Note: This post is an edited version of a presentation I gave at my Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship on Jan. 4, 2009. My topic was wisdom in the context of social justice. Regular readers will recognize several issues I’ve addressed previously in Katalusis posts.
The topic of wisdom is a good choice this first Sunday of the new year, considering the turmoil in a world that includes wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and yet another raging conflict between Israel and Palestine. Not to mention the global financial meltdown.
We are in an acute state of denial if we fail to realize that all of the above affects each of us personally.
On PBS’ News Hour this Friday night, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne remarked, “Israel certainly has the right to retaliate against Hamas for firing rockets into Israeli territory, but is it prudent? Is it wise?”
What do we mean when we speak of wisdom? Is it different from knowledge or experience? The word wisdom likely means many different things to different people. As I understand it, wisdom arises from the sum total of our knowledge and experience, influenced at times by the still, small voice of our intuition whenever we’re called upon to make decisions, whether large or small.
From my one undergraduate class in ancient history, I recall the meaning of wisdom was a hot topic centuries ago in the noble city of Athens, the birthplace of democracy.
According to Plato’s Apology, a friend of Socrates asked the oracle of Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The Oracle replied, “No way. No one is any wiser than Socrates.”
Socrates was not impressed. He of the examined life was well aware of how little he knew. To prove the oracle wrong, he went around questioning those considered wise by the people of Athens. Socrates concluded that while each man thought he knew a lot and was very wise, he actually knew very little and was not wise at all. Paradoxically, then, the oracle was right: Socrates was the wisest of all because he was the only one aware of his ignorance.
On that note, let me be very clear - I do not consider myself exceptionally wise.
I first came across the notion in the early 1980s that human beings typically pass through three stages in our lifetimes: the age of innocence, the age of experience, and the age of wisdom.
The age of innocence is supposedly the blissful Eden-like state of childhood when all of our needs are met, and we’ve yet to be burdened by knowing the difference between right and wrong. You recall that’s what got Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden after they’d munched on the forbidden fruit.
If you think about it for a minute, you might remember when you first lost your innocence and were suddenly thrown into the world of experience, otherwise known as adulthood. I was in my 20s, married and the mother of two young children, when a friend I’d met at a community education class jarred me out of my innocent fundamentalist Christian ideas about religion. To start with, she was not one of those given to claiming the glass is half full. Life had taught her to be cynical about most everything. I once mentioned the fall colors were subtle that year. She replied, “They’re drab.”
My friend was a second generation Arab from Detroit whose husband had been transferred to my hometown in northwestern Ohio A displaced Unitarian she had little patience with the Christian majority in our community of about 25,000 where she may well have been our only UU resident. She was expressing her displeasure with the local ultra-conservative ethos on one occasion when I reminded her in jest that she was savaging my hometown. She replied, “The nicest thing I can say about you, Virginia, is that I forget this is your hometown.”
You see, considering my roots, my age, and my limited education, I was actually pretty liberal and open-minded.
I don’t recall whining about it much, but my loss of faith back then was painful and disorienting, and it took me awhile to get my bearings in the age of experience. In the meantime my former husband and I moved to his hometown of Minneapolis. It was a couple of years later when our kids were in elementary school that I enrolled in college where it was a privilege to breathe the fresh air of academic inquiry.
In my freshman composition class, due to my Arab friend’s influence, I attempted to write an objective account of the never ceasing conflict between Palestine and Israel.
While researching that paper, I came across persons of unusual grace and wisdom. I read an exchange of letters between Albert Einstein and an Arab professor at Princeton that were written prior to 1948. I was impressed by the graciousness these two men showed one another while openly discussing their considerable differences over the proposed creation of Israel on Palestinian soil.
I also discovered the writings of I.F. Stone, a man of Jewish heritage, widely recognized as a citizen of the world. It was Stone who reminded us that Israel was created out of the ovens of the holocaust and the subsequent refusal of Great Britain and the United States to raise their quotas for Jewish immigrants.
Sixty years later, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on.
That paper may have been the origin of my generally live and let live ecumenical attitude toward all religions, each of which I’m convinced contains its own kernel of wisdom. I should explain that I’m tolerant of the belief systems of others as long as their practices don’t involve oppressing women, gays, or any other group of people.
Recently seared in my memory is the story of the 13-year-old Somali girl who on her way to visit her grandmother was brutally raped by three men. When she sought help from the authorities, the child was charged with adultery and publicly stoned to death.
Lest we become self righteous, gang rape occurs in our country as well. The Associated Press reported yesterday that four males, two of whom are teenagers, have been arrested on suspicion of raping a woman last month in the San Francisco Bay area while allegedly taunting her for being a lesbian.
The AP said:
‘“According to detectives, “The 45-minute attack started when one of the men approached the woman in the street, struck her with a blunt object, ordered her to disrobe and sexually assaulted her with the help of the others.
‘“The police said that “when the group saw another person approaching, they forced the victim back into her car and took her to a burned-out apartment building. She was raped again inside and outside the vehicle and left naked outside the building while the alleged assailants took her wallet and drove off in her car.”
It’s no wonder that many in the GLBT community remain unconvinced the anti-gay comments by religious leaders like evangelical pastor Rick Warren are harmless in light of the good deeds he and his church have performed.
The above reasoning reminds me of the battered woman who continues to risk her life staying with her abusive spouse because he occasionally does something nice for her.
You don’t have to look far in daily news accounts to be reminded of the suffering endured by various groups of vulnerable people.
And it doesn’t take a financial wizard to know the most vulnerable will suffer the greatest hardship from the fallout of the global financial crisis. A couple of facts:
#1) To this day women in the United States continue to earn 70 cents to the dollar compared to their male counterparts in the workforce; as I know from personal experience, this makes a huge difference when women reach retirement age and their social security benefits are calculated on the basis of their earnings.
Fact #2) The unemployment rate in the black community is already double that of the national average.
I once heard a United Church of Christ Official remark: "I never know whether I'm being discriminated against because I'm a woman, an African-American, or a native of Texas."
Coincidentally, Rev. Forrest Church reminded his listeners in a recent sermon at All Souls UU in New York City that historically during periods of economic decline, outreach programs are usually the first to go when congregations begin cutting costs. He was urging All Souls not to move in that direction as the recession continues its downturn. Who knows when it will bottom out?
You can be sure the CEOs of Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors will be well taken care of, regardless of the ultimate fate of their hundreds of thousands of employees.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the U.S. government’s subsequent bailout of the insurance giant American International Group (AIG) last fall reminded me of the absurdity of an essentially unregulated economic system driven by excessive borrowing and consumer spending.
It’s a system that on a local level produces incidents like the one that happened on Black Friday. The day after Americans gave thanks for our many blessings, Long Island residents went on a rampage in pursuit of material goods.
The New York Times reported: “A Wal-Mart employee in suburban New York died after being trampled by a crush of shoppers who tore down the front doors and thronged into the store early Friday morning, turning the annual rite of post-Thanksgiving bargain hunting into a frenzy.”
Again, I don’t consider myself exceptionally wise. But as I’ve written elsewhere I do hope that our government will somehow restructure our econonomy in a way that preserves safety nets for the have nots, promotes charitable giving by those who can, and encourages for the common good the radical notion of frugality over spending by all parties. That might mean Living Simply by Design (the name of a green group affiliated with our church fellowship).
As you’ve likely guessed, my journey through the age of experience has been a long one of many ups and downs, and although I may have visited the age of wisdom from time to time, I’ve not as yet taken up permanent residence there.
The enlightened Catholic priest, Richard Chilson, who suggested the original theory of the three ages human beings pass through, also defined the quest for wisdom as synonymous with the quest for meaning in our lives. It is in effect a spiritual journey.
One of the delights I’ve experienced in growing older is that I continue to recognize signs of growth in myself – in knowledge, insight, and even in wisdom. I’ve learned over time the necessity for nurturing the spiritual life; it doesn’t just take care of itself. Around the middle of last summer, I decided to become more disciplined about this. And since then I’ve included in my morning ritual of journaling, a time for reading spiritual literature, and a few minutes of formal meditation.
In the meantime, I’ve heard from loved ones who have been hard hit by the econcomic downturn. It’s also been necessary for me to cut my own expenses, and truly, I’ve not exactly been a big spender.
Throughout all of this, my expanded morning ritual has been a source of strength and for the most part, I’ve been able to be there for friends and family.
Before I become too self-congratulatory, though, I should confess my struggle to overcome impatience throughout my years in the troublesome age of experience. That flaw in my character emerged only recently. I like for things to be done promptly, and I’ve never been very good at waiting. Especially when it involves the technician from the cable company that provides my bundled telephone and Internet connection.
It happened this Christmas morning that two incoming phone calls from family members were aborted because the other party couldn’t hear me, and my supposedly high-speed Internet service was so slow I was barely able to check my email. Further complicating matters, I live on the fourth floor of my apartment building, and my landline phone is programmed so that I can easily admit visitors to the lobby. Fortunately, when my son and his wife arrived for dinner at about noon, I was able to buzz them in.
A short time later both the phone service and my Internet connection died.
I used my cell phone to call my service provider and after wasting at least 15 precious minutes on hold, I finally talked to a live person who told me they wouldn’t be able to come out until the following Sunday between 1 and 5 p.m.
My unwired status didn’t prevent my son and his wife, and I from celebrating Christmas and the final day of Hanukah.
On Friday morning, I contacted the service provider again hoping to get an earlier appointment. I was told they’d move me up if someone else in my area cancelled.
That afternoon I went into town to do a few errands and when I returned, I discovered the electricity in part of our building was out. Both elevators were down, and I was forced to walk up the stairs with my arthritic knees to my apartment on the fourth floor. Thankfully, the power came back on in a few hours, but I’d still not heard from my ISP.
Saturday, too, passed with no word. By Sunday afternoon my impatience was about to get the better of me. Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on anger that I’ve been re-reading lately still lay on my kitchen table from my morning ritual. To pass the time I began to read the wise and venerable one’s instructions on how to mindfully treat powerful emotions threatening to get out of control.
My cell phone rang at about 4:30 and in a surprisingly calm and relaxed state of mind, I took the elevator down to the lobby to admit the technician, a personable and competent young man. He took care of the problem within minutes, and my life was soon back to normal.
In the run up to New Year’s I hadn’t thought very much about making resolutions. In fact, it was New Year’s morning when I came across the fourth of the five mindfulness trainings in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings. Titled Deep Listening and Loving Speech the piece struck me as a resolution that might help me make it one day across the threshold from the age of experience to the age of wisdom:
It goes like this:
“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”
Even though I continue to be annoyed by people like Rick Warren, and my telephone service, my internet connection, and both elevators in the building fail within 24 hours.