Monday, January 17, 2011

Wrestling with Work and Wisdom

"Rabbi Hanina Ben Dosa ... used to say, He whose works exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but he whose wisdom exceeds his works, his wisdom will not endure."
The Living Talmud, 133
When the Jewish sages comment on this passage, they consider "wisdom" to be book-learnin'. (This I don't think is true, but I'll get to that later.) Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar writes about the difficulty in learning without praxis — ideas gained in learning are best supported and allowed to grow with honest real-world effort. In fact, he writes, "[h]e who studies but does not practice is like a woman who gives birth to children and then buries them."

If we do not practice what we learn, we lose familiarity with the truth. A truth becomes stale, stiff, cracked with the heat and lack of use. I am occasionally struck and saddened by the shadow of a brilliant idea, half-remembered from a reading, which, when I try to recall it, I see is beginning to gradually evaporate — I cannot recall it as clearly as I have in the past, I cannot apply the wisdom, as its depth has left me. Have I done the idea a disservice? Is it not as pressing as it once seemed to be? How can I tell lasting truths from momentary fascinations?

Writing is a way of addressing, of facing, of wrestling. It takes hours. I'm wrestling with this late at night, but here I am. Why? Because I can't bear for it to slip away. Again.

The sages suggest that basically one ought to do more than one studies — but, truth be told, I think this reading, in which wise action keeps books honest, is needlessly literal. "Wisdom," after all, is not found entirely in books.

I would instead take this passage as a tribute to the holiness of lived experience — specifically, as a tribute to making mistakes: "She whose works exceed her wisdom, her wisdom will endure; but she whose wisdom exceeds her works, her wisdom will not endure."

In other words, she who acts beyond the familiar, she who acts and cannot fully predict the outcome, she who sees the limits of her wisdom, she who wrestles with the unknown, muscles tensed, present and uncertain, who may be bloodied by the effort, she may gain a limp but she gains true wisdom.

Maslow. It seems he is
enjoying a great joke. 
Psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his understanding of fulfillment, speaks of self-actualizing, never self-actualized— becoming one's potential self is a process. Maslow describes self-actualizing individuals as people with love and enthusiasm, who learn from everyone they meet, who treat the world as their family, who see the world fresh each day — steeped in the Buddhist notion of not-knowing, a deep and friendly defamiliarizing of everyday life, they are forever exceeding the bounds of their wisdom. They are loving and enthusiastic, and make mistakes, experience disappointment, and therefore are forever learning.

Of course, this "forever learning" has challenges. It can be diffuse, stretched out, indeterminate. It can draw and quarter you, pull you to pieces, to move from comfort into challenge again and again. What can bring together all the learning that happens at the boundaries of our understanding?

Rumi, the Sufi poet, writes:

Your intelligence is spread over a hundred "important" affairs,
over thousands of desires and concerns great and small.
You must unite the scattered parts by means of love,
so that you may become as sweet as Damascus and Samarkand.
When you have become united,
particle by particle, from out of perplexity,
then it is possible to stamp the King's seal upon you.

(Mathnawi IV, 3288-3290)

Out of confusion, unity.
Out of scattered parts, sweetness.
Out of perplexity, safety — and the means is love.
When the path is unclear, love is quiet discernment. When the pieces don't fit, love is faith in a picture I can't quite see. When I am frustrated by all the things I am not, love is patience.

This wisdom comes slowly. But surely, it must endure.