Wisdom’s Odd Challenge

The odd challenge at the heart of wisdom is to make friends with the stranger who has always already been a part of us: God, our neighbor, and ourselves.

[Wisdom] passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God. (Wisdom 7:27)

I want to share a story with you about wisdom. It’s a true story about a real person. She would probably say that her story hasn’t the first thing to do with wisdom. After you hear it, you might agree with her.

Eleanor Longden

But bear with me for a few minutes and listen to the story of Eleanor Longden. (“The Voices in My Head”)

As Longden entered her second term of psychological studies at university, she began hearing voices. Initially, a single speaker dispassionately narrated Longden’s ordinary comings and goings.

As Longden would rise from her desk after class, the voice would say, “She is leaving the room.”

When Longden pushed a crash bar or turned a knob, the voice observed, “She is opening the door.”

As you might imagine, Longden grew increasingly unsettled. She was reluctant to tell anyone what she was experiencing. After all, hearing voices is not likely to put you on the career fast track, especially if you’re an aspiring mental health researcher.

Eventually, she told a friend. On that friend’s advice, she sought medical treatment. Once the psychiatrist learned that Longden was hearing voices, he interpreted everything she said and did through the lens of insanity.

He dismissed the voices as meaningless. In his view, they were merely symptoms of an underlying disorder. As Longden soon discovered, when the psychiatric and academic authorities had discounted her voices, they also had discounted everything about her. She was no longer reliable, no longer worth listening to.

Not surprisingly, she accepted this view of her voices and, alas, of herself. After all, these were experts. They should know what to make of people who hear things nobody else can hear.

Under the treatment of her original psychiatrist, Longden’s condition spiraled downward. More voices emerged. These were often shrill, paranoid, and demanding. Sounding panicked alarms, they told her to do destructive and self-destructive things.

After about a decade, she came under the care of a new clinician who advocated a radically different approach.

Instead of seeking to suppress the voices, Longden acquired the interpretive skill to discern in those voices the state of her own soul. For instance, a voice screaming about an immanent danger alerted her to her fear of confronting wounds received in a traumatic childhood.

Wisdom is comprised of several strands. One such thread is self-understanding. Wise people have befriended their own soul. This is why I have shared Eleanor Langdon’s story with you.

Befriending your own soul may sound like a small thing under normal circumstances. Only a small minority of people experience auditory hallucinations.

What psychologically normal person encounters their own soul as a stranger? Well, from what I’ve gathered in my pastoral experience, many of us remain strangers to ourselves for much if not most of our lives.hear-no-evil

Befriending ourselves may not pose the kind of challenge for us that it did from Longden. Nevertheless, we all have our work cut out for us.

For instance, I used to think that I had an anger problem. And, I did lose my temper quickly with embarrassingly little provocation. But in truth, I had a fear problem. I was afraid of being hurt, of being rejected, of being ridiculed. Without realizing it, I was using anger as a shield. Wise people helped me to hear the fear underneath my anger.

To this day I meet people who put me off even though I hardly know them. Maybe it’s how they talk or chew their food or laugh at their own jokes. Wise people have taught me to pay close attention to these encounters. I’m seeing something about myself that I despise. Something about myself that I have yet to befriend.

Given the illustrations I’ve shared so far, you might conclude that wisdom is something that individuals achieve or fail to achieve through their own psychological reflections. But that’s not what I mean at all.

Notice that in Longden’s case and in the examples drawn from my own life, I’ve described a relational process. Longden found a new therapist. Wise friends and teachers and spiritual directors keep walking with me.

Wisdom is something that happens in community. And that is just how God operates. Wisdom is holiness happening in the interaction between human minds, bodies, and souls. “[Wisdom] passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God.” (Wisdom 7:27)

In some mysterious way, befriending ourselves, befriending each other, and befriending God are bound up inextricably with one another. When we learn together, when we worship together, when we make music and art together. When we laugh together, weep together, stare in awe and wonder together. That is where wisdom can happen.

Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but I think that wisdom involves asking good questions. Discerning a message in the midst of what might seem like noise requires good questions. For instance:

Where was God in that?

Is the thing you’re devoting your life to really able to sustain the weight of your being?

In the name of what good in this life are you willing to suffer?

The odd challenge at the heart of wisdom is to make friends with the stranger who has always already been a part of us: God, our neighbor, and ourselves.


  1. Anger as a shield. Very insightful. My father was quick tempered if you disagreed with him and as I have gotten older (48 now) I have felt that there was an underlying reason for this. The paragraph about using anger as a shield is spot on. He passed three years ago, which has led to lots of introspection regarding our often troubled relationship.

    I subscribed to your blog recently. Good read.


  2. Today I was offered the time to read the lessons for the funeral services of Henry Metcalf here at Christ Episcopal in St. Joseph. Father Gregg gave me a reading from “Wisdom” for the first reading. There are other connections to your posting; but, I can not explain; and, I don’t need to……what God is up to is sometimes visible as a shadow….and that is good…Thank you.


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