Common ground, holy ground: wisdom to guide, inform

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 23, 2011

What do these three quotes have in common?

“Sunrise, sunset, Swiftly fly the years, One season following another, Laden with happiness and tears.”

"Love life because you are stuck with it; steer life because she needs you to; awake your being so your life is full."

And, “We will find freedom once we realize that everything that happens to us has been sent to teach us.”

The “Sunrise, sunset” quote is, of course, from that stirring wedding song in Norman Jewison’s 1971 hit film, Fiddler on the Roof, and speaks to the transitory nature of our existence, a recurring theme in my columns.

The instruction to “Love life” is by Cochrane physician Dr. Habeeb T. Ali and appears at the end of all his e-mails. It speaks to our full embrace of the life that’s been given us.

The final quote is by Cochrane author David Irvine and appears in his popular 2004 book, Simple Living In A Complex World, at the beginning of his chapter, “Guideposts and Teachers.”

Which brings me to the one thing these three quotes share in common: they are modern examples of what’s technically known as wisdom tradition.

Wisdom tradition is a style of lifelong learning based on common-sense observation and reflection on everyday encounters with life – both our own encounters and those of others.

I first became seriously attracted to the beauty and power of the wisdom way of engaging life back in the late 1960s, while sipping coffee late into the evening with Stoney Nakoda elders around crackling campfires, as they taught me timeless lessons about becoming a fuller human being through careful watching and listening.

That was a major reason I subsequently focused much of my graduate studies on world wisdom traditions, and in particular, the ancient Hebrew Wisdom Tradition, so important in my own upbringing as a youth.

The Hebrew Wisdom Tradition includes the biblical books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms.

I’ve referred to the Wisdom Psalms in several recent columns. Ecclesiastes is an old man’s reflections on the experiences of life – “a time to be born, and a time to die,” for instance.

The Book of Proverbs is what most people associate with wisdom tradition: short, memorable observations on fair business practices, well-chosen words, the importance of industriousness, etc. Many of these wise sayings are shared across cultural and religious boundaries throughout the Ancient Near East and elsewhere, and are often quite optimistic in tone: if you lead a good life, good things will happen to you.

The story of Job, on the other hand, raises the disturbing question picked up by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his 1981 best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Job is the longest of this group of writings and has been in the minds of many over the past few weeks, as folks try to come to grips with Japan’s earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Wisdom, because of its common-sense observational approach to life, provides a common ground for appreciating diverse religious traditions that are otherwise in dogmatic conflict. It speaks to the oneness of human hearts, and is frequently poetic in its expression.

Wisdom is far more than just stories and proverbs, however. It’s first of all a way of experiencing life. And although it is not necessarily religious, its essential spirituality cannot be denied.

One of my favourite modern examples of this is Etty Hillesum’s diaries, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.

Etty was an aspiring writer and lover of art, a young Dutch Jewish woman who exemplified some of the best of the wisdom lifestyle during the Nazi occupation of her homeland.

In the midst of Hitler’s oppression, though deprived of most of her freedoms, she was on one occasion able to walk to a Japanese art exhibit in her town. There she observed the elegant simplicity of forms and reflected on them.

“That’s how I want to write,” she wrote in her diary. “With that much space around a few words. . . . A few delicate brush strokes – but with what attention to the smallest detail – and all around it space, not empty but inspired. . . . All that words should do is to lend the silence form and contours.”

Later while she was awaiting death in a crowded concentration camp, her wisdom comprehended the ultimate simplicity for which she longed:

“Sometimes I try my hand at turning out small profundities and uncertain short stories,” she wrote, “but I always end up with just one single word: God. And that says everything, and there is no need for anything more.”

She died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29, but her wisdom lives on to guide and inform my life.

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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