Here we are obviously not going to talk about information or even knowledge, but about that mysterious reality which is denoted by that term “wisdom.” Like porn, we may not be able to define it in legal or scientific or philosophical or even social media terms but we generally have a sense of what it is when we encounter it. And encounter it we can anywhere, absolutely anywhere–lift up any rock and there it might be. The end result of such an encounter can be illuminating, even transformative; but as is the case for many of us we might want to keep that “wisdom” at “arm’s length” so to speak. It might also be very costly in personal terms to engage wisdom and let it take you where you never intended to go. Much easier to just admire it from a distance.
But sometimes we run into wisdom personified, where a person’s whole life bears the weight of wisdom and this suddenly places a challenge before us on how to respond. Such a person was Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan; such a person was Rumi, Buddha, Milarepa, Mother Teresa, Hui-neng, Thomas Merton, Han-shan, Hakuin, al-Hallaj, Jesus of Nazareth, and so many more. Each of these figures in his/her own way embodies wisdom, to a greater or lesser extent, in all that they are. Wisdom is not just some saying or idea that they live by.
Consider this story about Jesus from the Gospel of Luke: “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’”
Now this is a very interesting story for many reasons and a remarkable encounter. It illustrates one kind of invitation to a profound transformative experience. The young rich man is basically a “good” guy–I think he has that self-image (there’s that word again!) and that’s why he calls Jesus “good,” really wanting Jesus to approve his own basic religious posture in the world. Jesus radically deflects the young man’s concerns and questions at this level of being. He is inviting him to a kind of leave-taking from a rule-based religiosity to something quite different. Now rules are ok, and for social living quite necessary, like traffic signals. And “rules” are the first “baby-steps” of any kind of spirituality or religiosity. I mean it’s quite obvious that you shouldn’t be cheating on your spouse or stealing from your neighbor or living a lie or….if you intend to go deeper in whatever religious tradition you journey.
But, unfortunately, for too many people rules become a rigid totality, almost the very substance of their spiritual journey. Now Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as a wisdom-figure, not a “messenger of wisdom,” not a “message- bearer,” but as someone whose very life is wisdom and who seeks to transform the meaning of the rules of his world; and more, who seeks to awaken you to that same life and wisdom within you that he has and which takes you way beyond what the rules can do. And so we have to be very careful how we read his next words, not being simplistic or literalistic. Jesus’ call to the young man to “follow him” is an invitation to live a life in the light of that wisdom which is within him, which Jesus now attempts to awaken him to. The main obfuscation of that wisdom is usually the ego attempt to build up various identities that we feel we cannot be without but which are all spurious, fragile, vacuous, ultimately just a wisp of cloud that is easily blown away–thus a lot of anxiety and effort and work and even violence goes into defending and holding on to this pseudo-reality. The “wealth” that Jesus addresses in this “rich young man” is on the one hand literal wealth, which can easily be a very intoxicating source and enabler of various false identities; and on the other hand, it is more a metaphorical or symbolic pointer of in fact the multitude of identities that we all carry in order to feel secure and that we even exist. So what Jesus proposes is a radical process that the young man feels threatened by; he has an iron grip on this “wealth” and will not let go. The invitation is turned down. The “bystanders” are represented as wondering out loud how anyone can be “saved,” meaning how anyone can ever “let it all go” and partake of this wisdom. This is a good question, and it may very well be that we can’t “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” so to speak; spiritually speaking you can’t transcend yourself by your self. But Wisdom is always there in every encounter, in every moment, in every event, which comes from the Hand of God and it provides the call and the means for that leave-taking and a totally different view of life.
A lot more could be said about that story but so much for that. Let us go on now to what might be considered a most surprising opening to wisdom: a Hollywood sitcom writer/producer. Let me back up a bit. A while back I was very sick, and someone brought me some DVDs of a sitcom, thinking that would entertain me and take my mind off my misery. Normally I watch no TV whatsoever so I don’t know what is “big” these days, nor do I care. When I was a little kid I heard Newton Minow call TV “the great wasteland.” I agreed with that then, and I see no reason to change my mind on that one. In any case this program is a comedy called “The Big Bang Theory,” and it is all about a group of nerdy scientists at Cal Tech who are very smart in one respect and very clumsy and fragile in human relationships and funnily neurotic about many things. I did find it astonishly engaging and entertaining to my surprise. I watched one episode after another on the DVDs, and at the very end of an episode, after all the credits, there was this thing called a “vanity cardI.” It was a short personal reflection from the writer/producer of the program: Chuck Lorre. I started reading these and found them truly interesting. Most of it is trivial, even banal, but occasionally there was a gem of wisdom there. And always it was written with a pecuiiar panache and always witty and always ready to tickle your funny bone even when it was a trivial observation. The man definitely has a talent for humor, but what interested me was his wrestling with some deep wisdom on occasion. It gets buried in the humor, but if you look hard it jumps out at you and surprises you with that refreshing insight. Yes, surprising for something like that coming from THAT cultural locus!! Let’s look at some examples:
“The things I have spent my life depending on are undependable. Because they are things. And things are, by their very nature, subject to change. This applies to people as well. People change. People leave. Inevitably we all leave. The world, therefore, is essentially an unstable, uncertain environment. That’s why I choose to believe in, and depend on, an unchanging, eternal, omnipresent non-thing. I prefer not to call it God, because the very word tends to thing things up. So I try not to call it. I try to experience it. Easy to do looking out at the ocean. Hard to do looking up at the ocean. Easy to do when you look at a baby. Hard to do if the baby is next to you on a long plane flight. Easy to do when you look at a pretty girl. Hard to do if you were once married to her. Clearly what blocks me from transcendence is judgment. If I were able to suspend having an opinion on drowning, other peoples’ baby’s vomit, and alimony, if I could simply see these things as they are – actions devoid of meaning until I give them meaning – I could experience some semblance of union with the infinite sublime. I’d instantaneously transition from neurotic sitcom writer to one seriously badass guru dude. People would travel great distances to ask me for guidance with their personal problems. I’d wisely tell them “It is what it is.” They’d judge this as being ridiculously inadequate advice and punch me. But I’d be okay with it because I’m, you know, exalted.”
Mr. Lorre comes from a Jewish background but you see a lot of Buddhism in his observations, sometimes with a lot of New Age flavoring, but no matter what you call anything, wisdom is where wisdom is as you find it. A lot of it is valid spirituality in most traditions, just packaged a bit differently here and always with humor. Here is another example:
“The human mind is very adept at labeling. Left to its own devices, it will label situations, things, places, and people. It’s a pretty handy app. Except when it comes to people. Over time those labels tend to solidify. They become all we can see. They become what we experience. The true depth of a person, the breathtaking miracle of their very existence, is replaced with a word. A sound. An assemblage of vowels and consonants. Ink or digital letters on paper or screen. Which is why I sometimes try to look at people and see them, witness them if you will, without immediately attaching a mental label. This is especially fun to do in a crowded public place. After a few minutes of practicing nonjudgemental looking, I find my heart filling with affection for total strangers. It’s an extraordinary experience. I encourage you to try it sometime. Be warned though, when you feel affection, you can’t stop smiling. This may cause total strangers to react fearfully, or, in New York City, say, “What the hell are you lookin’ at, ya friggin’ freak?!” “Friggin’ freak” being your new label”
And another one, one of my favorites:
“I don’t mean to offend anyone, but God told me to write this vanity card. The following are His words. I just took dictation.
You are all animated by me. Like electricity lights a bulb, I light you. What you call awareness is, in fact, me. Some awareness plays soaring piano concertos, some shoots three from the perimeter, some drive around in little cars looking for parking violations. It’s still me. Just in a different guise. God in drag, if you will. Simply put, each and every one of you is a perfect expression of my timeless, universe-straddling ineffability. You are also meaningless and inconsequential. It’s a paradox, I know. But only to you. Which brings me to the purpose of this vanity card. In your endless quest to forge an identity, you have lost sight of what you are. So I will say it again. When you strip away all the temporary labels- American, Iranian, Israeli, Russian, Chinese, young man, old woman, soldier, florist, gay, straight, rich, poor, liberal, conservative, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jew- when those identities are taken away, and believe me, they eventually will be, then all that is left of you… is me. Consider this the next time you feel compelled to hurt or kill someone. Look at them. See me. Then act. On a lighter note, that was a really funny episode of Big Bang tonight! That Sheldon is a hoot”
Something tells me Abhishiktananda would have liked this one a real lot!!
Now here Lorre is in his element: total humor hiding a real grain of wisdom:
“I’ve thought long and hard about this vanity card. What I’m about to say is going to upset quite a few people. Some of them are my friends. Or perhaps, after reading this, my former friends. But I can’t let that stop me from speaking my mind. It’s time to say out loud what I know in my heart to be true. Vegetarians and vegans are mobility bigots. They believe that if a life form doesn’t move, it’s fair game to be killed and eaten. They hold a deepseated prejudice against plants, or, as plants prefer to be called, “We Who Stand Still.” This hateful philosophy is predicated on the idea that movement equals consciousness, or, if you will, a certain level of sacredness. To put it simply, if it walks, flies, or swims, or comes from something that does, it should not be ingested. If it doesn’t, yum-yum. Of course when you ask vegetarians and vegans, they say no, they’re only opposed to eating flesh. But what could be more fleshy than a mushroom? Or avocado? Or eggplant? The ugly truth is they are cowards who murder and devour anything that can’t run away. These people, who act so high and mighty, so spiritually elevated, have somehow constructed a style of cuisine that would justify them eating my Uncle Murray, a man known for sitting still for hours at a time, staring at a TV that is turned off. So the next time you order a salad consider this: Prince told us that doves cry. But what if kale does too?”
Here is one where Mr. Lorre wrote years ago, before the election of Pope Francis. He is applying for the job of pope! As a Catholic, I loved this one….
“I’m a big believer in the old maxim, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” With that in mind, I’d like to throw caution to the wind and ask the Vatican’s College of Cardinals to consider me for the job opening that recently became available. Now, before you say anything, let me be the first to point out the many reasons “why not.” I’m Jewish. I’ve never understood the hoopla over the Old Testament, with all the smiting and begetting. I’m a twice- divorced sitcom writer with a shady past. And perhaps most importantly, I look silly in a hat. No argument, the cons are plentiful. But let’s take a moment to examine the pros. First, I am completely untouched by the abuse scandal that is currently engulfing the church. I can stand on the balcony that overlooks St. Peter’s Square and say to the adoring masses, with a straight, albeit Semitic face, “Folks, I’ve never even met an altar boy.” With me as your pontiff you buy yourself some serious deniability. Next, believe it or not, I happen to be a very spiritually inclined guy. I would love a job where my primary thrust was encouraging prayer, meditation and acts of loving kindness. (Although in the interest of full disclosure, we would have to negotiate some common sense middle ground for any other thrusting I might want to do. It’d be a shame to waste adoring masses as long as they consist entirely of consenting adults.) And finally, there’s the issue of my name. How can a billion true believers not smile and breathe a sigh of relief when the white smoke coming from the chimney is to announce the investiture of Pope Chuck? Cardinals, I want to assure you that while my papacy is a little “outside the box,” you can rest assured that I would passionately carry the good word to all the poor and the downtrodden, beginning with a holy visit to Saint-Tropez, or maybe the Bahamas or Turks & Caicos. And just think of the marketing opportunities! How is “Pope Chuck” not the name of the next Adam Sandler movie? What’s to stop me from busting a move on the balcony and starting a dance craze called “Pope Chuckin'”? And don’t get me started on the demographic potential of a TV show entitled “Pope Chuck, P.I.” (Kiss the ring, or get punched by it!) Yes, this transition represents an incredible opportunity for the church to be reborn. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the name of the game?”
Mr. Lorre is also a bit of social critic, but as always with humor hiding a real grain of wisdom:
“As some of you might know, I have long avoided having any social media presence. I am completely ignorant of all things Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever other cyberforum the teenage cognoscenti have recently anointed. I know the pound sign is a crucial element to communicating via Twitter, but have never personally tried it. More importantly, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. My life doesn’t feel lesser for it. When I began these vanity cards almost twenty years ago, I decided that they were a perfectly adequate way of communicating my personal thoughts on a large scale. Sure, they’re a one-way communication, but I actually prefer that. My thinking was, and still is, that this world of ours already sends too many messages. Or perhaps consciousness, by its very nature, acquiesces to being barraged. Either way, my self-preservation seemed to demand digital inaccessibility. Or, to put it more simply, the only hater I can tolerate in my head is already in my head.”
And also this:
“I grew up devouring science fiction books. I was like a little Pac-Man, gobbling up everything I could get my hands on: short stories, novels, and, of course, comic books. Looking back, I realize that sci-fi and, to some degree, fantasy novels, were my first attempt at escaping reality (later attempts would prove to be a bit more problematic). Regardless, I now see that immersing myself in this kind of literature informs my current view of the world. The path of history is, for me, forever seen through the eyes and imagination of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and many, many more. Which is why I consider all efforts to control human behavior through force as ultimately doomed to fail. Sure, they might work for a while. That’s where the cool story is – the resistance and overcoming of authoritarian rule. But at the end of the day, the macro, sci-fi view is always toward greater freedom, regardless of what form it takes. The real evil, the much more insidious method of control, is actually what we do to ourselves. The abuse of drugs and alcohol, plus relentless consumerism and over-exposure to mind-numbing entertainment, are the real chains on the human spirit. Of course this means that I, having produced close to a thousand half-hours of television, am part of the problem. Sorry. I never meant to be a Minor Overlord for the Terrestrial Shadow Masters.”
Enough of all this. Just a few examples from the pen of this interesting man. It is refreshing to see Chuck Lorre understands his enigmatic or paradoxical position. One doesn’t expect even a grain of wisdom to show up in a social matrix which is really organized to cause illusion, but there he is immersed in that world, doing quite well, and still able to have some deeper insights than just trying to sell something to someone or keep them from thinking about real life. So …wisdom is where wisdom is….not for us to decide where it should be…. But I still have hopes that Lorre will one day hear that inner voice say, “Friend, come up higher!”