(About a 5 minute read)
Sophocles somewhere writes something along these lines:
Pain, drop by drop
Enters our soul
The awful grace of the gods
We attain wisdom.
The notion that the primary source of wisdom is pain — or suffering — is an ancient and often repeated one. However, I have my doubts whether that is true — or even can be very true.
I think like most folks, my life has had a lot more emotional pain than physical suffering. I suppose emotional pain is what Sophocles — and perhaps most of us — have in mind when we say pain leads to wisdom.
Apart from nearly lifelong attacks of depression that began when I was eight years old and lasted into my late 40s, early 50s, the most excruciating emotional pain I’ve suffered in my life was associated with a youthful series of infatuations.
It’s true I did learn a number of things from those infatuations, but little of what I learned could be considered wisdom. That is, about the only wisdom I learned was to avoid becoming deeply infatuated with people.
Mostly what I recall of those infatuations was that the suffering turned me intensely inward. I couldn’t help but notice the aching chest, hopeless yearnings, acute frustrations, exceptionally depressed moods, and frequent tears, of course, and those feelings came to dominate and poison everything — very much including any appreciation I had for living.
As much as they turned me inward, they also caused me to attempt to make myself psychologically invulnerable. I ended up wanting to be loved, but not to love.
It seems to me that’s a curious fact about us humans. We so often crave to be loved without, however, just as ardently desiring to love. The risks of loving daunt us. But if that’s so, then it is curious because loving seems to bring greater rewards than being loved.
For one thing, loving is frequently associated with — to one degree or another — a sort of rekindling of our interest in living that can even at times amount to a feeling or perception that we have been reborn. So far as I know, that sort of thing is much less common and less intense with merely being loved.
I was fortunate when a sophomore at university to meet and fall in love with the first great love of my life. Although I do not know the extent of her interest in me, if anything, my love for her ushered in one of the most revolutionary periods of my life. The short time I knew her seems to have brought me some measure of wisdom that, although not great, was more than I had gained from years suffering under various infatuations.
I noticed that at the time — that I was learning more wisdom from loving her than I had learned from my sufferings. I was even gaining new insights into myself and others, which I suppose are usually commensurate with gaining wisdom.
Today, I can look back on 60 years and see rather plainly that what wisdom I have gained in life has been largely from my loves — not just loves of other people, but periods when I’ve genuinely been in love with living.
So I do believe loving teaches us more wisdom than suffering. But as I hinted above, I have my doubts suffering can by its very nature teach us much wisdom. If that’s the case, then why is it the case?
It seems to me that suffering usually causes us to wall ourselves off, withdraw or retreat from life, and harden our defenses against suffering — defenses that are typically as much against passionately living and loving as they are against suffering. This does not seem to me to most often be the wisest possible response to suffering.
You can go through life nearly half dead that way, seldom feeling fully alive, seldom feeling any genuine passion for living. People who do that tend to substitute pleasures for passion. But pleasures are fleeting, and leave you craving more and greater pleasures, which can be frustrating and even depressing if they are not forthcoming.
It seems better to me to live passionately and, if possible, to love. Of course, the two are usually closely entwined. I have written my notions about living passionately here. As for loving, it seems to me some of the best advice on that comes from Rumi, who said: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
It seems to me there is great wisdom in loving. The wisdom of affirming life. After all, you’re here, you might as well affirm it, say “yes” to it. To deny it, to say “no” to it, is to waste it.
I do not doubt that some wisdom may be had through suffering. I am merely arguing that, for me at least, most of what little wisdom I have has come though first, normal living, and second — and much more important — through loving.