On Wisdom, Experience, and Self-Reliance

“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.”

– Miles Kington

Knowledge, as can be deduced from the morphological composition of the word, entails knowing: an awareness that is developed empirically. Wisdom, on the other hand, is concerned with the judgment, assessment, and use of knowledge as applied to pragmatic situations, and it is developed through experience. But, what roles do knowledge and wisdom play in notions as intangible such as belief? My assessment of Emerson’s sermons, poems, and essays have led me to this question, particularly his essay on “Experience.” But before I delve into the discussion of his text, let me resort to invoking an experience of my own.

The notion of belief has always been one that has troubled me. It can’t be measured, there is no concrete indication of its source, and it has an immensely tight grip on our way of thinking. Now, when the discussion of belief enters the realm of the religious, the strength of this grip increases tenfold. Now, although I was raised Catholic, I started deviating from the church’s practices because they were inconsistent with my own affinities and actions. I say practices, because although I do not attend mass or pray, I still hold many of the values that the church fosters near and dear to my heart: I believe in charity, compassion, I believe in making the world a better place through words and actions, and I believe in a sense of greater good in all humans (yes, this is extremely idealistic… but it’s who I am). Thus, although I do not accept nor entirely reject the existence of a god created in our image, I am more than willing to embrace the moral implications behind the belief in a benevolent god. I am aware, yet I am informed enough to make a choice rather than to accept ideas that are spoon-fed to me… is this wisdom?

The reason I chose to abandon Catholicism had a lot to do with my increasing immersion into academia, but it is mostly attributed towards the church’s stances towards homosexuality. Despite my abandonment, the relationship and tension between religious belief and sexuality has always fascinated me, and it is a topic that I have explored in writing and in literature. The problem however is that although I am very aware of the tensions that exist between religious belief and sexuality, until this day, I do not understand it. This lack of understanding led me to attend a sensitivity “training seminar” on the discussion of gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame, which in reality was mostly a discussion of the conciliation between sexual orientation and Catholic faith.

The message that they gave was mostly clear: you can be gay, but you can’t put your homosexuality into practice. But, isn’t the notion of “being” inseparable from practice? Don’t actions, rather than words and belief, tell us and the world who we are? The session then delved into a justification for this dogmatic system, arguing that in the Catholic Church, sex should only occur between married couples for purposes of reproduction. During the question and answer session, I openly expressed my doubts and concerns: if sex and marriage are “blessings” bestowed upon a man and woman who are able to reproduce, what occurs in the case of infertile couples? How about in the case of people who marry at an old age (an age in which they ostensibly cannot reproduce)? They are still able to marry, and yes, have sex as well.  When I posed these concerns, the presenters looked slightly stunned and awkward. After a few seconds of silence, they spoke about how a woman and a man have the potential to reproduce, whereas this is impossible for two men or two women. They also pointed out that my concerns are actually a matter of hot debate and disagreement within the church.

I continued to ask questions until the session was over. Afterwards, one of the women in charge of the event, while looking at me straight in the eyes, asked the audience to please refrain from asking questions that were out of the scope of the presentation. And here I thought we were here to be more sensitive… to prepare ourselves to answer questions that gay and lesbian students would have in terms of conciliating faith and sexuality. Luckily, towards the end of the session, one of the presenters (not the one who indirectly scolded me) said the following: “we were here to share a pastoral approach towards the issue of sexual orientation and the Catholic Church. The people you encounter will have diverging degrees of belief and practice. All we ask of you is that you walk next to them, put yourself in their shoes, and find a balance between the Church teachings and the particular situation of the person you are trying to guide.” It was with these words that ray of light shone into the dark room. She offered the facts, but she presented these facts as debatable and circumstantial. She gave us knowledge about the church’s teachings, but she also paved the way towards choice and self-reliance… something that I personally had not encountered in real life (although I have seen it in books).

I began with this personal experience in order to provide a threshold into my own understanding and struggles with Emerson’s ideas of belief, knowledge, and experience. I previously mentioned my hesitation towards Emerson’s belief and knowledge system, especially when concerning his earlier views as a Christian. However, with the development of a more cosmopolitan perspective towards religion, and with his approximation towards nature as a way of approaching god, Emerson has become a man that I deem fractured and damaged, but at the same time, complex, insightful, and approachable.

Indeed, in his essay “Experience,” he continues (in my opinion) to add tomatoes into fruit salads, but he also seems to be developing a sense that we all possess different types and kinds of tomatoes, and we are free to use them as we see fit. You want to put your tomatoes in a fruit salad? You want to prepare a marinara sauce with them? You want to throw said tomatoes on your enemies? Go ahead! You are self-reliant. Trust in yourself: “It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another’s” (Emerson 211). And to some extent, I believe this is partially Emerson’s aim in his essay. He exposes an array of illuminating, and at times contradictory, ideas that in turn illustrate the difficulties of contemplating life while living it. When it comes down to it, we must rely on the self, on our own set of experiences, to obtain any valid knowledge in the world and process it into wisdom: “We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won the dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born” (Emerson 199). It is through life, and through action, that wisdom begins to define its edges.

I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, but I found it extremely interesting that Emerson approaches nature as Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek would approach “the real.” Nature becomes that unattainable and incalculable force that can only be interpreted through an ideological prism or lens. In order to explain myself, let me use the example of the sun: it’s there, it’s natural, but we are unable to see it with our bare eyes. It is hot and blinding, and one glance is enough to welcome the sun’s barbs and stings. We then use shades or sunglasses to look at the sun… and although we are now able to look directly at it, it still isn’t a real and authentic view of the sun, but rather, a distorted or shadowed view of it. The darkened view is simply an interpretation of reality, and Emerson argues that belief and knowledge truly function through this sense of distortion: “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” (Emerson 200). We have no other choice but to see the world through these beads.

But, is Nature, or the real… or better said, truth, something that can ever be seen for what it is? If not, what is the point of literature, philosophy, religion, and science? Is it merely a way of fooling ourselves into believing that the world can indeed be understood and explained? And if the concepts we use to understand and interpret the world are merely an illusion, what are we left with? Are we humans, as Emerson would posit, truly doomed? Are we unhappy because we discovered that we exist? (Emerson 209). Is the world truly this fatalistic and intangible? Perhaps self-reliance is the only thing that is certain in this world. I feel it, I detect it, and therefore it exists. It becomes valid. But, going back to one of the initial points I made, what happens when we can’t feel or concretize it in any way?  Do we simply except this as a manifestation of je ne sais quoi? Are we content with attributing belief and truth to a cause “which refuses to be named”? (Emerson 208). This does not have a concrete answer; Emerson himself couldn’t come up with one, as evidenced by his assertion of god and truth as a force that resists definition… how can one even place truth on something that can’t be defined? In this case, faith is the operative word. Call it faith or spirituality, Emerson asserts that it resists and hates calculation and measurement. But isn’t this, in due course, futile? Indeed, our greatest tragedy is that we are aware of our existence, and intertwined with that tragedy is a deep desire to know and understand everything else. We resort to myth and science to provide us with answers, but when it comes down to it, we are stuck in an ideological aporia. The question is: how do we escape it?

Perhaps there is no escape, but Emerson does provide us with a way of easing the tension of this inevitable cage: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people’s facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs” (Emerson 211). Our beliefs, or our facts, give us our own methods of approaching and understanding the world. Even if our methods are untrue or unreliable, we at least have something to lean and rely on. If these methods are unable to sustain us, there are plenty more that we can embrace. But the important thing is to have something… anything, to work from. The only other option would be to rely on nothing, and I am not ready or willing to take such a nihilistic leap. Something that I believe many people disregard when approaching “Experience” is Emerson’s confidence in the value of “multi-disciplinary” thought and the rejection of specialization, and how in due course, a problem may have more than one solution. Our problem is that most of us refuse to see life this way: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks form this one, and for another moment from that one” (Emerson 203).

It’s interesting how Emerson speaks of his views and his facts as a key. A key is a tool that is presumably used to unlock something, and in many cases, only one type of key can unlock a specific contraption. How is it then possible for different types of keys to unlock the same device? Perhaps what Emerson disregarded is that you don’t necessarily need keys to unlock a device: doors can be smashed down, door locks can be picked, locked computers can be hacked into, and even the narrowest of minds can be infiltrated. The key provides the illusion of absolute security. There are other solutions to a problem, and the solution towards ideological aporia is not a matter of being self-reliant, or even a matter of viewing life through a colored glass bead… it is a matter of doing something that hasn’t been done with the titular “tomato” of this discussion. Perhaps truth can only be achieved once we’ve tried to put tomato into the fruit salad… the taste might yield surprising results, as evidenced by Emerson’s words.


Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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