An enduring symbol of medical practice is the physicians’ caduceus – it’s a winged staff, with two serpents twined around it.
Robertson Davies reminded me that the Greek myth of Hermes is this symbol’s origin.
Davies explained in his book, “The Merry Heart,” that Hermes came upon two warring snakes “who writhed and fought upon the ground at his feet. To restore peace, the god thrust his staff between them, and they curled around it, forever in contention, but held in a mutuality of power by the reconciling staff.”
One serpent represents knowledge; the other stands for wisdom. Good doctors need both.
Wisdom, of course, isn’t the same as knowledge. They’re more like cousins than like twins. Knowledge asks about “what” and “how”; wisdom muses about “why” and “who.”
For doctors, knowledge has to do with curing and is focused on the body. Wisdom has to do with healing and concerns the whole person, who is an embodied spirit or an inspirited body.
It’s not just physicians who need both knowledge and wisdom. We all do.
Most often we gain knowledge through education, whether formal or informal. It’s the result of acquiring information and the abilities to apply that information in practical ways.
We discover wisdom as we sift our experience for hints of purpose, clues to significance and indications of intention.
It comes from seeing beneath the surface of things, lingering contemplatively over events and looking with love at each person until his or her wonder and glory become visible to us.
God has tucked wisdom into the folds of our experience like a loving mother puts a little note in her third-grader’s backpack.
Wisdom arises from the earth the way love traveled in the aroma of my grandmother’s blackberry jam cake. Wisdom is there, here, waiting to be discovered.
We learn from our experience that our actions have consequences: there are ways of living that enhance life and there are ways that diminish it.
We also learn that there are habits of the mind and heart that yield their own reward: encounters with truth, experiences of beauty and adventures in goodness.
We resonate with God’s universe when we pursue these things. They are signposts of wisdom. They point us toward wholeness.
Knowledge, driven and amplified by technology, is expanding exponentially. How we use this information should be tempered and guided by wisdom.
Knowledge makes it possible for us to drill for oil miles beneath the surface of the ocean; wisdom tells us it’s not a good thing to do.
Knowledge puts the technology for mass communication in our hands; wisdom can give us something worth saying.
Knowledge can get us a job; wisdom can help us to discover our calling, our vocation.
Knowledge can help us make a living; wisdom helps us make a life.
Knowledge can make us smart; wisdom can make us kind.
Knowledge can do good or it can wreak havoc. Wisdom restores, blesses and guides.
Because we so desperately need reconciliation healing, as individuals and communities, we need more kindness and greater wisdom.
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC), an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on the CHC blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his website, From the Intersection.