A Time for Wisdom: Knowledge, Detachment, Tranquility, Transcendence
By Paul T. McLaughlin and Mark R. McMinn.
Templeton Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 268 pages, $24.95.
Reviewed by Auguste Meyrat.
It is one of the great paradoxes of modernity that the more society advances in knowledge and comforts, the less happy and wise it seems to be. Average people across the developed world have greater access to all kinds of knowledge and entertainment than the richest kings of yore, and yet this great wealth and power has not led to a fulfilling life. Instead, a growing number people suffer from various forms of depression and anxiety, resulting in many of them seeking relief in antidepressants and therapy.
While it is always important to better understand this problem and determine its causes—decline in religious practice, breakdown of the family, rise in technological addiction, etc.—it is also important to offer comprehensive solutions to individuals and communities caught in today’s malaise. One book that attempts to do this is A Time for Wisdom by psychologists Paul T. McLaughlin and Mark R. McMinn. Rather than put together yet another self-help book that offers a few helpful strategies to turn that frown upside down, McLaughlin and McMinn take a holistic approach that frames wellbeing in terms of wisdom.
As one can imagine, the writers continually interweave philosophy and psychology as they articulate a process that leads to a life characterized by self-mastery, equanimity, clarity, and deep contentment. Fortunately, their book is more readable than any typical philosophical treatise or psychological study. It is both therapeutic and informative, giving the reader tools to examine his conscience and values as well as reform his habits and relationships. With each phase—knowledge, detachment, tranquility, and transcendence—the writers demonstrate the need to escape the prison of one’s ego and make the arduous journey (something akin to Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy) to enlightenment and peace.
After announcing their purpose in the introduction, the writers begin with the first part of wisdom: knowledge. Naturally, the more knowledge one has, the better one can navigate through the vicissitudes of life. However, just having knowledge is not enough. The writers call for more “enriched knowledge,” which properly contextualizes information, makes it applicable to every situation, and leads to “wise reasoning.” In other words, enriched knowledge is the kind of knowledge that does not puff one up, but humbles him and helps him see value in other perspectives.
Living in the supposed “information age,” the writers rightly surmise that most people struggle distinguishing between actual knowledge and internalized data. In their view, three challenges constantly arise: superficial distractions, extreme partisanship, and excessive specificity. So much of the information that people consume is meant to feed people’s baser intellectual appetites, not their minds or souls. As such, the enriched knowledge meant to lead to wisdom “is hard to come by in an age where we are engulfed by information, much of it shallow and often peddled to make a profit.”
For this reason, discipline in one’s thinking habits is key: “[wisdom] calls for the discovery of an inherent structure and ordering of life around essential principles that serve as normative standards to guide and inform future choice and action.” In order to avoid the pitfalls of drowning in too much information, one must always be “holding the end in mind,” which is acquiring wisdom. In more practical terms, this means reading and learning for the sake of better understanding others, finding solutions, and seeking higher truths about life, not “destroying” opponents in a debate, finding things to gripe about, and obsessing over petty details.
Once a person knows how to properly process the world around him and thereby attain some degree of intellectual mastery, he must then apply this method to his emotions and thereby cultivate detachment. The writers are careful to distinguish what they mean by detachment from how it is popularly understood: “Detachment is not an icy indifference or ignoring the serious matters of life. It is an intentional practice and habit of distancing from thoughts and feelings in order to bring peace, calm, and freedom from controlling desires and passions.” This is much more than the clearing of one’s mind and disconnecting from others that is recommended from today’s self-care and mindfulness gurus.
While too much information is the great obstacle to being truly knowledgeable, the great obstacle to detachment is too much emotion, mostly in the form of pain. Try as people might to eliminate all sources of pain, there will always be something to bring them down. Simply experiencing pain will not bring wisdom, but with proper detachment, it can.
In order to overcome pain and achieve detachment, the writers suggest some ways to handle it. These strategies mainly involve developing perspective, reaching out to others, and cultivating humility. This is probably the most therapeutic chapter of the book, as the reader is given a quick run-through of what clinical psychologists try to do with their patients.
With detachment and knowledge comes tranquility, a feeling of connection with others and oneness with the world. Again, the writers make a point to avoid oversimplifying these concepts: “tranquility is not passivity, apathy, or the absence of disagreement. … No, the notion of wisdom we present here is a full-bodied, fully engaged way of being in the world.” Instead of the expected image of a meditating monk or a circle of hippies singing around a campfire, the writers use the image of two friends having a debate in a busy coffee shop. Although the situation seems stressful, real tranquility will convert that stress into true engagement.
In the writers’ estimation, the forces that oppose tranquility are things that make a person shallow; they regard these forces as “dragons” that lurk in the depths of the psyche. Most of these are manifestations of narcissism, materialism, and hedonism. In each instance, the individual is substituting authentic living with satiating one’s desires, essentially giving up long-term satisfaction for short-term gratification. The response to this problem is fairly conventional: be compassionate, live simply, and practice humility.
Although one might end the journey to wisdom at tranquility, McLaughlin and McMinn go one step further and discuss transcendence, which involves going “beyond the superficial markers of ego and success and allows for a greater sense of connection with self and others.” Even though the writers are both Christians, they stress that transcendence can be found in all faiths.
In many ways, transcendence seems like an extension of tranquility, focused on moving beyond the self and embracing a greater reality, except this reality includes contact with the cosmos as a whole along with its creator: “the capacity to get beyond oneself, out of the bubble to see a fundamental unity in all things, and to connect to this unity in some meaningful way that ends up shaping our thoughts, values, motivations, and behaviors.”
As with the three other parts to wisdom, the writers “reveal” the great barrier to transcendence, though at this point, it is no surprise: “Vertical individualism, with all its predilection for competition, me-first perspectives, the dragons of narcissism, rising to the top, and seeing the individual as more important than the communities we belong to.” And the solution is also not that surprising: adopt spiritual exercises that quiet the ego, like meditation, prayer, and charitable activity.
True to its goal, A Time for Wisdom succeeds in shedding light on the path to wisdom in a world where this path has been covered up. However, the book is not without its faults. Besides being repetitive on occasion, the writers seem reluctant to call out the forces that discourage wisdom, a choice that makes their argument less engaging. Indeed, the willingness to dismantle postmodernism and take some risks are what makes a psychologist like Jordan Peterson that much more interesting. McLaughlin and McMinn, by contrast, tend to play it annoyingly safe and stick with tried-and-true recommendations.
For example, McLaughlin and McMinn obviously take issue with self-absorption, but at no point do they criticize the massive social media platforms that directly fuel this very behavior. People should be made aware that their doom-scrolling is a problem. Instead, like a forgettable pastor giving a forgettable sermon, they offer general prescriptions for general ills. For those in the choir, this works well enough, but for the great majority of the audience, this can become a little dull.
That said, in the things that matter, A Time for Wisdom is quite effective. McLaughlin and McMinn are clear and careful in their language, resisting all distractions—which is probably why they avoid making controversial claims. Like good therapists, their only hope is to guide their patients towards a fruitful and happy life. Moreover, even if it is familiar, their overall argument to move beyond oneself and connect with other people and with God can never be repeated enough. It is an argument that will always be relevant, and one that makes their book worth reading for people today.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher and senior editor of The Everyman.
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