The year 2020 will go down in history as the year the pandemic arrived, the year of Black Lives Matter, the year of QAnon, the year that led to Trump supporters attempting to overturn the democratic foundations of their own country. The word that came to me repeatedly in this time was ‘wisdom’. I wondered: where is it? Who are the wisest among us right now? And what is wisdom, truly? So I began seeking out the wisest people I could find, from a range of backgrounds, to help develop a sense of what wisdom is in theory and practice, and how it can be identified and cultivated.

The first thing I learned from these extraordinary people is that we are all fellow travellers. Wisdom is not something held only in sacred texts, windswept Himalayan recesses, sweltering ashrams and men and women of deepest knowing. Each of us cannot help but acquire some type of wisdom as we move through the world. At the most basic level, wisdom is about learning from mistakes. It then becomes a tool for good decision-making. Understanding the full context of our decision is highly complex, as it includes geographic, cultural, political, economic, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual factors. And no doubt others. Our choices will all be made within a number of dynamic, multidimensional, interweaving contexts.

But wisdom has a higher level, which is beyond intelligence, discernment, courage, cultivating strategic relationships and an instinct for timing. It is not about service to self, but service to all. It is bound up in benevolence, reciprocity, compassion and humility. Nature, in its wisdom, takes care of others, through reciprocity and balance. The stories of Indigenous people ritualising their practices of harmony with and with respect for their environment reinforce the idea that wisdom is central to survival.

Our existence is such an incredibly complex proposition that reflection through art, spiritual practice and conversation with trusted allies will always be vital. As long as we proceed with an open heart and mind, wisdom – both inside and outside – awaits. Simply put, wisdom seems to be the answer to life. The two are intimately bound up. Life breeds wisdom; wisdom breeds life. Love is so closely intertwined with them that wisdom and love are virtually interchangeable for me. Wisdom is as much heart-based as head-based.

It is no simple thing to deconstruct wisdom, and no two people will see it alike. And yet most of us feel it when we encounter it. The real trick is to cultivate our own with honesty and integrity, and maintain some objectivity. It is easy to slip into self-delusion about our own wisdom, but we can equally be blind to that which we have. Ultimately, developing wisdom is a path of self-discovery, and now, perhaps more than ever, this is a vital part of our shared journey.

Miguel Mendonça is a writer based in Bristol. His book Wisdom: Now and Always is available in paperback, ebook and audiobook format.