I will never forget the many mistakes I made during my first years teaching. I had done well in college, and had learned many interesting things about how people learn and methods of how to teach. However, when I hit the classroom, suddenly things did not go as well as they seemed to have before. Teaching one class is easy enough, but being a teacher day in and day out is not so simple. The pressures and preparation needed to teach daily require a lot more than I realized.
Eventually I learned the craft of teaching, and now I feel fairly comfortable in the classroom. What I learned from those experiences is that there are two kinds of knowledge. There is intellectual and factual knowledge, of which I had plenty, but there is also experiential knowledge that comes from living out one’s vocation day in and day out. We often get ourselves into trouble when we think that because we have the intellectual knowledge that we automatically are able to grasp the experiential.
This is exactly the distinction that St. Thomas Aquinas made. He used the example of chastity to make his point. He distinguished the kind of knowledge learned through study of the virtues from the knowledge possessed by the chaste person. The second kind of knowledge is far superior. In this way, the people who have more experience at living well are always at an advantage in offering counsel. Experiential knowledge gives us a kind of intuitive understanding of how best to live in harmony with God’s design. So the key to wisdom is experience, and good experience at that.
So we should recognize three important aspects of living well. First, we must have the courage to live and make mistakes. There is no substitution for falling and getting back up again. Second, we must have the humility to learn from our mistakes. This requires that we allow ourselves to suffer defeat and the shame that goes with it without trying to run and hide. Finally, we must have the humility to share our mistakes and our lives with others. This helps us to laugh and cry with those most important in our lives. All of these require a real dying to self because our tendency is to avoid all three. However, if we learn to put these three things into practice, we will eventually come to a place of growth and insight.