The failure of wisdom

The more I learn, the less truthful I become

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Note: This piece was originally composed in April 2016 and initially intended for inclusion in a book I was planning to write. Years later, the book is written, and now published, but this piece was hanging in a dusty digital cupboard until …

As I contemplate what is surely now the second half of my life it occurs to me that, in spite of all my learning and determination to ‘divorce the drama’ and see things in the broader perspective, I remain as prone to the sirens and furies of a propulsive and deeply ingrained emotional belief system as ever.

Neither wisdom nor any of its proxies have proved entirely convincing. Cool analysis, practised detachment and the studied ‘there there, dear’ of rational and spiritual explanation have barely put a dent in it. Things I imbibed as a child – some before I had the language to explain them away – remain enthroned as the foundational narratives of my existence.

Try counting the times you’ve determined to beat a new path, only to wake up later and find yourself tracing your own footsteps.

However, I’m not here to bawl and scream or indulge in the exhibitionism of confession. I’m here because it is abundantly clear to me that I am not unique in this. If I am a fool to keep believing that no one honestly cares and that, therefore, I am mired in an ongoing aloneness that is at once mundane and profound, then I will wager that I am alone in good company. Whatever your particular ills and/or idiosyncratic narratives, the point I’m making here is that you have them, and that they most likely drive you as relentlessly as mine do me.

Which leaves us where exactly? Doomed to dysfunction as the victims of childhood brain wiring? Rats running around in a maze of continuously reinforced design – repeating old patterns despite our best efforts? Of course not.

Apart from anything else, sulkily yielding supreme executive power to the dark substrata of the brain sounds like a poor excuse for even worse behaviour. Even though neuro-science tells us we have far less conscious control over decision making than we generally like to believe, (reminding us that we are more hard wired ape than free floating angel), surely we can’t just turn our backs on the refinements and insights of lived experience and self-awareness? Indeed, what price unconscious action if its only play is to let us off the hook of responsibility?

Yet even this reasonable sounding contention will, I’m sure, do absolutely nothing to quiet the ferocious energy or lessen the compelling gravity of those core psycho-emotional drivers. Indeed, as others have observed, we are more rationalising than rational, and our talent for cool reflection is more polite interjection than dominant paradigm. Try counting the times you’ve determined to beat a new path, only to wake up later and find yourself tracing your own footsteps.

(Run out of fingers yet?)

If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that the overarching pattern of our lives is that we repeat patterns. In a sense this is banal – we are, after all, pattern seeking creatures fitted with brains networked to systematically identify and act upon patterns – but in another it is arresting; for it calls into question the linear narrative of progress (or self-improvement) to which so many of us are entirely wedded.

Leaving aside things like science and technology, the principal locus of our accrued wisdom is ourselves: how to live, why to live, what to value, how not to screw up as much. In pursuit of this ideal we have invented all manner of spiritual, political and psychological schools of thought. From the murderous, enslaving god of Abraham to the ideological distempers of right and left and the jaw dropping New Age arrogance of the ‘universe is all about me’, we have scripted a story of perpetual, almost heroic ascendency.

If we stop for a moment and fearlessly look, it becomes clear that our basic desires wear a million disguises. Civilisation is a masked ball – and wisdom is its couturier.

Indeed, in my experience it seems as though most of us operate rather like the planet – in other words, a hard crust over a molten core. We use the appropriate language and finesse our behaviour in order to establish a front and garner approval; or at the very least pass muster. Some will argue that this is simply me projecting my own wretched schisms onto others. This may well be so – but I doubt it. I reckon I’m playing the same game of duplicity you are.

(Oh look, another over-privileged Western middle class construct passing as universal wisdom. Go figure.)    

Again, none of this is new or dazzling; but it points to something we would rather deny. We have created a world of abstraction, of idealisation, of linear momentum – a self-imposed architecture that we are ill-fitted to inhabit. With its neat reductions and either/or dichotomies it flies in the face of our own, deeply immediate experience. In fact, it is the conceptual and everyday means by which we effectively dehumanise ourselves and others.

And this is why it fails. Because we are not abstract. Our evolved, integrated, symbiotic, emotional selves recognise this. If we stop for a moment and fearlessly look, it becomes clear that our basic desires wear a million disguises. Civilisation is a masked ball – and wisdom is its couturier.

Ever since we invented the idea of nature – thereby philosophically separating ourselves from ‘it’ – we have effectively lived a denialist lie. We speak of animals as if we somehow aren’t animals, despite what we now know about our evolution. We prattle on about transcendence while relentlessly pursuing very basic emotional, selfish and tribal agendas. Our culture participates in the deception by running the narrative arc of incremental enlightenment whilst, at the same time, cynically and expertly exploiting our deeply rooted psychologies for profit, power and possession.

We have reached for the stars, only to find dirt beneath our fingernails.

It’s as though, collectively, we wish we didn’t know what we know. For all the nimble and wonderful cleverness our species exhibits, (and even though we have created increasingly non-violent societies1), most of us are still repeating the core dynamics of early childhood and simian sociability. I know I am.  

Perhaps, wisdom is a purely social phenomenon; something we arrive at and endeavour to act out in public. Maybe all our learning is just the Twitter of history. We all spout random shit and some of it sticks.

Either way, when I’m at my most brutally honest, I sense how powerless my apparent wisdom is. How it is yet another channel of frequently distracting noise. I see how the polite, bourgeois progressive façade I wear changes nothing of who I am. Of what I feel at the deepest level. I remain the child I always was – clawing at the world for the things I want most and reaching the same, increasingly predictable conclusions.

Bells ringing, anyone? 

1: See Stephen Pinker’s excellent book The Better Angels Of Our Nature (Allen Lane, 2011) for a fascinating statistical/historical run down of our species’ progress towards non-violence.

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