“If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.” —1 Corinthians 13.2
People tell me I’m a fairly smart person. I always make a point to inform them that I don’t deserve the honor, but that doesn’t stop them. They think this about me not because of anything I say or do, but because of some pieces of paper I have hanging on my wall. We tend to associate years in school with intelligence and assume that those who achieve higher degrees in academia must be smarter than everyone else. I’m not sure that we’re on the right track here.
Don’t get me wrong. I love school. I love studying and attaining knowledge about the topics I’m passionate about. That’s why I consider myself a lifelong learner and why I try to alway keep my mind open to new ideas. Study and learning should be admired and rewarded because they do add value to one’s life. They add knowledge, which can lead one to become more intelligent, which is a noble thing to be. But is it really the most important thing?
It’s pretty common knowledge that there are different types of intelligence. Some people are “book smart” while others are more “street smart.” One person might be incredibly gifted with music, but another is a genius at math. I find myself to be skilled with language, but I’m terrible at thinking spatially. (Don’t ask me to be your navigator or your interior decorator.) There are so many different kinds of intelligence that one can have, and it’s great that we recognize and celebrate these various ways that people can be smart. But there’s one type that often goes overlooked.
I believe that the highest form of intelligence human beings can attain is compassion. We don’t usually think of compassion as a form of intelligence, but it really is. It requires understanding people, seeing the world from other points of view, and making decisions based on that information. That’s pretty smart if you ask me. And it has some characteristics that set it apart from any other type of intelligence known to humankind.
Compassion can be applied in every area of a person’s life across their lifespan. It doesn’t matter who you are or what situation you find yourself in: Compassion always comes in handy. Because no matter what you do, you’re going to be doing it with other people. It could be a team of other people or a single partner. Either way, knowing how to connect with people, understand where they’re coming from, and communicate with them in a considerate way will always help you excel. It’s a skill that can be applied anytime and anywhere.
And it can be practiced by anyone. You don’t have to be a savant or a prodigy to be good at treating other people compassionately. You don’t even have to get up from your chair. Compassion is a skill that someone can practice regardless of their physical ability, mental capacity, age, or any other factor. It’s available to each of us if we’re only willing to open ourselves up to it.
It doesn’t require books or classrooms or teachers, either. Compassion isn’t so much something we learn externally as it is something we discover inside of ourselves. We’re each blessed with the God-given ability to love others the way God loves us. It’s in our programming. Learning to practice compassion is actually just unlearning the selfish and prideful ways we’ve learned to approach the world due to our brokenness. Really, compassion is the most natural form of knowledge because each of us already has it in us; we just have to get past all the junk and learn to embrace it again.
And more than anything, compassion has the power to change the world. Science, math, music, literature, language, and all of those other subjects are great, and they have a lot of potential to do good. But none of them come close to the impact that compassion can have on the world. A single act of kindness can change a person’s life. And a bunch of kind acts put together can alter the course of history forever. It can give us and others the ability to live our best lives, find fulfillment, and pass that kindness on to others. And there’s no limit to what that can do.
Compassion can be used anytime, anywhere, by anyone. You don’t need anything special to learn it because it’s already inside of you. And when you choose to practice it, you can influence the world in important, lasting ways. That’s why I think compassion is the highest form of intelligence we humans have available to us.
Throughout my studies, I’ve found that what impacted me the most wasn’t the information that made me smarter; it was the handful of experiences that made me a better person. I could spend my whole life learning every fact there is to know about theology, religion, psychology, and the like, but if it doesn’t change the way I approach the world, then what’s the point? It’s nice to be smart, but it’s a lot nicer to be good. And I think that this is the ultimate goal of education, knowledge, and intelligence in general: to form good people.
So yeah, we should study to learn the sorts of knowledge we traditionally think of when we talk about intelligence. But let’s not limit our understanding of it to that small set of skills. And may we never neglect to value, pursue, and reward compassion, because it’s the most important form of intelligence any of us can attain.