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Wisdom Work 1.0

OWLcourage as an idea had been marinating for over five years, before culminating in my first posting on January 13, 2022. My original intent was to explore the concept of “Wisdom Work” from the viewpoint of what I sardonically referred to as an “Old White Lady”, a perspective actually underrepresented in the noise we call media.

We humans were both nationally and globally absorbing the first shock waves of what I termed “Covid Cave” emergence a year ago, and it seemed intellectually dishonest to ignore that fact. Besides, we were being swamped with jittery awarenesses that things were not as they used to be, and it appeared no one fully grasped what that meant. Some reflective space seemed like a good idea.

Hence, I first explored “Covid Cave” emergence phenomena. I have concluded that that focus and my original intent now merge for me, and I find myself returning to that original intent. All of which is to say I want to explore through OWLcourage the meanings of “Wisdom Work” as I am conceptualizing it, and why it counts. So, I begin.

Of the two terms, “Work” seems the least complex. Defined, it is “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result; a task or tasks to be undertaken.” While some references to this word focus on activities as an employee or in order to gain money, I do not mean that in this case. My generic definition does not explain the activity, purpose, result or achievement of “work”. I am interested only in the essential intentional engagement itself, not the process or the outcome. In engaging in “work”, I exert effort for a purpose or result.

“Wisdom” as an idea asks for more. My personal journey toward this concept originated first in the work of Erik Erikson. My generation of nursing students were immersed in the developmental stages as outlined by Erik Erikson, a relatively new window on human growth emergent in the 1960s concurrent with our education. (Only later did I learn that his wife, Joan Erikson, was coauthor of his theories and publications, her name excluded from authorship recognition).

The Eriksons’ developmental theory focused on individual ego development, the progression toward self-awareness and identity and the developmental crises of each stage in the progression. Eight interrelated developmental stages were identified and described as essential for all human life cycles, each building on prior stages, each furthering self-identity and offering continuity about a sense of self and the experiences others have of a person. Notably, each offered opportunities to revisit and readdress the unresolved crises of prior stages.

Each of the eight stages focuses on balancing two dynamic counterparts of human life. One who does so successfully will have acquired a basic human virtue. Ericksons posited that these basic virtues were not merely individual acquisitions but also fundamental to the human species: without them and their re-emergence from generation to generation, all other and more changeable systems of human values lost their spirit and their relevance.

This summary is truncated, but shines a light on the general structure of how I thought about development throughout my adult life. As aging approached, I returned to the work of the Eriksons. I was concluding the seventh stage, where I balanced the two dynamic counterparts of human life that were “Generativity versus Stagnation” and I was seeking the basic human virtue of “Care”. I was relatively comfortable with my progression through stage seven, and curious about stage eight, the final stage.

According to the Eriksons, in stage eight, the two dynamic counterparts of human life were “Ego Integrity versus Despair” and the basic human virtue I would be seeking was “Wisdom”. The challenge at each stage is to understand, accept and balance the two extremes of the dynamic counterparts, seeing each as required and useful. Only then can the basic human virtue emerge. My new challenge was identified: I needed to understand and embrace both ego integrity and despair before I could manifest my final life virtue, Wisdom.

It may appear that I am marketing Erik and Joan Erikson though I am not; I have not found any maps superior to theirs but have always seen their work as maps. Their theories were not about certitude for me, not to be confused with the real terrain but a useful map to understand that terrain. It intuitively made sense to me that the last basic virtue to emerge in human existence was Wisdom. It was also clear to me that I’d have to work for it.

And I did! My decision to become a professional coach found me in a training program at the age of 78. My progression through the training led me to even more explorations of the concept of Wisdom as I clarified my personal interest in coaching persons near to, entering or in the Eriksons’ eighth stage of human development. My own stumbling through this developmental shift had convinced me a coach would have been an invaluable resource. I wanted to coach toward “Wisdom Work”.

I spent much of this time refining what I meant by “Wisdom” and finally generated a definition I like: “Wisdom is the capacity of a human to integrate life experiences into a personal story of an individual’s knowledge, choices and actions that, when shared with others, create the conditions for the pursuit of an ethically grounded common good”. Coming full circle, as I conceptualize Wisdom Work, it is fairly specific and focused, and for me, this blog is one part of my personal “Wisdom Work”. Another part for me is my coaching, where one group of my clients are other humans in search of their personal “Wisdom Work”.

Now none of this is commonplace thinking in my experience. Many face Eriksons’ Stage eight with trepidation, avoidance, dread. They may feel a disrupted self-identity and experience a culture and society ill prepared to even engage in a conversation about this final stage of human existence. Part of Wisdom Work, I believe, is creating arenas for conversations about all of this, for truth-telling about the virtual “wasteland” of necessary resources to explore both despair and ego integrity, to grow in Wisdom, and of course, to face death. OWLcourage is committed to doing its part in creating a widespread development of the basic human virtue of Wisdom.

On the occasion of my one-year anniversary as a “blogger”, this begins that commitment for me, and makes saying “Happy New Year” more sweet and savory and fun. Let the games begin!

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the water slide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”

- Tina Fey -

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