The fifth grade teacher wanted to try a psychological experiment. He asked the class, “Please stand up if you think you’re stupid.” One kid in the back row stood up. “Johnnie,” he said, “Do you think you’re stupid?” “No sir,” he said, “I just don’t want you to be standing alone.”
The older I get, the more I know that I don’t know much of anything at all. But it doesn’t seem to matter so much. Knowing is so much more than knowledge, and not knowing feels more exciting than certainty. Another form of knowing seems to grow with age; intuitive knowledge. You don’t even know how you know certain things.
In the film Twas the Night Before Christmas, a young mouse (Albert) sends a letter to Santa denying his existence. As a result, his town is removed from Santa’s delivery route. Albert’s father (Father Mouse) challenges his son,
You don’t know as much as you think because you only think with your head. So you have a lot of trouble believing in things you can’t see or touch.
I seek out writers and philosophers that are rational but still leave lots of room for intuitive knowledge and not knowing. I’m especially drawn to Zen because it tweaks your rational mind to see things in a new way. On a whim last week I decided to read up on the philosopher Alan Watts. It was a Watts Whim. I went to the local library and found his book “The Wisdom of Insecurity”. He had me with the title. I was leafing through the book when a small handwritten note fell out. It made me laugh out loud. It said, “This book is stupid.” Then I ‘knew’ for sure that this was the right book to read.
It really is stupid, in the wisest possible Zen way. It’s brilliantly stupid. After reading it, I felt more stupid myself. Stupid is contagious. George Carlin said, “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” I’m even more stupid again, stupid to the power of stupid. It’s actually liberating to say the word, and by the way the word “stupid” sounds much better with an American accent.
Watts uses the brilliantly stupid analogy of water wrapped up in a parcel to describe the way we usually think. If you send someone a parcel of water, what will happen? It will spill all over their lap. We try and wrap up our philosophies neatly, forgetting that life is more like water than a neatly wrapped parcel. As Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Watts says that trying to “think” about life is like trying to hold a river in a bucket. You can only hold a sample of the river in a bucket. The river is flowing. Life is flowing, always changing, you never step in the same experience twice. You can’t contain it with thoughts and beliefs, as much as we wish we could. They’re just words, like a sample of water in a bucket. Too often we think we have found THE TRUTH, when we’re really just splashing around with a bucket of partial truth.
An ancient story describes the time the Devil was walking along with one of his cohorts. They saw a man ahead of them pick up something shiny. “What did he find?” asked the cohort. “A piece of the truth,” the Devil replied. “Doesn’t it bother you that he found a piece of the truth?” asked the cohort. No,” said the Devil, “He will soon make a religion out of it.”
Religion is no closer or further away from truth than any philosophy, but it does sometimes make it hard to find truth by confusing the bucket with the river. Some religion, and any philosophy that claims certainty, creates a false sense of security that leaves people sucking their finger rather than going where the finger is pointing.
Maybe the only reliable truth is that there’s always more. As Robert Frost said,
In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.
Maybe the only security is accepting that there is no security. Maybe that’s the wisdom of insecurity; when you stop searching for it, stop clutching for dear life to false security, you can embrace uncertainty and flow with the river of constant change.
I love the story about the wise man on his death bed. Crowds of people gather at his bed side for any last pearls of wisdom. As he gasps for his last breaths, he pulls one of them in close and the crowd hushes. He whispers to the one person, “Life is like a river. Pass it on.” The man stands up and says to the woman next to him, “He says life is like a river. Pass it on.” It gets passed through the crowd until someone toward the back of the room says, “What does that mean?” The question gets passed back up through the crowd. The man closest leans into the dying wise man and says, “What do you mean?” The man smiles and says, “Maybe it’s not then.” He breathes his last and dies with a smile on his face.
It’s the dying art of being stupid, the wisdom of insecurity. You oughta try it!