrible.

The next scene opens with a man – seemingly unrelated to the first monologue. Eventually, he ends up explaining how some creepy person was stalking him at the grocery store. They just wouldn’t go away. He thinks maybe if he stands really still, eventually they’ll leave him alone. They don’t. This person just stands behind him. Staring. He is a afraid. He doesn’t know what to do. Eventually, the woman screams and punches him. He has no idea what’s going on.

While one could certainly put a gender analysis to that interaction, I prefer to interpret it more generally.

Sometimes I feel like we’re all those characters. Some days we’re swinging the punches and some day we’re the ones being swung at. But at the heart of it, none of us really know what’s going on – we know our own lives and worlds and realities, but we don’t know anyone else’s experience.

And without that full picture of experience and reality – how could we ever presume to know best?

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