Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

When Wisdom Speaks

The program's host shares her thoughts on the value of wisdom.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Every now and again, when I have something on my mind, I like to talk about it in a commentary. And today, I was thinking about the meaning of wisdom. I was thinking a bit about this, because we have a segment in this program called Wisdom Watch, where we talk to folks who are no longer in the public eye everyday, but who we think still have something to offer on the issues of the day.

The dictionary I keep on my desk defines wisdom as understanding of what is true, right or lasting. So that made me wonder. What is it that makes some people wise and others merely smart? Is it empathy, is it kindness, that which seeks understanding and not just the ego validation of being right? Or is it something like the opposite - the courage that comes with not needing other people's approval so you feel free to see the world more clearly?

Can I just tell you? One thing I do know is that being wise is not the same as being perfect. This comes to mind because inevitably, as we've aired some of our conversations, the criticism pours in about this person or that. Sometimes the criticisms are political, the critic just doesn't like where the person is coming from politically, so disputes whether anything the person says is worth hearing. Other times, the criticism is more personal. There is a blemish upon that person' life. Mistakes have been made, perhaps more than once, or the person's conduct is not impeccable in every respect. And that, too, raises a question about whether he or she can be wise.

I've been pondering this, and I think we often miss out on wisdom, because we are an all-or-nothing society. Or perhaps because we are so polarized, we look for any opportunity to denigrate points of view not deemed useful to our side, whatever that side is. And that's too bad, because we can often learn quite a lot from imperfect people.

I had a boss once who was a world-class jerk - I mean, world-class. And yet, this particular boss was remarkable when someone had a personal crisis. And he was, ironically, a great boss for women. The playing field was truly level with him - none of this having to be twice as good to go half as far business. That's rare. At least it was.

More to the point, a couple of years ago, I interviewed the comedian and social activist, Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby, as many know, is one of the greatest entertainers of his era. He repeatedly broke racial barriers in television, as well as showed that excellence and success were not incompatible. He has a doctorate in education, and among his other projects, he's behind a great series for preschoolers.

In the last few years, Mr. Cosby has been traveling the country, engaging in community conversations without deep social ills, mainly in the black community, urging the most dysfunctional members to do better. These callouts, as he calls them, are controversial. Some called them the blame the poor tour. But I find it hard to fault someone for trying to push people to work on their deepest problems.

And yet, and yet, Mr. Cosby seems to have some sort of problem with women. He's been accused of some fairly heinous sexual harassment, which he has publicly denied, but privately addressed with legal settlements. And he's acknowledged that he's stepped outside his marriage, after he was the target of an extortion attempt by a woman claiming to be his illegitimate child. She was later successfully prosecuted.

Anyway, I asked him about his personal demons when I interviewed him about the ongoing community meetings, and I'll never forget what he said. He said if you're headed for a pothole, and I tell you you're headed for a pothole, does it matter who I am or how I drive?

Anyway, wisdom. My thought is, it pays to hear what people have to say. You don't have to listen, but then again, there could be a pothole up there.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues
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