That’s How the Light Gets Brighter

Frederick Nietzsche said truth is always on the side of the more difficult, which is a fancy way of saying what I said in my second TED Talk, “The truth will set you free, but it is likely to make you miserable first.”

Since childhood, I have hungered for knowledge and never much cared what the subject was. Everything interested me. When I was a teenager in eastern Kentucky, I learned about measuring tobacco (the patch, not the leaf) and Old Timey (no, that is not misspelled) music, the precursor to Bluegrass.

As a former TED speaker, I have the privilege of having regularly scheduled conversations with other TED speakers. The names of the people and nature of the discussions are private, since a bunch of the folks are public figures, but suffice it to say I’ve gained more than a little knowledge as I listen to these brilliant leaders. Sometimes the knowledge is esoteric, but fascinating.  For instance, did you know a female praying mantis without a head can still mate with, and then dismember, a male praying mantis? Yeah, I didn’t know that either. And no, they did not remove the head of the female praying mantis. They found her that way. She lived a week before her inability to take in food did her in.

I also have a lot of useless information about Southern Gospel music in the 60s and 70s, high-end stereo systems of the same period, and commercial airliners of any era. When I visited a local airfield to take a short flight on American’s first DC-3 airliner, the chief pilot started taking me seriously when I talked about its Curtis-Wright engines. I ended up sitting in the flight engineer’s seat. Kristie, my co-pastor, calls me an airplane savant.

I do enjoy gaining knowledge about a plethora of subjects, but I also understand the limits of knowledge. While knowledge can be learned, wisdom cannot be learned. Wisdom only takes shape and grows through assimilating the lessons of suffering. The key word is “assimilating.” Lots of people suffer, but not everyone gains wisdom from their suffering.

To gain wisdom through suffering, you have to allow your suffering to sink beneath your ego level to rest and abide at the level of your soul. You have to  move beyond being outraged by your difficulties, to being instructed by them. Only then can you allow suffering to do its good work within.

I am convinced that love makes the world go round, but where there is love, there will always be loss. The deeper the love, the greater the loss. The greater the grieving, the greater the wisdom that results from having grieved well, because you are assimilating the lessons of suffering.

I have an acquaintance whose journey through childhood, college, and ministry was similar to mine. We had the same kind of cultural experience and education, and did the same kind of work. Yet my acquaintance is no wiser than when he was in his twenties. He has been relatively happy. In fact, by most measures I would say he is happier than I am. But he has not been invited by a publisher to write a memoir, nor has he been sought out to share his wisdom from the stage. I do not say that to be boastful, but to speak to the truth that people who are willing to assimilate suffering in the service of wisdom are people who are in demand in the world. The world wants their wisdom.

If I had to choose between happiness and wisdom, I would take wisdom every time. Happiness is an end. Wisdom is a means to an end. The end is joy. The end is using your own suffering to lessen the suffering of others. It is taking a step forward, then shining a light back so another can take a step forward along the same path. That is how the human journey proceeds, one suffering-assimilating person at a time, using her wisdom to chart a course through the thickets and brambles that are the nature of things.

Through all my struggles, I have never lost my capacity to imagine something more for my life. I have never been one to get stuck on what happened in the past. I work through it and focus instead on what I might become. I do understand that my white male privilege is one of the reasons I can take such a forward-facing view of life. But it is my responsibility to make the most of that privilege, and to use it to enhance the journey of others.

D. H. Lawrence said a writer sheds his sickness in his writing. If you follow my blog, you know my unresolved issues and current struggles. I write about them. You also know that I am nothing if not earnest. That has come up over and again in reviews of my memoir. I understand only too well that Nietzsche is right – that truth is always on the side of the more difficult, and I am not going to shy away from that which is difficult.

What wisdom is my current suffering teaching me? It is teaching me that when you find fellow-travelers on the journey of authenticity, others who believe the call toward authenticity is sacred and holy and for the greater good, you hold onto them no matter what. You fight to keep them in close proximity, so your wisdom and their wisdom can intermingle, because that’s how the light gets brighter. And the brighter the light, the greater the joy that enters the world.

I am grateful for the knowledge I have gained in this short pause between two great mysteries, but what makes life worthwhile is the accumulation of wisdom.  So, I continue to take the path less traveled by, and therein lies the difference.