What the Structure of Ancient Wisdom Teaches Us | Mary Page Wilson-Lyons | TEDxBirminghamSalon

Translator: David Hsu Reviewer: Denise RQ When I was a graduate student in theology, I had planned to spend my second year studying different religious traditions, and as I envisioned it, engage in inner religious dialogue and understanding – hugs all around So I spent that year hoping to facilitate my university in a religious council, which was a group that met weekly to discuss various topics from our range of different religious perspectives: from Islam to Bahá'í to Unitarian Universalist

And well – I was really good at it I was open and understanding I managed conflict well And from my own Protestant Christian perspective, I listened, and I shared patiently and respectfully until one day Until the day one of my Mormon colleagues began to describe in-depth parts of his belief system

And I lost it Words just spilled out of me, "Are you kidding me? How can you believe that?" I was a total jerk Afterwards I was horrified at myself I still am This is actually a really embarrassing story to share in public because I'm not that person or at least, I didn't think I was

I didn't think that I was the kind of person who would pit her truth against someone else's as though only one could exist There were no hugs I acted like a fool in response to difference I grabbed at a seemingly opposing ideology to simplify blame and to deflect the sometimes dangerous complexities of my own beliefs So, in utter embarrassment of my folly, I turned to the ancient prescription for foolishness – wisdom

Wisdom traditions can be found as far back as the earliest recorded writings Wisdom pops up in virtually all belief systems and cultures It's part of who we are, and who we wish to be We need wisdom because it helps us address our most complex, nebulous, and difficult questions of our everyday human experience So, after my public display of foolishness, I reached for the wisdom tradition I was most familiar with: "The Books of Proverbs," "Job," and "Ecclesiastes," and the Jewish "Tanakh" or the Christian "Old Testament

" What struck me about these writings, – which still strikes me – isn't even necessarily what they say What I actually find more meaningful is how they say it, how they're structured So, let me explain what I mean These three writings, all coming between about 1,000 and 200 BC

, all, in part, deal with the common question of, "Why do we suffer?" "Proverbs" ' explanations go a little like this: good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people "Job" goes a little differently: bad things happen to good people, and we don't always get to know why And then there's "Ecclesiastes" I'd like to imagine that the writer of Ecclesiastes is that guy, the creepy one, sitting at the end of the bar – no offense to that guy if it's any of you, or that guy – but he just sits there, and he takes the formulas of "Proverbs" and "Job," and he pours his glass of whiskey all over them, and then sets them on fire with a careless flick of his cigarette Because, for "Ecclesiastes," the very question of, "Why we suffer?" is a ridiculous and vain question; "Why are we even asking it?" So these three writings, all offer very different and even directly contradictory answers to one of humanity's deepest questions

And yet, in both the Jewish and the Christian tradition, they're all structured together and called "wisdom" They are all called "holy" They are all, as contradictory as they may be, considered necessary truth in those traditions They are even direct rhetorical contradictions in the collections themselves So, for example, in "Proverbs," at one point it says, "Do not answer fools according to their folly

" And then, the very next line says, "Answer fools according to their folly" (Laughter) And this form isn't unique to ancient Israelite wisdom literature The Diamond Sutra in holy Buddhist wisdom writings states this, "One must become a Bodhisattva" Next line, "There is no such thing as a Bodhisattva" So which one is it? What are we supposed to do? Well, maybe, wisdom is telling us that the answer is both, that the answer actually lies within the contradiction

Lately I have been thinking about how this structure of wisdom of contradictory truths compares to our contemporary political conversations that tend to construct rigid binaries of "us" and "them," and of "right" and "wrong," conversations that even promote fear so that we praise one group and demonize another Think about political pundits, or better yet, your Facebook news feed The media craves this rhetoric It's fun to watch and easy to understand We crave it

It makes us feel good about ourselves, and icky about "those other people," and it gets people elected But too often, it seems that those shiny soundbites distract us from the nuance and complexity of substitutive solutions So what would happen if we let the structure and rhetoric of ancient wisdom teach us how to talk and listen to each other in a radically different way now? Wisdom taught me in my foolishness to not choose between but rather to listen into conflicting ideas because within them lies truth You'll be glad to know my Mormon friend and I later that same year got to visit one of his holy sites together He's still Mormon

I'm still not Because the truth and the structure of wisdom isn't agreement; it's compassion and understanding of the other The structure of wisdom teaches us that we need varied and even conflicting answers to our deepest questions and problems, because one answer can never be enough It teaches us the human experience is incredibly complex and thus, requires conversation among many perspectives rather than myopic soundbites And finally, it teaches us that two conflicting truths can be said together in the same breath and not pitted against one another in a way where we must accept one and fear the other

And so, the next time that political talk or that Facebook post, or any encounter with a difference tries to capture our minds into "black" or "white" categories, the structure of wisdom challenges us to restructure our thoughts and our words, to reject "either/or," and be compassionate with all That kind of conversation could change the world Thank you (Applause)


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