“Our ability to create has outreached our ability to use wisely the products of our inventions.” Whitney M. Young, Jr. (1921-1971) Civil rights activist
In the tradition of many ancient practices and indigenous cultures, our ancestors from all parts of the world turned to the wise for knowledge, information, and problem solving. For example the African storyteller, or griot, ensured the survival of culture and custom through telling both triumphant and disastrous stories of warriors, agriculture, or medicine. It is the way villagers learned when and how to fight, cultivate food, and heal. Today, when we seek insights, or cultural and historical wisdom, we tend to no longer turn to our knowledge keepers. We turn to…the internet. Let’s face it. Our village elders aren’t on the internet.
Many of us get through life just fine relying on conventional wisdom and the vast amount of information available globally on the internet. Conventional wisdom describes commonly accepted thoughts, ideas, and behaviors that inform our choices not only in day to day activities but also in decisions that impact our lives on a larger scale. Moreover, the collection of information via the world-wide web helps us to learn anything from home treatments of various ailments to moon walking across our kitchen floor. However, we also know that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet is good for you. While conventional wisdom and the internet may teach us how to go along to get along, it seems to me that another kind of wisdom still exists.
It’s the kind of wisdom that swells from living the ebb and flow, the mountains and valleys, of life. According to the work of Juan Pascual-Leone, life’s adversities lead us to a deeper understanding of human consciousness and resolve. Experiencing what Pascual-Leone refers to as “ultimate limit situations” brings about an awareness that can only be achieved by these confrontations. Often with age comes experience with circumstances that may involve uncontrollable fear, deep loss, life-changing illness, overpowering oppression, terrifying crisis, mortifying betrayal, and countless other sufferings.
Those who have endured these “limit situations” hold within them lessons that we can all benefit from by listening and accepting the reality of others. We can’t keep dismissing the adversity of others simply because we don’t experience it ourselves. Consider how listening, really listening, to someone who was denied the right to vote can teach us how to conquer oppression in any context. Consider how listening to stories of combat on the frontlines can inform us of the extreme capacity of humanity, both compassionate and destructive, in all kinds of scenarios. I can’t imagine that those who have reached the other side of these kinds of hardships didn’t walk away with a greater sense of the meanings and values of life.
Certainly we can assume that our elders have experienced enough to embody a wisdom that we are yet to attain. However, I would suggest that we learn to listen and accept the reality of all others, not just our elders. Regardless of age, many of us have overcome unspoken challenges that hold the seeds of life lessons and potential wisdom. For instance, I learned profound insights about courage from an energetic 1st grader fighting cancer who wanted to keep learning with his friends until he could no longer come to school and ultimately was overcome by his illness. He taught me that if we can, we must. This is wisdom from a 6 year old child.
Let’s identify the village elders and knowledge keepers in the many communities of which we belong. They are living and breathing among us. Listen for them. Accept them. I maintain an inner knowing that they don’t exist in a search box.