“When Sorrow Falls Upon the Wise”*
One is tempted to bemoan one’s own era and idealize the past. But, as any reader of classical sacred texts will tell you, when it comes to wisdom, today’s scarcity is nothing new.
“Where can wisdom be found,” asks the Proverbs, as it searches the streets and beats the bushes.
The Psalms praise the wise though they always seem to be outnumbered by the foolish.
The wisest book in the whole Bible, Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth as it is known in Hebrew) takes its readers into a wisdom so stark, so bracing, it makes a fool of the smartest kid in the class.
I am tempted to say we live in an age uniquely addicted to information at the expense of wisdom, but I’ll bet Solomon would have said the same, and so would the Buddha, and Rumi. We know our Lord Jesus would agree that his age was foolish. Just listen to him preach and watch him weep over Jerusalem. And what about St. Paul who put the world’s standards for genius out with yesterday’s garbage in favor of wisdom defined by God’s own vulnerability?
What separates the wise from the rest of us is understanding. Deep understanding. The kind of understanding that does not shy away from reality but seeks the real with all its heart and soul and mind and strength. I suppose this is why in some cultures there is no actual word for “religion.” What we usually call religion in the West, for example, in Japan is called “learning reality.”
The wise are taught directly by reality. For the rest of us, life just seems to happen to us.
The wise take each moment into their hands as if it were a special and unique gift, and they gently consider that moment. They examine it. They seek to know it as it is and not as they would prefer for it to be. They turn each moment into their very own tutor and sit at their tutor’s feet until that lesson is done. Then they move on.
I am not wise, but I would like to be. I am not wise, but I love to observe the wise. And here’s what I have observed.
The wise understand that we came into this world naked and small, and that we will leave it just as inauspiciously.
The wise understand that even the longest life on record is short. Really short. And that despite the fact that our bodies show our age and our mental faculties do slow and will fail from time to time, we never stop being surprised when we look in the mirror to see that old person looking back at us. Inside (whatever that means) we’re always younger than we look from the outside. Sometimes we’re six, or sixteen, or thirty-seven. Sometimes we’re every age we’ve ever been, all at once.
The wise understand that knowledge is partial at best, often skewed by our limited perception, and generally over-rated. Love beats knowledge every time. Compassion ranks higher by a thousand fathoms than all the information in every library in the world. And although the foolish will try to convince us that a serious demeanor is the true sign of superiority, the wise know that laughter comes right from the throne of God Almighty.
The wise understand that all our theories, doctrines, ideas and beliefs are place-holders for what we cannot imagine. The more inquisitive we are about the beliefs of others, the more joy we will find in our own faith.
The wise understand that life hurts. What we have received will be returned. Every bit of it. And the saddest people in the world are the ones who desperately cling thinking, mistakenly, that the things and people and places they are clinging to “belong” to them. The more miserable they are, the harder they cling; the harder they cling, the more miserable they are.
The wise understand that anxiety is the thief who will steal all the joy in our lives while we stand guard over that which ultimately doesn’t matter. And the wise see through the false bravado of anger and greed and violence, and see them for what they are, the actions of a frightened, desperate and deluded human fooled into thinking that strength lies in thrashing the water while you drown.
The wise understand that if we can ever learn not to be shaken by the external events that happen to us, then we will possess the only true freedom this life offers. Even death is tamed in the presence of equanimity.
“When sorrow falls upon the wise” the wise receive it with gratitude, seek to learn from it what they can, and gently let it go when its time of teaching is done. That’s what the wise do.
Consider this an interim report, please. I’ll keep watching the wise to find out what else we can learn from them.
*This beautiful phrase, “When sorrow falls upon the wise,” comes from the book-length, eighth-century poem, “The Way of the Bodhisattva” by Shantideva. Originally written in Sanskrit, it is an important text of Mahayana Buddhism, and is the subject of commentaries by some of the leading Buddhist practitioners, scholars, and leaders, including the Dalai Lama.