I didn’t choose to do all this philosophizing the way one chooses a career. I got into it by necessity. What I had to go on before was inadequate. I had hit a midlife crisis armed with state-of-the-art wisdom from self-help and Buddhism . . . and it just wasn’t up to the task.

That wisdom was the wisdom supplied everywhere from the Bible to the Koran to everyday humanism – very conventional wisdom that goes something like this:

Difficulties are best addressed by turning up the virtue. When you come on hard times, be more kind, generous, compassionate, accepting, loving.

These days we are facing new, collective mid-life crises. Take global warming. There’s a lot of useful talk about how bad it is, about the alternative energy sources that could be developed, and about how these times call for more wisdom. While there’s a lot of absolutely necessary talk about political, technical, and social solutions, there’s not much talk about what kind of wisdom could supply what the crisis demands. Whenever the new demands upon wisdom come up the talk gets pretty vague, or else it’s the same stuff I found didn’t meet the challenge in my personal mid-life crisis. Smarma, I call it – smarmy dharma, something like:

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

“In times like these, people need to be nice. Take my word for it, there’s never a reason to be not nice. It’s just a lazy or indulgent habit of ours that we can all overcome because we should. If everyone is nice we can solve our problems. So don’t complain or demand. Make sacrifices gladly. You’ll be glad you did.”

This sort of wisdom does have something to it. I agree with it whole-halfedly. That is, it’s half of the whole picture – but that doesn’t make it half-right. By itself it’s all wrong, completely impotent, or both. Missing the other half it misses the whole point: the tension between the two halves.

It’s wise to be nice in win-win situations. Always be generous when there’s no sacrifice to you or anyone else. Also, when there’s a little sacrifice, it most often pays to be nice.

But life isn’t all win-win situations – and when it’s win-lose, then niceness becomes a double-entry bookkeeping challenge. To give to here means to take from there. So the question isn’t whether to be nice but to whom to be nice – to person A at person B’s expense or vice versa? And when to be nice – in the short run? (I love my fellow man so much that I wouldn’t want him to go without his Hummer.) Or in the long run? (I love my fellow future man so much that I’m willing to ban Hummers so that he’s able to live.)

There are no free lunches and almost no free charitable acts either. Most of the time when we give to someone we take from someone else. The wisdom to always be nice is as sound and substantial as the wisdom to always spend money. You can’t do either for long without doing the compensatory opposite. The wisdom-demanding question is when to do which?

It’s wisdom as hollow as “Be nice” that has given wisdom a bad name. It’s why declaring that you want more money, sex, or happiness is better for your social status than declaring you want more wisdom. Wisdom has become as off-putting a topic as religion – and for similar reasons. Mention it and lips purse; eyes turn away. People don’t know what to say beyond the platitudinous “Be nice.” That’s about all the wisdom we know how to discuss socially.

Well, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to say “give.” We have to start by saying “give and take.” Give in and take what you need. Give a hard time and take what’s being offered. Wisdom starts with a question that can’t be answered on its own terms: Should one give or should one take? The answer depends, and that deepens the search. Wisdom is synonymous with “wisdom to know the difference.”

So we can pray not to gods but to each other for the wisdom to know the difference between when to give and when to take. We need to be a bit more generous in the attention we give to wisdom itself.