Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
October 2016 - Volume 16, No. 10
Innocence and Wisdom
Here is an anecdote from a recorded interview with the late Joseph Campbell, that great student of world mythology. He was lecturing at a New England university, when a young coed approached him with this comment: “Isn’t it wonderful, Dr. Campbell, that now we can go directly from innocence to wisdom.”
Long a large influence on my own life, he responded to the young woman with some shock, “But… what you miss in between is Life.”
That was many years ago (he died in 1987). But for some reason, it has stayed in my memory, ever near the surface, ever since.
I remember from my studies of the Old Testament (what Christians now more often call The Hebrew Bible) the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is the acquisition of data - facts and information. Wisdom is the knowing of what to do with it.
It’s frequently noted that we currently live in an “information society.”We’re told often the best key to future employment especially for younger people is to gain functional skills in this environment. Personally I’m one to frequently “Google it,” and I’ll blithely trust the gnomes of Wikipedia to have sorted with sufficient accuracy much of the information I need for personal and professional endeavors. Much of my earlier public education was training in “information retrieval,” terms such as ‘encyclopedia,’ ‘dictionary,’ and ‘library cards’ were my tools of trade - now the “information highway”
Knowledge is data, wisdom has to do with living life. Knowledge is essentially static. Wisdom is fluid.
Life as In Between
Dr. Campbell’s words lie in me as the East and West horizon points by which both the time and purpose of my life is oriented. My Native American friends call it the Sun Trail. I am born as the rising sun, in the East. And when I die, I pass as the sun sets, in the West, on to the place of the ancestors.
The primary map of my life is of that pilgrimage between Innocence and Wisdom, between my birth and my death.
Between my birth and my death - Between two mysteries
Strange perhaps, but this is a great comfort to me. Any meaning of my life involves this map. Above the inside of my front door, I have a sign that reads “Beyond this place there be dragons,”which comes from the old mapmakers forewarning sense that “this is as far as we can know.”
Our life exists between two mysteries. We cannot know where we come from before our birth, and we cannot know where we may go after our death. There are many, myself included, who can claim to hold to a certain ‘knowledge’ of the mystery beyond death. But that is not truly knowledge, but rather a matter of faith and legend. Yet for many it is a great source of comfort.
We can know the time of our birth. That is marked knowledge for us. But we cannot (with a few exceptions) know the time of our death.
When we are born, we know nothing. We are marked with a given Name. I find it interesting that names are by nature ‘given’ - by one or more of those who live around us. And often in the name is an identity that connects us to an ongoing family genealogy or tribe or faith tradition or social standing or community purpose. We enter life knowing only that which is given to us. We are placed/located within small and larger circles of life. That’s why naming ceremonies are, or should be considered, sacred rituals.
The moment we are born, we begin the journey to our death. In more recent years I have become more aware of the saying, “all philosophy is grounded in the knowledge of our death.” At its root, philosophy means love of wisdom or perhaps more apropos to this discussion, friend of death.
With this in mind I move forward in and into my life. In many ways, its all I know.
What is the meaning of my life with the awareness that I am traveling onward toward my own death? And by meaning I have in mind the question, what do I do with my life?
This is not a question of data or even attained knowledge. It is a question in the province of wisdom.
One More Perspective of the Life In Between
In my mind I have posited the Life, or Life In Between, as between two points (Innocence & Wisdom) on a horizontal axis.
Let me now posit a vertical axis that intersects at mid-point (in the sense having the form of a cross).
As we learn to live fully the life we have, we also learn to live with what we’ve got. Concepts like abundance and prosperity can take on new meaning, as does the meaning of enough.
Freedom to Live the Life of Higher Purpose
When we are living Life in those in-between places, something expands in us - and the expansion is a richer caring for others. We can begin to find the richness of giving away, of caring for the neighbor and the poor and those whom the institutions of life can easily miss or avoid. Rooted in the Old Testament, this is the essence of New Testament life. And it brings a richer meaning to the concept and experience of Love.
I recall the author Michael Meade, a favorite of mine, mentioning once the idea (wisdom) of spending the first half of life making our fortune, then the second half of our life giving it all away. There’s a logical curiosity here. We can rarely know how much life we ‘have left’ in order to plan the giving of it all away. But then those in need of our generosity often themselves never know how they’ll make it often to the next day. We can live more ‘loosely,’ truly more ‘carelessly.’
In the New Testament, there are two lists of “Beatitudes” - the ‘blessed be’s. The first item on each list is
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”(Mt 5:3)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.(Lk 6:20)
In the Bible, the poor are considered those who require the charity of others in order to survive. And it’s clear in many places there that we are ultimately judged according to how we respond to them.
Here our picture of the world begins to fill out, and what the Bible calls the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God can begin to fill out before our eyes and in our hearts. We can become a living part of its inherent joy, no matter what our cosmology or religion or belief set or faith.
This is not just ‘religion’ - it’s rather a universal “Life lived to the fullest.”
Here is where the church, or the temple, or the mosque, or the life of spiritual community, or just the life of an honest heart - all can come alive.
This is what Joseph Campbell’s young inquirer would have missed if she’d gone directly from innocence to wisdom. She would have missed Life.
A Therapy Question
Let me translate this into my work as a psychotherapist, into the work done with clients in my office, the center place of my work with people.
I will say:
In many ways of thinking or philosophies, there are two levels of reality.
The first level is the level of data. These are the facts of a situation. Thus and such are the facts of what has happened or what is going on. As facts, these frequently cannot be changed.
A level one question:“How are you feeling today.”
A level one response:“Depressed.”It’s simply a fact.
The second level is the level of meaning - sometimes called the ‘meta level.’
A level two question: “How do you feel about being depressed”
A level two answer could be: “Depressed.”
Or another level two answer could be: “It’s not a problem, I’ll get over it.”
The data (level one) is simply the data.
The meaning question assumes or involves a choice, our choice.
Much of the work of therapy makes a change at the meaning level or meta level of things.
Yet often when I ask the second question, the response is simply one of no comprehension. These are people for whom ‘life’ is simply an ongoing process of relating to data. Its more existence than life. I’ll try asking the question in different ways, but still little or no comprehension. Those are probably the sadder moments of my work.
There’s a sad phrase in a Neil Diamond song, “Some people never see the light until the day they die.”
These are people for whom being in relationship basically has little or no life. Then again sometimes a relationship crisis can be instrumental in breaking through this deadness - to Life.
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