Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Back to updating with "Historical" writings

Wanderings from 18 Aug 1998


You wanted me to send you some wisdom. Professionally, I should comment that I'm in the information business, and academically my scope fits into the knowledge paradigm, but wisdom is something else entirely. Wisdom is what you feel in your bones. And in my bones, all I feel is an increasing awareness of my ignorance. My relationship with Jetti has affected deeply in many ways. One great influence was her unashamed criticism of all my shortcomings. Some she fixed immediately - like my fashion sense and personal grooming habits. Others of a more physical nature she gave up on immediately, but I picked up the chore and motivated myself by remembering her disappointment. Patient daily exercise for the past six months is finally yielding results, I'm glad to say. But that none of that is about wisdom.


Her biggest disappointment was discovering that I was weak. I had no "street smarts," no "fighting knowledge". And she was right: I never learned to cope with being yelled at, and I got through 32 years without ever having to make a split-second decision about anything. All my life I was trying to learn, to innovate, to think, to philosophize, to find the meaning of life, to live my life according to moral principles that I could justify. If that is your concept of wisdom, I have tons of old emails and letters I have written on the topic when I thought it was the most worthwhile use of my spare intellectual energy. I had swallowed the line that if you were secure in your moral beliefs and values, you could face any adversity: poverty, torture, loneliness. But that's only part of the story. The monks who faced abusive enemies were accustomed to hard labor; the prisoners of war who kept their sanity in the labor camps were soldiers who had gone through basic military training. Me, what did I have? Memories of physical ineptitude at soccer and other games when I was growing up, and subsequently a drive to stay in shape by working out. Alone at the gym. Memories of being reprimanded for forcing my will on my younger siblings, and subsequently a total absence of any experience in dealing with interpersonal conflict. Thought I was above it.


So where is my wisdom now? Perhaps Plato was right when he said that the young should spend their 20s practicing sports and warfare before starting to study science and philosophy. Or perhaps he was wrong to be so strict about the order. But he is certainly more right than the “self-esteem" school of upbringing that we read about so much in newspaper editorials about public education policy. I am certainly glad that I learned all the science I wanted to learn when I wanted to learn it, and I am proud that it was a difficult task that gave me patience and confidence in dealing with the world at large. But I strongly regret that I did not manage to do anything that gave me similar confidence in dealing directly with human adversaries.


I mastered the paradigm of proving yourself by sitting in a large hall with all one's competitors all facing the same way, being challenged by the same large impersonal authority. It took this past year to show me how vulnerable I was under slightly different rules of engagement. Rules that apply when the adversary stares you right in the eye and can only win by making you lose. School encourages you to think that you have to get along to get ahead. To view consensus as not only desirable but also possible. To wish away the zero-sum game from your thinking. School turns you into a cow. I am sick of being a cow. That is my new wisdom.


I do not necessarily agree with Nietzsche’s "That which does not kill us makes us stronger". What fails to kill us might leave us too weak to survive the next blow. We need love and admiration to thrive. But what meaning can love have if you cannot hate? How can you love your enemies if you refuse to acknowledge that there is such a thing as an enemy? A challenge is not challenging if it is one you face every day. You need to seek new types of challenges to stay strong. War is the art of focusing your greatest force against the opponent’s weakest point. Reinforcing only your strengths might win you a Nobel Prize and a higher standard of living, but it will also get you killed when your cattle master naps and the wolf finds your weak link.


I do not necessarily agree with Andy Grove's "Only the Paranoid Survive." The citizen warrior must yearn for peace and aspire to resuming his peacetime vocation. Gazing at your navel is a miserable way to live your life. But greater misery lurks for those who try to follow their star without first covering their flanks. I have charted a course that is noble and true, but I have set out in a leaky boat. I am grateful for the storm that showed me the leak. That is my new wisdom.


It's in my head now. One day, though, I will have gone out and gotten yelled at and ridiculed enough times. I will have yelled and disparaging others enough times. I will have jumped where cattle fears to tread, and injured my udder enough times. And when that day comes, the knowledge will be in my bones as well as in my head. And that, my friend, is my new wisdom.

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