Values to Live By: A Cardiologist on the Importance of Wisdom

Wisdom is something we all wish to possess, but how do we actually cultivate wise qualities (or know what those are)? In this second excerpt from Just One Heart, author and cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Fisher reveals powerful ways we can tune in to the body to develop the wisdom of our emotional heart.

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I have cared for over 20,000 patients, each with a unique story of healing, loss, and hope. Mary’s story, in particular, is about wisdom, and she taught me more about the wisdom of the human heart than any of my medical texts.

When I met Mary, a lively woman in her early sixties, she had just been diagnosed with severe coronary artery blockages. “Every step is like climbing a mountain,” she said about her chest pain and shortness of breath. These blockages were causing her discomfort every time she walked, even a short distance. Given the extent of her heart condition, I knew her healing journey would not be easy, and we would encounter numerous challenges along the way.

However, what struck me about Mary was that she was not an ordinary patient. “I’ve lived a lot, Doctor. I know my body and trust its messages,” she confidently stated. She possessed a deep well of wisdom that she was not only ready to apply to her healing but also eager to share.

As we began her treatment, we faced both highs and lows, including episodes of severe and frightening chest pains, trials of various medications, and many adjustments to her lifestyle. “We need a plan that suits my life, not just my heart,” she insisted, showing her keen perspective.

We realized the importance of seeing her condition within a broader context, not merely as a medical ailment but as an integral part of her life’s journey. “It’s about my quality of life, too,” she often reminded me. Our decisions were based on medical expertise and personal intuition, blending my knowledge of the physical heart with her wisdom and intuition as a patient.

Rooted in profound and mutual empathy, our relationship transcended the typical doctor-patient dynamic. “You’re more than my doctor. You’re a part of my healing,” Mary would say, acknowledging our unique bond.

We drew insights from shared experiences, celebrated our triumphs, and faced difficult moments together. I paid particular attention to the emotional toll her condition took on her and the necessity of maintaining emotional steadiness for both of us. Together, we confronted the unknown, learning to accept and embrace the ambiguities and uncertainties accompanying illness and health.

Throughout history, healers and helpers have experienced stories of heartache and healing like I experienced with Mary. These stories stand as a testament to the power of shared wisdom and the resilience of the human spirit. Centered around humility, openness, compassion, and a shared pursuit of meaning and connection, our journey extended beyond statistics and medical textbooks. Our experience serves as a model of the wisdom accessible to each of us, guiding us toward healing, health, and happiness, not only as doctors and patients but as fellow human beings.

What Is Wisdom?

Have you ever wondered what sets truly wise people apart? While knowledge certainly plays a role, it’s just a piece of a much larger puzzle. Intelligence is not the same thing as wisdom. Wisdom is a way of understanding and navigating life’s complexities that rely on skills other than collecting and processing information.

My quest to unravel this mystery led me down a fascinating path. I explored diverse fields of research and engaged in thought-provoking conversations with experts.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy paints a picture of wisdom grounded in, of all things, humility. It’s about accepting life’s constant flux and distinguishing between what we can control and what lies beyond our grasp. This perspective resonated with me, reminding me that true wisdom lies in recognizing our limitations and remaining open to the wisdom of others.

Positive psychology pioneers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman offer a complementary viewpoint. They identify wisdom as one of the six core virtues for a fulfilling life, highlighting its multifaceted nature. Their research categorizes wisdom into five key strengths: the spark of creativity, an insatiable curiosity, the ability to make sound judgments, a lifelong love of learning, and the capacity to see the bigger picture.

Building upon these foundations, psychiatrists and researchers Thomas Meeks and Dilip Jeste propose a model with six distinct components. They emphasize the importance of self-reflection, the ability to manage emotions effectively, and the skill of gracefully navigating uncertainty. Additionally, they highlight the importance of welcoming diverse perspectives, fostering prosocial tendencies, and making astute social decisions.

My conversation with Chip Conley, author of Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder and cofounder of the Modern Elder Academy, offered a unique perspective. He poetically defined wisdom as “metabolized experience leading to distilled compassion.” This struck a chord with me, emphasizing that true wisdom goes beyond simply accumulat