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Knowledge may be defined as a collection of information and facts. Wisdom incorporates knowledge and goes beyond it. Have you had the experience in which you have all the information, but it doesn’t necessarily make a wise person out of you? How long have we known that certain substances harm us, or that sleep, exercise, and nutrition are important to our wholeness, or that it is vital to be good stewards of our planet? And yet all of that knowledge fails to make us a wise race of beings.
Saints and Sages have tried to gain and to teach wisdom, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchem wrote in Experiencing Spirituality. I have made a collection of what I call “wisdom writings” from the sages who have inspired me. These writings help me cope with the gap between being knowledgeable and wise. I reach for these Wisdom Readings when the information in my world is not sufficient to inspire me to good, wise choices. I read them when my world is overly complicated and I can’t make sense of it all.
The Baby And The Bathwater
The thing about Wisdom Writings is that because they come through human beings, they aren’t always 100% perfect, and I like my sages to be perfect! Nevertheless, their writings are sometimes trapped in the literary convention of their times, or their ideas are no longer contemporary, or sometimes science has moved ahead. Sometimes I disagree with or don’t understand a single idea in a larger piece. Sages, I have told myself, should never be wrong, lose their tempers, or have an incorrect idea. But that is not the way of things. I would have to disallow so many Wisdom Writings if I held to that too strict point of view.
I had a teacher I admired very much. Everything she taught seemed to be inspired. I made an effort to complete every assignment she gave me, and I took to heart everything she said. Until one day. I observed her in a social setting in which she was being impatient with someone serving her. And she cussed. In that moment I struggled with the shattering image of her perfection and wondered what I would gain from throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I learned that day that wisdom comes from so many places, and that the messenger or delivery system need not be 100% perfect. Indeed, wisdom has come into the world from the ordinary lives of imperfect people. Their insights, struggles and revelations, through their writings, have served as a comfort to me when I have been walking through the darkness.
The Wisdom Writings
Max Ehrmann in 1927 wrote Desiderata, which in his own words “counsels those virtues I felt most in need of.” It goes like this:
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious
to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter, for always
there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
©1927 Max Ehrmann (renewed) Bell and Son publishing, LLC
Wisdom is a vision in that it seeks the truth. It does so by questioning, nudging and producing awe. It inspires us to reach for a greater expression of our lives. My father would read a certain poem to me whenever he managed to get me to sit still long enough. It is by Rudyard Kipling, known simply as If, and represents a father’s advice to a son. It is said that the poem was once described as the essence of the message of the Bhagavad Gita.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Source: A Choice of Kipling's Verse (1943) as quoted on The Poetry Foundation’s website.
I never thought I could be everything that the man in the poem was said to be; nevertheless, I remember the poem and felt warmly encouraged every time I heard it. It seemed to be stretching my imagination to allow me to entertain a larger idea of what might be possible for my life. Similarly, when as an adult I read Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s The Invitation, I felt the expansion that comes when my thought is refocused away from facts and to deeper meaning.
Extracts from http://www.oriahmountaindreamer.com/:
“It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing. It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive. It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life's betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it. I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human. It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.”
“It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children. It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back. It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”
I keep Wisdom Writings close for times when the world seems overwhelming and the tasks of my life difficult to understand. Sometimes I struggle with change, when change is doing what it does and I don’t want it to. A helpful writing in such times has been made permanent in my memory by the band The Byrd’s with their song Turn, Turn, Turn. For their lyrics they took, almost word-for-word, several verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes 3, King James Version, adapting them slightly for the sake of the song. I sometimes adapt writings too, perhaps leaving a line out or changing a word so that the tone and meaning is easier for me to hold.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted; (line omitted here.) A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Wisdom Writings require interpretation, and typically the range of possible meaning is broad. To me they have the ability to reach through differences of culture and faith and touch the center of what is real. They interpret reality for us. They may be gentle, and sometimes they are bold. Sometimes they startle us into action, and sometimes the comfort and encourage us. Like the lyrics of Rev. Fred Small’s song, Everything Possible, the chorus of which goes like this:
You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you're done.
Some girls who grow up strong and bold
Some boys quiet and kind
Some race on ahead, some follow behind
Some go in their own way and time
Some women love women, some men love men
Some raise children, some never do
You can dream all the day never reaching the end
Of everything possible for you.
Don't be rattled by names, by taunts, by games
But seek out spirits true
If you give your friends the best part of yourself
They will give the same back to you.
Wisdom Writings reconnect us to our hearts. They can remind us of something we may already know, but lack the courage to act on. They can point out the fierce realities of being a human and invite is into the messiness of life with bravery. Like when CL Lewis reminds us of the complexity of loving.
Extracted from CS Lewis The Four Loves, Mariner Books, September 29, 1971.
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell."
Wisdom helps us remember, when we want a guarantee that things will be okay, that life cannot give us assurances of that; that instead we have to call upon faith, and faith and facts often quarrel. But faith is what has the power to keep us going so much more so than knowledge. The 23rd Psalm has come to my rescue in such times, especially in the form of Bobby McFerrin’s lyrics (from the album Medicine Music, 1990):
Extracted from LyricWikia
The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.
Even though I walk, through a dark & dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I'm in her hand.
Or Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, one of our time’s most popular Wisdom Writings. It reminds me that freedom, and peace of mind don’t necessarily come when everything in life is perfect. Instead, in the middle of imperfection and disorder is where freedom and peace is.
Extracted from http://wikilivres.ca/wiki/The_Prophet
You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound. And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour? In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes. And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free? If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with your own hand upon your own forehead. You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them. And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride? And if it is a care you would cast off, that care has been chosen by you rather than imposed upon you. And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.
Wisdom Writings inspire us to the possibilities of our existence at times when we cannot see them for ourselves or when we have forgotten them.
Adapted from The Greatest Miracle in the World, by Og Mandino. Paraphrased and shortened for length.
… you are a great rarity. Consider a painting by Rembrandt or a bronze by Degas or a violin by Stradivarius or a play by Shakespeare. They have great value for two reasons: their creators were masters and they are few in number. Yet there are more than one of each of these.
On that reasoning you are the most valuable treasure on the face of the earth, for you know who created you and there is only one of you.
Never, in all the seventy billion humans who have walked this planet since the beginning of time has there been anyone exactly like you.
Never, until the end of time, will there be another such as you.
You have shown no knowledge or appreciation of your uniqueness.
Yet, you are the rarest thing in the world.
With all the combinations at my command, beginning with that single sperm from your father's four hundred million, through the hundreds of genes in each of the chromosomes from your mother and father, I could have created three hundred thousand billion humans, each different from the other.
But who did I bring forth?
You! One of a kind. Rarest of the rare. A priceless treasure, possessed of qualities in mind and speech and movement and appearance and actions as no other who has ever lived, lives, or shall live.
Why have you valued yourself in pennies when you are worth a king's ransom?
Why did you listen to those who demeaned you ... and far worse, why did you believe them?
Take counsel. No longer hide your rarity in the dark. Bring it forth. Show the world. Strive not to walk as your brother walks, nor talk as your leader talks, nor labor as do the mediocre. Never do as another. Imitate no one. Be yourself. …..
to enable you to reach your full potential I endowed you with powers unknown to any other creature in the universe, even unto this day.
I gave you the power to think.
I gave you the power to love.
I gave you the power to will.
I gave you the power to laugh.
I gave you the power to imagine.
I gave you the power to create.
I gave you the power to plan.
I gave you the power to speak.
I gave you the power to pray.
I gave you the power to heal.
My pride in you knew no bounds. You were my ultimate creation, my greatest miracle. A complete living being. One who can adjust to any climate, any hardship, any challenge. One who can manage his own destiny without any interference from me. ……
I gave you one more power, a power so great that not even my angels possess it.
I gave you ... the power to choose.
What have you done with this tremendous force? Look at yourself. Think of the choices you have made in your life and recall, now, those bitter moments when you would fall to your knees if only you had the opportunity to choose again.
What is past is past ... and now you know the fourth great law of happiness and success ... Use wisely, your power of choice.
Choose to love ... rather than hate.
Choose to laugh ... rather than cry.
Choose to create ... rather than destroy.
Choose to persevere ... rather than quit.
Choose to praise ... rather than gossip.
Choose to heal ... rather than wound.
Choose to give ... rather than steal.
Choose to act ... rather than procrastinate.
Choose to grow ... rather than rot.
Choose to pray ... rather than curse.
Choose to live ... rather than die.
Never demean yourself again!
Never settle for the crumbs of life!
Never hide your talents, from this day hence!
Enjoy this day, today ... and tomorrow, tomorrow.
You have performed the greatest miracle in the world.
You have returned from a living death.
And one more, to fulfill [all else]. Do all things with love ... love for yourself, love for all others, and love for me.
Wipe away your tears. Reach out, grasp my hand, and stand straight.
Let me cut the grave cloths that have bound you.
This day you have been notified.
You are the greatest miracle in the world