The Difference Between Wit and Wisdom

When I graduated high school, the popular gift book that almost edged out Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss was The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.

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Me before high school graduation. I clearly need lots of advice.

I got two or three copies, I’m pretty sure, so I read at least one of them to see what all the fuss was about. There is only one part that stood out to me (no offense to anyone who loved the book…I’m just so cynical that inspirational books don’t always work for me, which, incidentally is why I love the “Except when you don’t, because sometimes you won’t” pages in Seuss’s book).

Here’s the quote I distinctly remember reading:

I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every time, because hip is short-term. Earnest is long-term.

Earnestness is highly underestimated. It comes from the core, while hip is trying to impress you with the surface.

“Hip” people love parodies. But there’s no such thing as a timeless parody, is there? I have more respect for the earnest guy who does something that can last for generations, and that hip people feel need the need to parody.

Do you know why I remembered reading this?

Because I was, even at that moment, working on a parody of a song our choir class was singing for graduation, which put me immediately on the defensive.

Was I hip as a high schooler? (Is the word “hip” even hip? Not really.)

I convinced my history Academic Superbowl team to dress up as nerds the day of our competition. And I created a “Civil War Candy Land” review game that included stops like Secession Taffy Pull and Uncle Tom’s Gingerbread Cabin, if that gives you some context. So no, I was not anything close to hip and I did not try to be.

But I remember being annoyed at The Last Lecture’s mockery of parodies. He didn’t know my life! I didn’t re-write song lyrics or draw cartoons or write satire to be cool. I did it because it was creative, an unexpected twist on the familiar. (And also because I really, really hated cheesy graduation songs, see above-mentioned cynicism.)

What about that, huh, Randy Pausch? Do you want all of us to mindlessly follow the system? Are you suppressing my unique gifts and protagonist-like ability to do great things?

Besides, earnestness as he went on to describe it, sounded…boring. And clearly it wasn’t an adjective that would ever appear in a Top 5, 10, or 25 list of adjectives to describe me. It might not even clear the Top 100.

“Earnest” probably meant things like wearing matching socks or calling the dentist yourself to reschedule your appointment instead of making your mom do it or not passing off your forgetfulness on your personality or actually praying for people when you said you would or being faithful to your commitments even when it was hard….

Ah. I see what you mean by “highly underestimated” there, Randy Pausch. Points for you. High school Amy considered herself duly lectured.

That probably wasn’t the exact moment the shift happened, but somewhere along the line, I learned: there is a difference between wit and wisdom.

I like wit in conversations and movies and books. People with a sharp, quick sense of humor are fun to be around.

They can also be exhausting, because sometimes people whose persona is built on wittiness make me feel a constant pressure to perform.

Do you know that feeling? When you have to be “on” at all times, always having something clever or interesting to contribute to the conversation. When you know you’ll be made fun of if you accidentally say something stupid and you can’t stop comparing yourself to the others and feeling inferior.

It’s not an awesome way to do friendships.

Once, in a rare moment of speaking like a character in a book and not like a real person who mostly caves to generic social etiquette in conversation, I actually said out loud to a witty acquaintance, “It seems like every time we talk to each other, we’re both working so hard to be clever that we never say anything meaningful. I’ve known you for a year, but I don’t know you at all. What can we do about that?”

Wittiness, by itself, is pretty shallow.

Contrast that with wisdom. If you read through Proverbs once or twice, you’ll notice that wisdom can be uncomfortable, difficult, and decidedly not cool. Wise people will tell you things you don’t want to hear, urge you toward conflicts you don’t want to have and away from ones you do, and inform you when you’re being a prideful jerk.

Sometimes I want to be surrounded with lots of witty people. I need to be surrounded by a few wise people.

Sometimes seeking wisdom has a pride component, so when post-high-school Amy decided she wanted to become a wiser, more earnest person, that was probably a mixed-motive goal…but a good goal, none the less. Because at that point, I started trying to evaluate people not based solely on how fun they were to be around but by whether they exemplified character traits I wanted to develop. I stopped wanting my friends to be just comedians who I enjoyed spending time with and started wanting them to be mentors who I looked up to.

Is it great to have friends who are both witty and wise? Yes.* But sometimes I think we shift the weight of importance too far to one side…especially Millennials like me. And that has consequences.

We focus on impressing others, and then ask why our relationships are so shallow. We come to friends to be entertained, and then find out we’re not being encouraged or challenged. We expect church to be fun and meet our needs, and then complain that it doesn’t feel very purposeful (because we’re not meeting others’ needs). We halfheartedly accept our comedy-club, social-media-slideshow semblance of community and wonder, as we shove our smiling face into another group selfie, why we feel so left out and lonely.

That’s what happens when we value wit over wisdom, hipness over earnestness. To me, it doesn’t seem like a fair trade.

Let’s change our generation’s reputation by striving to be more earnest, more wise, more real, because that’s what builds relationships and communities that last.

*It’s kind of like pie and whipped cream. I am not really that interested in whipped cream by itself, whereas pie by itself is amazing and all I really need. That said…pie with whipped cream is especially exciting. As long as it’s not pecan pie, because what were we thinking when classifying that as a pie and not just, I don’t know, nuts cemented with a sludge of sugar?

(Ha, you thought this was going to be the usual really deep and thoughtful footnote, didn’t you? Surprise!)

4 comments

  1. I love your posts.

    And I don’t wear matching socks, either. Because life is too short to spend it sorting socks.

  2. It’s good to see the distinction between wit and wisdom, but a balance, a mix of the two can be very winsome! (Just one old man’s opinion.)

  3. So true 🙂

    I think something that will help us all is to remember that it isn’t always one thing we do that is witty and wise. The guy in that book talks about parodies, but we mustn’t think that such things are automatically a shallow kind of witty. And that goes for other things in life. It all depends on why and how we do things. A parody can be used to criticize something that needs to be criticized, or make us realize things that we never realized before. A good parody can make people think on deeper things a little instead of just entertaining them for a moment.

    I don’t watch a lot of parodies, so I only have one or two to think about. This one is kind of silly, but I couldn’t help but think on the relationship of these two friends. Though that may just be my tendency to over think things and find deep meanings in everything :p :

    So here we have a good, loving, caring friend that is constantly helping another friend who always gets him into trouble and never seems grateful for it. Yet he doesn’t ever seem to turn his back on his irresponsible friend(even when he says he’s through he can’t help but come back and help). Maybe that’s a bit how we are supposed to be, or how God behaves toward us on some level.

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