On Wisdom and Meaning - Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance (2016)

Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance (2016)


On Wisdom and Meaning

You Live Only Twice

Before you go on reading, consider this for a moment. Would you live your life as it has been so far all over again?

Wondering about that myself, I decided to pick the brains of people who have seen many suns rise and set. I chose to ask my father first. He’s a Holocaust survivor who has experienced a lot of agony and hardship in his life. I assure you it wasn’t easy for me to pose that question to him, but I summoned enough courage and asked whether he would, if he could, live his entire life all over again. Surprisingly, he didn’t hesitate and immediately said, ‘Yes, I would,’ adding that it wasn’t even a tough call for him. ‘I did not have to think too hard because I experienced quite a few amazing things in my life that are worth repeating despite the horrors I encountered.’

I was a little surprised and very happy. Then, because I don’t know enough people of the appropriate research age, I asked my dad to survey his friends and relatives on their willingness to repeat their lives.

He took a few days to conduct his (clearly unscientific) telephone poll. My father’s friends were less certain than he was. Some of them didn’t want to live their lives again at all, others couldn’t provide a conclusive answer even when he asked them to stop telling stories and just answer yes or no.

Eventually it turned out that my father was quite alone in his absolute willingness to repeat his life. Was it his great kindness, his amazing ability to appreciate anything good that came his way, large or small, his real altruism, generosity and total lack of envy that helped him live a life worth repeating?

To Be or Not to Be (the original version)

There are tales of a huge debate between the Hillel and Shamay schools of thought in the first century AD, waged for two and a half years, over which is more convenient for humankind: to be created, or not. After they debated, weighed, calculated and inspected the issue from every angle, the two great sages who led the schools decided that not to be created is better. This, of course, is profound truth - namely, the proposition and its opposite are both true. Not to be created may be better, but life is no less than a miracle.

In any event, these are idle musings for us. After all, we are already here.

To prove that life is a miracle, a word from the German psychologist

Erich Fromm:

Who will tell whether one happy moment of love, or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Buddhist monk, believed that life is one great miracle:

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.

So is life all vanity and suffering, or incomprehensible bliss and endless beauty? You already know that it’s both.

Suffering is not the opposite of happiness.


Does the willingness to live a life all over again indicate that it was lived right, respectably and correctly?

Can we learn how to live while we live? After all, life is not some college exam - you can’t write a draft and then change it, and you certainly don’t get a second term.

Which moments of your life so far would you gladly repeat? Which would you rather forget? Try considering events that were up to you and that you don’t wish to repeat. Have you learned anything?

The Path of Wisdom

The beginning of wisdom is to desire it.

Solomon ibn Gabirol

All through my teenage and adult life I’ve often heard the famous adage: wisdom comes with age. I’m still waiting patiently, but as my years accumulate I tend increasingly to doubt that concept. I look at myself, observe my friends, meet with people older than me, and listen to very old folks, but I can’t convince myself that with time, people do learn how to better themselves and more wisely live the rest of their lives.

Time isn’t such a great teacher after all. Time collects very high tuition fees: it kills all of its students in the end - and that incalculable payment is often utterly wasted.

Some people spend an entire lifetime without learning a thing; others find that experiences teach them accurately and unequivocally. Powerful events open our eyes (if we belong to the latter category) more than months of education - though sometimes we see reality for what it is, while at other times it’s distorted.

Clearly, all the grand and lofty ideas have already been spoken and written. Human history carries thousands of versions of wisdom by Eastern and Western poets, prophets, writers, thinkers, scientists and spiritual teachers. Still, a distinction has to be drawn here: knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Knowledge can be handed down from one person to another. Wisdom cannot be transferred. I acquired knowledge from various sources: university lectures, conversations with fascinating people, contentpacked Internet sites and, above all, numerous books I’ve read. They have all added to my sea of knowledge; but wisdom can’t be taught.

Knowledge helps you get along in life; while wisdom helps you understand what are the things that matter, and what gives life its meaning.

Experience is not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.

Aldous Huxley

In my opinion, wisdom is not determined by the amount of knowledge a person acquires throughout his life. There are even people who know so much already that they understand nothing at all. We must beware not to read ourselves to stupidity.

Wisdom is knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know and that you do know what you know. Stupidity is thinking that you know things you don’t know or that you don’t know things you actually do know.

Chinese wisdom

I am not young enough to know everything.

James M Barrie

Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, sounds openly sad when he states that ‘As a professor I don’t like this, but the cerebral virtues - curiosity, love of learning - are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love.’

… that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.

William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’

I believe that the level of a person’s wisdom is measured by (among other things) the number of happy moments they have collected. Imagine someone who, on his last day on our blue planet, goes over everything he has done in his life. He remembers solving plenty of differential equations, writing three doctorate theses, receiving tenure in two universities. This man has $8.5 million in his bank account. But he was annoyed many times and annoyed others many times also and he can’t remember when he was happy … truly happy. He finds it even harder to recall when he made other people happy. He must be very sad.

And so I must ask:

What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of my life? What should I do with it?

The Russian existentialist Lev Shestov said that life is like a huge wall, and there are two ways to traverse it: either you make yourself very big, develop delusions of grandeur and leap over it; or you make yourself very small, modest and meek, and slip under it. A Central Asian fable says that when a lion attacks you, you can either become a huge warrior and slay it, or make yourself very tiny and hide in one of the lion’s teeth cavities.

Jewish sages recommend that the wise maintain two beliefs at all times. According to one, you need truly to believe that the world was created just for you. The other urges that you accept that you are ‘nothing but dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27). The belief that the world was made for you is a profound truth, because its very opposite - ‘I am nothing but dust and ashes’ - is a truth just as deep. Indeed, people try to get through life either by making giant leaps over that wall or by cautiously crawling under it. Delusions of grandeur coincide with inferiority complexes. We are both manic and depressive. All conflicts inhabit the human soul.

Small wisdom is like water in a glass: clear, transparent, pure.

Great wisdom is like the water in the sea: dark, mysterious, impenetrable.

Rabindranath Tagore

One day the Little Prince met a railway switchman whose job was to help people move from one place to another - some going left and some going right. It appears that all the members of the grown-up tribe are never happy where they are. A friend of mine once said that there’s no point in moving from one place to another because wherever you go, you take yourself with you. I don’t know where he is now, but he’s probably right.

The truth you’ll find on top of Mt Everest or in an Indian ashram is your truth, the same truth you brought along with you.

To clarify this, let me quote from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the classic novel whose numerous pages contain quite a few philosophical ideas.

‘The highest wisdom and truth are like the purest liquid we may wish to imbibe,’ he said. ‘Can I receive that pure liquid into an impure vessel and judge of its purity? Only by the inner purification of myself can I retain in some degree of purity the liquid I receive.’

There are two types of prayers. People with good intentions pray that the workings of the world change to accommodate them, while the enlightened pray for the power to change themselves. It’s critical to realize that those of us who want to fix the world must first try to fix ourselves first.

One man was sitting idly at home when rain started falling. Gradually, the rain grew heavy and then turned into a real storm, with thunder, lightning and heavy rain. Then the man noticed that his roof was leaking. Braving the storm, he put on his coat, stepped out of his house, looked up to the sky, and started directing the clouds and blowing at the wind to go away. ‘Rain, rain,’ he yelled. ‘Go away! Don’t fall on my house. And you, clouds, blow away, or move more to the right … yes, a little more.’

Leo Tolstoy, The Reading Circle

Now, if you ever did what that man had done, kind people in white robes would come to take you away. But wait, Tolstoy said. Isn’t it what most people do most of the time? While a storm is raging in their souls, instead of going in to find the leak and fix it - that is, look after their turbulent mind and calm their own spirit - they rush out and try to change their environment.

By the same token, we can see how people are always trying to save the world and change humanity. To be honest, this is a Mission Impossible. However, if each man and woman took care of themselves, mended their homes and pacified their minds, humanity would be saved as a whole. Sages of all cultures knew that.

Most people feel that their inner world is a vast ocean, and they don’t have enough courage to dive in, study it and slowly make the necessary changes there. Sooner or later, having failed to find true comfort and peace on the outside, most of us will have to seek refuge inside ourselves. Until then, however, many people choose to save the world instead of saving their souls.

Tolstoy suggested that we stop staging revolutions out on the streets, that we stop changing the world; and that we start being kind to one another. These days, many countries are in turmoil as people take to the streets and seek political reform, social justice, equality, liberty and human rights. Instead, take it easy on the outside, the sages have said, and invest inward. That should make things better.

Gandhi suggested an even bolder tactic. If you want to change the world, ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. Gandhi was speaking of the difference between human being and human doing - believing we should focus on the former.

And maybe, after all, you will reach the sky, and maybe, after all, you will rejoice in life. You’ll thank it all, and like water you will be, and you’ll be as one with the Mercy Sea.