I have a handful of very wise people in my life and I often mull over the interesting things they say. At the moment it seems to me that wise words fall into three main types (though I’m sure there could be hundreds). Anyway, these are the three types I have been thinking of.
Some kinds of wisdom seem to be inherently uplifting. Within this category, I especially like the idea of positive paranoia. Lots of us can be very creative and focused when it comes to maintaining awful, scary kinds of paranoia, so we obviously have an aptitude for imagining ourselves at the absolute centre of the universe’s interests and plans. How nice, then, to think that the same capacity could function differently, as a belief that the world around us is constantly plotting and conspiring to make us content, successful and surrounded by beauty. I have a friend who keeps a journal of ‘evidence’ that this is true for her, recording instances of good luck, random acts of kindness, moments of contentment and joy. It’s a practise that could change the entire flavour of a day and even a lifetime, I imagine.
Other kinds of wisdom seem to be inherently gloomy and grim. Nietzsche is supposed to have said (and who knows if he really did) ‘Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs. He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.’ What a misery guts. And yet myth, fine art, literature and philosophy are full of this kind of pathos and personally, I don’t mind it. There is deep suffering, even in the nicest and most blessed of lives. It is quite real. And though it might not be wise to dwell on it (it’s said not to have done Nietzsche much good) I think it’s okay to acknowledge that we spend many of our days and nights with a gnawing sensation in our hearts. This very acknowledgement emerges right throughout the history of the arts in the West and on dark nights, there is companionship and even a kind of comradeship to be found among thinkers like Nietzsche.
And that leaves a third type. I think this form of wisdom is about trying to see ourselves and our lives and the world around us as it all actually is, as clearly and as sanely as we can. No cheerful slant to prop us up. No gloomy companions to help us feel understood. Just reality, which is a few, finite years in a fleshy, bony, breathing body, on a green, blue, watery planet surrounded by sun and moon and stars suspended in nothingness, with days and nights and warmth and coldness, flavours and colours and music, connections and love and hate, joy and bliss, grief and loss. I don’t think we can hope to force all of that astonishing truth into any neat, meaningful narrative. Pema Chodron says, ‘We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.’ For me, for now, that is about as wise as words get.