The Demands of Wisdom

Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, / the Holy One of Israel: / I, the Lord, your God, / teach you what is for your good, / and lead you on the way you should go.”
Isaiah 48:17

“But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”
Matthew 11:19

Today Isaiah tells us that God will teach us what is for our good and lead us on the way we should go. In truth, how does God do that? For me, one of the most consistent ways God teaches me is every time I experience the gap between what I think should happen and what actually does happen, the way I think things should go and the way things actually go. Jesus says that Wisdom is vindicated by her works. Thus, I grow a little wiser every time I learn from the experience of what Sartre termed “counter-finality,” that is, the distance between my sought for outcome and what actually occurs.

Jesus says we are like children in the marketplace “who call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’” We are not wise because someplace in us we continue to believe that when we play our tune the world should dance and when we sing a dirge it should mourn. It is our narcissism that is our great obstacle to wisdom. It is our willingness to be taught the truth of reality that constitutes our way to wisdom. Psychoanalysis teaches us that human maturity comes as the dominance of the pleasure principle in us gives way to the reality principle. Generally, however, this is not an easy or “pleasing” experience for us.

The stoic philosopher Epictetus teaches this truth in a very direct way. He points out how we have one attitude toward the difficulties of reality when they are manifest in other people, and a quite different one when they affect us. So, he says, when a neighbor’s bowl is broken we sanguinely say that things break, that “these things happen.” When our bowl breaks, however, we have a very different reaction. He then points out how this is even more the case the more the event has great emotional import for us. So, when another’s loved one dies, we recognize that death happens, that this is the life cycle. Yet, when a loved one of ours dies, we grieve unconsolably. Now we are not to be stoics. Yet, there is a deep truth in this teaching. We are far more open to conform our will to the truth, to the reality of things, when what we see as the negative aspects of those realities impact another. When they impact ourselves we become at least frustrated and even sometimes nihilistic, depressed or immobilized.

How often do we say or hear, in the face of disaster or catastrophe, “I always knew that these things happen to other people, but I never thought they would happen to me.” A great deal of the suffering that attends physical and cognitive diminishment for us arises from our sense of entitlement. We have a right not to suffer what others do; we think we have the power to play the flute and others and life will dance, and to sing the dirge and others will mourn. Almost incredibly enough, at some level we live with the illusion of our own omnipotence. Wisdom, as it comes to us in each moment and event of our lives, is always inviting us to be put in our place, to see ourselves in the truth, in what we often call “the will of God.”

For many years I accompanied a woman, who died far too young, whose life was extremely difficult. She had been sexually abused in her family as a girl, and then, as she attempted to be truthful with her evangelical family about her experience (with an uncle who was a minister) she was marginalized and even demonized by them. As a young woman, she had been homeless for some time. Bit by bit she began to strengthen and to be at least a touch more secure in having a place to live and steady work to do. Yet, she would so often speak to me of her fear of having to be on the street again, of homelessness. While attempting always to stay with her and be with her as she expressed her life and concerns, I always experienced distance from what she was relating. I could really not know the contours of the fear that she expressed. Homelessness remained for me something that happened to other people and that could not happen to me. Its threatening possibility, however, was something that she lived with every moment of every day.

This inability of mine to really know the experience of a persistent fear of homelessness is but one example of how little I really know of life. There are so many things that happen to other people for me, but that are not a part of my understanding and consciousness. Yet, although the particulars are different, there is no part of human experience that is foreign to me, that will not affect me at some point. The distance I keep from that is the distance I have from true wisdom.

When I was a child, every time my parents would argue and cease speaking to each other for significant periods of time, I would, without realizing it then, look out at the abyss of a life without the home I had known and relied on. I would be shaken by a terror different from that being described to me all the years later, yet akin to the fears of abandonment and homelessness that were being related to me. At the time, however, not so many years ago as I listened to her story, I could not yet come close enough to my own terrors that I knew well long ago and still know to this day, to recognize our kinship. There is much of the sense of security, that I take for granted and that distances me from the pain of others, that is an illusion.

The Fundamental Principles speak of Brother Ryken’s vision of his brotherhood as:

A band of Brothers
who mutually help,
encourage, 
and edify one another,
and who work together.

In recent months we have set about trying to learn anew how to be such a band. In order to do this, we have attempted to shift our consciousness from a long held hierarchical view, where the affairs and direction of our shared life was the responsibility and work of our selected and elected leaders, and a true fraternal and collegial view. We are trying to learn to see each of us as responsible for the lives of each other and willing to work together to give direction to our shared life and mission in the world. In the initial stages of doing this, we are encountering many difficulties and frustrations with each other. We are experiencing that we both want and do not want responsibility. That while we have lamented living in a hierarchy, we have also benefitted from it. As we attempt to work collaboratively and collegially, we are recognizing an emergent question which is: Are we willing and able to do the hard work,, including truly engaging with each other when it is difficult, which “working together” involves?

Each human being lies somewhere on a spectrum between the illusions of the pleasure principle and the wisdom of the reality principle, between a sense of being exempt from and above the human reality of others and the recognition of how we are a community in the common and shared human experience. The struggles of own initial experience of living Ryken’s vision of working together are a reminder of why we we have tended to individualize and isolate. Did the band of brothers become a hierarchy of individualized workers because it is, in truth, too difficult for us to “work together”?

Our ego’s response to difficulty is to become frustrated and to settle back into our own private illusions. It would keep us from learning from reality what is for our good and what will lead us on the way we should go. We can preserve a false form that continues to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that when we play the flute the world will dance and when we sing a dirge it will mourn. Nature, reality, the world, however, has its own truth and wisdom. We must decide whether or not we shall be open and humble enough to have it teach us, because, whatever we decide, reality will ultimately have its way with us.

Learn the will of nature. Study it, pay attention to it, and then make it your own.

The will of nature is revealed to us through everyday experiences common to all people. for example, if a neighbor’s child breaks a bowl, or some similar thing, we readily say, “These things happen.” When your own bowl breaks, you should respond in the same way as when another person’s bowl breaks.

Carry this understanding over to matters of greater emotional import and worldly consequence. Has the child or spouse or other dear one of another person died? Under such circumstances, there is no one who would not say, “Such is the cycle of life. Death happens. Some things are inevitable.”

But if our own child or dearly beloved dies, we tend to cry out, “Woe is me! How miserable I am!”

Remember how you feel when you hear the same thing concerning other people. Transfer that feeling to your own current circumstances. Learn to accept events, even death, with intelligence.

Epictetus, The Art of Living: A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell, p. 35

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