Not too long ago, I read a book  that contained a quotation by a Greek tragedian that expresses my view of wisdom. Soon after posting it, I found out that the same quote, with a slight variation in translation, had been used by Robert F. Kennedy in talking about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr:
He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Why is wisdom an awful grace of God? In our lives we may count ourselves blessed to learn wisdom through others, but I must admit that I am not that wise of a person myself. Such wisdom as I have learned, and such compassion and understanding I have of others, comes from my own suffering. Some of this suffering has been the result of mistakes, some of the suffering has been the result of the result of personality quirks, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is my experience that other people tend to learn the same way, and such wisdom as any of us possess has cost us a great deal.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Wisdom is very precious, and sometimes we pay more for it than we really need to, for if we were quicker and more complete learners we would not have to relearn the same lessons over and over again, or endless variations on the same lessons. I certainly cannot pretend to be a particularly wise person myself, but I know that drop by drop, I become wiser the longer I live, through the suffering I live through, and through the suffering I see other people endure. Sometimes what causes the most suffering is not our own private sorrows, or even our public embarrassments, but to see those whom we care about suffer on our behalf for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes we may cause people to suffer because our honesty about ourselves (and, by implication, those whom we are close to) leads other people to suffer humiliation and ridicule. This is a very painful thing to endure, to be the cause of the humiliation and difficulties of others. Sometimes we may cause people to suffer because they feel pain when we feel pain, or because they wish for our happiness and success and are frustrated when we behave in ways that endanger our best interests and deepest hopes and longings because of our deep-set personality and character. At other times we may cause people to suffer because our lives and our actions and our experiences may remind others of their own struggles, that they may wish to keep out of sight and out of mind.
Yet if we are willing to examine our suffering squarely, to recognize our responsibility, and to behave graciously to others in their own suffering, we can become wiser as drop by drop of wisdom falls upon the heart. This does not mean that learning wisdom will be fun for us, but rather that it will make us better people, make us more noble, more considerate, and people of greater integrity and more honorable character. Surely this is a grace of God, however awful of a grace it may be. If there were any other way to learn such wisdom, I am sure we would much rather prefer it. However, it appears as if wisdom is like the acid or the heat that refines us into purer and more valuable metal. There is no pain-free way to refine the raw material with which any of us begin, but the end process is worthwhile as we become so much more than we could ever imagine of ourselves.