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Can life be boiled down to spoonfuls of wisdom?

by David Shackleton
(You can reply below or contact David at  david@integraldesign.org. This is the 3rd post in David’s series about finding balance in the world. )

As I write this month’s spring column, I have maple sap boiling outside my office window.  It got me thinking about traditional activities, and in particular, traditional wisdom.

Historically, one way that life wisdom was captured and offered to us all was through proverbs. 

These days, we tend to think of proverbs as simply amusing or interesting sayings, but a lot of thought went into them, and only those that struck a wide resonance with the culture survived to become well known catchphrases. 

And here’s an interesting fact about proverbs — many of them contradict each other.  The ancients knew a thing or two about life, and they weren’t hung up on having everything tie up neatly. 

They knew that true wisdom is paradoxical, contracitory.

An example: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”  Good advice to consider carefully before making big decisions.  And yet, “He who hesitates is lost.”  Do it, don’t think about it, just do it right away. 

What can we make of these contradictory suggestions?

Another example: “Two heads are better than one.”  And its opposite, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

I suspect that the whole realm of proverbs is full of contradictory advice like this.  So what use are they? 

They remind us that real wisdom cannot be reduced to a formula, that it is circumstantial and situational.  That, in a word, it is balanced.  There are times when caution is wise, and times when it should be abandoned.  There are times when individualism works best, and other times when a team is superior. 

To be able to make the best of all such situations, we need to balance ourselves, to develop our capacity to work well alone, and also our capacity to work well with others.  Since our natural personality usually biases us to prefer one side of such dualities over the other, the route towards personal balance involves practicing the thing that we don’t do so well, or so readily.  The thing that doesn’t feel as natural or as “right” to us. 

Life offers us many opportunities for such practice, and proverbs are an interesting historical signpost pointing the way.