I’m ten years old, sitting in my father’s den with a copy of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead in my lap. I picked it out of the hundreds of books lining the walls in the floor-to-ceiling shelves, because I thought it might be a dirty book. It’s a big disappointment. Not only are there not any “good parts,” I can’t even make any sense out of it. This annoys me enormously, because I really don’t understand why anything in the adult world should be inaccessible to me.
I listen to adult conversations and hang around waiting to chime in. No one seems to take me seriously. I constantly ponder the differences between adults and me. Does merely being alive for a certain number of years automatically make a person wise? Is wise the same as smart? I suspect not. School seems to tell me that I’m fairly smart, but the closest I’ve ever gotten to wise was playing the part of one of the Three Wise Men in the Christmas play. That, however, was quite a profound experience. In the dark of an old stone church, I bent myself into what I felt was the shape of a wise old man, holding his lantern aloft as he searched for the star, the newborn, the truth. Sacred music echoed off the walls, shadows formed themselves into hovering spirits, angels attending this recreated event as if it, too, had a life of its own. For just a moment, my staff in one hand, lantern in the other, stockinged feet rooted to the earth through the cold stone floor, I felt truly ancient, a searcher through eons of darkness, wise enough to recognize the light and move — through obstacles unimaginable even in that illumined moment — relentlessly toward it.
I keep getting older. I still hang on to my lantern and look at the stars. I don’t believe age automatically earns wisdom, but now I do see the one thing that belongs only to time, that no child, however earnest, precocious, or ambitious, can prematurely acquire: perspective. If we can just stay awake, really notice the changes as they take place, let the seasons and the animals speak, see people aging and being born, honestly observe our own life choices and those of others, then the perspective we gain on this mysterious, fascinating process of being alive just might be a door that opens onto wisdom.
Renais Jeanne Hill
Yucca Valley, California
My major drive in life has always been to live my spiritual convictions twenty-four hours a day, and I used to search for an organization in which to do this. After a number of years in a meditation group in Denver, I spent a year on staff at the parent headquarters in New York. The teacher had asked me to be his secretary, and it seemed like an ideal opportunity — the staff program had always been advertised as a totally absorbed practice. What I found was quite different: very little effort to relate actions to the teaching; a haphazard and half-hearted spiritual discipline; people hell-bent on power and status (in a tradition devoted to their eradication!); and a teacher devoted not to my spiritual growth as his student, but only to his own whims and wants. I left there at the end of the year with a hard-earned wisdom burning in my soul, not rattling around in my mind; I knew then with my whole being that I would find what I need and desire only inside myself.
Was my search for an organization really a desire for a structure and for people to lean on? Did I think they would somehow mold me into doing what I must do myself? It is one thing to quote Thomas Merton, who wrote, “I wonder if we are really going to have to get along without a structure one of these days. Maybe that will be good, but, Lord, it will be tough on most people.” It is quite another thing to experience the truth of his words, and thus make them my own. That is how unearned wisdom is transmuted into earned wisdom — through the alchemy of experience.
St. Louis, Missouri
In April of 1985, I was informed that I had a chronic illness. While undergoing an eight-hour operation, I went into a coma. My family and friends were told that I would not make it, but, after much help from others, I’m still here. Before the onslaught, I thought that my life was just as full as it could be. I was wrong!
Illness knocks a lot of nonsense out of us; it induces humility, and cuts us down to our own size. It enables us to throw a searchlight upon our inner selves, and to discover how often we have rationalized our failures and weaknesses, dodged vital issues, and run skulkingly away. Only when the way straightens and the gate grows narrow, do some of us discover our true souls, our God, or our life’s work.
Florence Nightingale, too ill to move from her bed, reorganized the hospitals of England. Semi-paralyzed, and under the constant menace of apoplexy, Louis Pasteur was tireless in his attack on disease. Jean M. Auel, author of Clan of the Cave Bear and several other novels, is so crippled with a bone disease that she can stand up for only an hour at a time to type her manuscripts.
Suffering is a cleansing fire that chars away much of the meanness, triviality, and restlessness of so-called “health.” Milton declared, “Who best can suffer, best can do.” The proof is his Paradise Lost, written after he was stricken blind.
Durham, North Carolina
During World War II, when our husbands were doing shift work in a Navy yard, my neighbor and I decided to spend our evenings learning Spanish after the children were in bed. We advertised for an instructor, and a young man who was staying at the YMCA contacted us. We had precious little gas, so we took turns driving to pick him up at the end of the bus line once a week. We met in my living room, where he diligently reviewed our homework and drilled us. We were not allowed to speak English during class. We worked hard, and made remarkable progress; we even began making plans to visit Mexico after the war.
Our lessons went on for several months, until one night when, after a particularly strenuous session, our teacher said that his company was transferring him to another city, and he would be unable to continue. We were surprised, disappointed, and astonished to realize that we didn’t even know where he worked. In English — despite our progress, this was still our most comfortable language — he went on to say that he had offered to teach Spanish in order to meet people in the community. I can still feel the stab of guilt. It is true that, with small children and war restrictions, entertaining was difficult, but surely we could have done something. Here was a young man, alone and lonely in our city, and we had been completely blind to his needs.
From that day on, I became a watchdog for lonely people. I volunteered to be a welcomer at church, organized neighborhood get-togethers, and developed a hospitality committee in our small community. Always on the alert for a newcomer who might feel left out, I have at times befriended natives and introduced old friends, but I’d rather appear foolish than overlook the lonely. I may not remember much Spanish, but that young man taught me a life-long lesson.
As a teenager, I prayed that God would reveal what my particular gift was to be. The years passed by without any answer to my question. My adult life was moderately successful, but with too many failures and crises for my liking. Several unhappy love affairs left me exhausted and depleted. An unwise job choice ended in public humiliation. There were complicated family misunderstandings, the inexplicable betrayal of a trusted friend, and the trauma of cancer surgery. Finally — the biggest blow — I had a cerebral hemorrhage that left me brain-damaged, confused, inarticulate, and badly crippled at age fifty-two.
It was at this nadir that I learned to tap resources beyond myself. Years of confinement to the same room have provided the solitude to face issues I had previously been “too busy” to think through. I have discovered that wisdom comes to us through painful experiences when we open ourselves to the lessons they have to teach.
Can I earn or acquire wisdom? The feeling is that I can: that the next book or the next guru will give me the knowledge that will make me wise; or that I will come through that cauldron of conflict and confusion and suffering with my badge of wisdom. Then, I can sit safely in my easy chair and nod in wise agreement over my next issue of The Sun, while smirking (compassionately, of course) over the foibles of my fellow man who has not risen to the same heights.
Is that wisdom?
Or has wisdom nothing to do with what I know — what I have earned or acquired? Perhaps wisdom begins with doubt, with questioning, with probing everything I know or believe.
Several weeks ago, I ran into a friend with whom I had recently been out of touch. When he told me he had been thinking that he was nobody, I rushed in enthusiastically. “Isn’t it a wonderful relief?” I said. I laughed in delight at the seeming shared experience, until he asked, “What do you mean?” Only when he expressed total surprise did I recapture the undertone of despair in his voice. I also remembered the intense pain and struggle I, too, had been through to earn my moment of “wonderful relief.”
I’ve always wanted to be a person who listened closely and compassionately, and now I had not heard my friend. I was no longer nobody, but somebody who was not very sensitive.
Once, when my husband commented on my luck at having a good enough childhood to achieve equanimity in relationships in later life, I got angry. “I’ve worked hard for that equanimity!” I said. “I’ve earned it!” I guess I’m still somebody who wants credit.
I let go of being somebody over and over again, but only through repeated confrontations, often painful, with the “somebody” I wanted to be or thought I was. I’m earning my wisdom moment by moment.
West Newton, Massachusetts