50 TAKES ON WISDOM

BLOG #12, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
50 TAKES ON WISDOM
March 25, 2015

What would you get if you asked fifty of the world’s most eminent people to share with you the most significant insights into wisdom they’d gleaned from this thing called “life”? That’s exactly what photographer and film-maker Andrew Zuckerman did in his wondrous volume titled Wisdom (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2008).

Interviewees included the likes of Richard Rogers, Chuck Close, Madeleine Albright, Burt Bacharach, Andrew Wyeth, Buzz Aldrin, Desmond Tutu, Judi Dench, Clint Eastwood, Michael Parkinson, Ted Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Robert Redford, Frank Gehry, Henry Kissinger, Rosamunde Pilcher, Jane Goodall, Alan Arkin, Dave Brubeck, and Vaclev Havel.

In his insightful “Afterword,” Zuckerman explores the evolution of his concept:

It is very hard to tell another human being that he or she is an icon, and that you’re there to extract the wisdom out of their iconic beings. It doesn’t sit well. People are people. We’re sitting down to have a conversation. I’m a young person conversing with an older person and there’s a certain human engagement. I thought: what no one has a problem with is being a human being. Everyone is human. I kept thinking about this idea of setting out on this amazing adventure to create a field guide for navigating one’s life. I wanted to explore what it is to be human, to hear from people who have lived for a long time and have an enormous amount of experience. . . .

I’m thirty years old and at this point in my life most of my generation, my peers, are creating work that is a mirror of youth culture. Our society is obsessed with youth. I have never understood that. My whole life, I’ve enjoyed meeting accomplished older people–it just seemed logical to me that these are the people who had done it. They have all the secrets. Why wouldn’t you ask them? ‘What secrets does youth hold? How did you do it? And how do you feel now about how you did it? And what did you learn?

* * * * *

It took me most of a week to fully digest all this, and the several hundred 3 x 5 note cards on which I copied quotations. I’ll be sharing with our readers in our daily quotation tweets.

C O D A

I take very serious these daily quotations. Quite candidly, one of my biggest fears is that my reference field would be too narrow, reflect my own reading too much, my own academic fields of expertise too much, my own era too much. With these concerns ever in my mind, even though I already have millions of quotations to draw from, I’m constantly seeking new sources of fresh wisdom.

Consequently, I consider it providential that our son Greg already had this seminal book in his personal library so that I could immerse myself in it.

I’m hoping you’ll agree.

I’ll start out with a longer quote from the book – too long for a tweet. On being asked what sessions stood out to him most, Zuckerman responded with:

One was Chuck Close, who spoke of the enormous amount of information contained in the topography of a face. He said, ‘If you’ve laughed your whole life you have laugh lines, if you’ve frowned your whole life you have furrows in your brow. Sometimes you have both, and most people have a kind of duality of life experience, some tragedy and some great moments of extreme happiness, and I don’t want one of those to overwhelm the other.’ It’s true. There’s an enormous amount to communicate in a portrait that can’t be communicated in words. The face reveals the journey traveled. And one of the incredible things about photographing people at this stage in their lives is that they’ve had quite a long journey and the information in the face was really what I was there to capture with the utmost clarity.

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Doctor of Happiness

BLOG #11, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DOCTOR OF HAPPINESS
March 18, 2015

Serendipitously, while still sifting through thousands of stories in my archives, I found the perfect companion piece to last week’s blog, “How to Be Happy?” When I checked the source, I knew I had to incorporate it into this week’s blog, for the story was featured in the November 1935 issue of Sunshine magazine, published by Sunshine Press in Litchfield, Illinois. Sunshine has long been one of my favorite magazines, both for its stories and for its quotations. I’ve anthologized many of the stories, and in my daily quotation tweets, few sources do I raid more often than Sunshine magazine.

During the last period of its existence, it was published by Garth Henrichs, and he and I became good friends. When I told him of my love for the magazine, he sighed and said, “Your words mean a great deal to me – especially since age is catching up with me and I have no one to carry on after I’m gone.” We stayed in contact until the late 1980s, when Garth was finally forced to close the doors of Sunshine Press, founded by his father Henry Henrichs. But before he died, he entrusted me with the legacy of keeping Sunshine alive in my writing and books. Neither blogs nor tweets existed back then. Thus, I’m confident Garth would be filled with joy to see this story by an unknown author live again.

Enjoy!

“MARY ANN, Ph. D.”

Mary Ann was a scrubwoman. But that didn’t prevent her from being a philosopher, although she did not know herself by that designation. It is not uncommon these days to find excellent wisdom wrapped up in odd and unpromising packages.

Mary Ann did a lot of thinking as she scrubbed, which did not hurt the scrubbing. Her conclusions may not have matched the classic cogitations of the collegiate or his companions in wisdom, but they were ideas that had the spice of sense in them. And that’s something.

It was one of those depressing, damp days too prevalent in the great city. Mary Ann was scrubbing the imposing stone steps of a well-known banking institution, when a banking official known to the scrubwoman entered. He paused for a moment, as he often did, to exchange a bit of conversation with Mary Ann. He hoped she might be happy and well. She was well, and had a good appetite, thank you. And she had a “right smart amount” of happiness, too, but not any too much.

Mary Ann often had pondered that matter with a view to discovering a satisfying conclusion. At the best, she found it a somewhat complex affair, but not wholly confounding. She had evolved what might be called a philosophy of happiness – she had to have one to keep going and hold up her end of the day’s demands. Life would be unbearable in a city tenement, and crushing to a scrubber of bank portals, without some definite ideas about happiness and contentment. Her philosophy might not conform to the most logical reasoning, nor blend with the poet’s dream of bliss, but it satisfied Mary Ann.

Looking up at the banker from her kneeling position, Mary Ann quaintly said, “There ain’t no happiness in this world, ‘cept what we makes ourselves.”

“Quite a chunk of wisdom,” thought the banker, but he said nothing. Mary Ann hesitated, expecting the banker to pass on, but he did not. Instead, he stood there and just looked at her.

Mary Ann raised up on her knees. “You see,” she continued, “happiness, t’ me way o’ thinking, is something inside o’ you. A lot o’ folks ‘spect somebody t’ come along an’ fill ‘em full o’ happiness, an’ all they think they got t’ do is jest t’ do nothing. You know, Mister, that makes me feel kinda ‘shamed o’ meself – jest like we humans can’t take care o’ ourselves.”

“Seems to me,” continued Mary Ann, seeing that the banker friend was still listening, “seems t’ me what we git from other folks, what some call happiness, is something cheap, an un–ungenuine. What you git from inside yerself is all good, and it sticks.”

The banker looked enviously at Mary Ann. He found little genuine happiness in his relationships with people. Certainly he found pleasure in business–when it was good. As to happiness from the “inside,” as Mary Ann had said, his responsibilities and worries were altogether too heavy to admit of it. Hence, Mary Ann’s philosophy was somewhat perplexing, effective as it appeared to be.

“Are you happy, Mister?” questioned Mary Ann, unexpectedly.

The banker was embarrassed, and he hesitated before he answered. “Oh, yes–why, yes, of course,” he stuttered, “Maybe not the kind you are talking about. You see, I depend on society–business success, you understand, to supply my happiness.”

Mary Ann looked up at the banker, laughing, “aw, you ain’t had no happiness at all. All you git that way ain’t happiness–it’s nothing only pleasure. That ain’t happiness. I bet it don’t last no longer than it takes you t’ git away from it.” And Mary Ann laughed again.

The banker walked slowly away. “Mary Ann, Doctor of Philosophy,” he muttered. “The half of all I own would I give to experience the happiness Mary Ann possesses. My money entangles me in snares I cannot break. Would that I might cast it off, but my family and my friends live on the fruits of my investments. I cannot forsake them. I live in fear of something, I know not what. I am worried – worried— ”

When Mary Ann finished scrubbing, she hummed a little tune all her own. Weary in body, to be sure, but happy because the portals were shining – a work well done – and she was earning an honest and respectable living, and she could look the whole world in the face. The contagion of her happiness shed a ray upon her surroundings and brightened the outlook of those near by.

The banker, wise in many things, foolish in the greatest, experienced a bit of Mary Ann’s brand of happiness when, on the early morning of Thanksgiving Day, he deposited at Mary Ann’s tenement door a huge basket bulging with good things. It was in material things, such as these, that he had sought his own happiness, but in his own possession rather than in the possession of others. Suddenly he realized the folly of his own philosophy.

In the basket left at Mary Ann’s door, hidden among the profusion of good things, she found a note written in the banker’s own hand. It merely said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive. Thanks to Mary Ann.”

How To Be Happy

BLOG #10, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
HOW TO BE HAPPY
March 11, 2015

During recent weeks, I’ve been sifting through thousands of stories that we’ve filed away during the last half-century. One day, I asked God that, if it was His will, He’d help me notice nuggets of wisdom that might be a blessing to our blog readers. Several hours later, I came across this, originally published in Girl’s World, later in a 1926 Youth’s Instructor. In order to better understand its significance, you’d have to know that, back then, in the days before air-conditioning, during summer months, cities often turned into furnaces. Everyone who could escape to the mountains or seashores, did so. The rich would leave home in early summer and not return until fall. Consequently, in a real sense, the poor were left to keep the cities going. And their babies were taken care of by their sisters. The story has to do with Alice Freeman Palmer (1855 – 1892), one of the most loved and admired educators in American history. It was during her years at Wellesley College, first as professor of history, then Dean of Women, then President, that she was catapulted into national eminence; and later at the University of Chicago, also as Dean of Women. Deans of Women are legendary thought-leaders: again and again people have told me of unforgettable stories they first heard from the lips of such deans. So naturally, I was curious about what Dr. Palmer might have said about happiness, a subject, even today, that so many millions of people are feverishly searching for. Here is what she had to say:

This is Alice Freeman Palmer’s recipe for happiness and the way she happened to tell it makes a delightful little story. It was in the years of her beautiful home life, after she had finished her great work at Wellesley. Almost every week through the hot summer she used to leave her peaceful, calm retreat in the country, and go to Boston to talk to children of the slums at a vacation school. The story is her own, but much condensed.

It was a very, very hot day, even in the country, but in the city, oh my! Yet, when I reached my destination, I found many girls in the room, and more babies than girls, for each girl was holding one, and there were a few to spare. “Now,” I said, “what shall I talk to you about this morning?”

Then up spoke a small, pale-faced, heavy-eyed child, with a great fat baby on her knee, “Tell us how to be happy.”

The tears rushed to my eyes. Happy in such surroundings, with such burdens, too heavy to be borne! Yet, while this flashed through my mind, the rest took up the word, “Yes, tell us how to be happy.”

“Well,” I said, “I will give you my three rules for being happy; but mind, you must all promise to keep them for a week, and not skip a single day, for they won’t work if you skip one single day.” So they all promised that they wouldn’t skip a single day.

“The first rule is that you will commit something to memory every day – something good. It needn’t be much – three or four words will do, just a pretty bit of a poem, or a Bible verse. Do you understand?”

One little girl with flashing black eyes jumped up and cried: “I know; you want us to learn something we’d be glad enough to remember even if we went blind.”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s it exactly.”

“The second rule is: Look for something pretty each day: a leaf, a flower, a cloud – you can all find something. And stop long enough to say, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Take it all in. Can you do it, every single day?” They promised to a girl.

“My third rule is: Do something for somebody each day.” I thought that would be the hardest of all, but they said: “Oh, that’s easy! Don’t we have to tend babies and run errands every day, and isn’t that doing something for somebody?”

“Yes, I said, “indeed it is.”

So I went home, and came back at the end of the week, on a still hotter day. Suddenly, on a very narrow street, I was literally grabbed by the arm, and a little voice said, ‘I done it.”

“Did what?” I exclaimed, looking down at a tiny girl with a baby in her arms.

“What you told us, and I never skipped a day, neither.”

I made her put the baby down on the sidewalk while she told me all about it.

“Well,” she said, “I never skipped a day, but it was awful hard. One day it rained, and the baby had a cold, and I thought sure I was going to skip, and I was standing at the window, ‘most cryin’, and I saw” – here her little face lighted up with a radiant smile – “I saw a sparrow taking a bath, and he had on a black necktie, and he was handsome.”

“And then there was another day, and I thought I should have to skip it, sure. The baby was sick, and I couldn’t go out, and I was feelin’ terrible – and then I saw the baby’s hair!”

“The baby’s hair!” I echoed.

“Yes: a little bit of sun came in the window, and I saw his hair, an’ I’ll never be lonesome any more.” And with a radiant face she caught up the baby and said, “See; isn’t it beau-ti-ful?”

“Yes,” I said, “it is beautiful.” And I took the baby, and we went on to the meeting.

And the best thing about the story is that the three rules for happiness are good any time and anywhere.

I read this, and at first it seemed too simplistic to work, but then, as I thought about it for a while, I realized that the three rules were more profound than I’d thought, for the first rule would necessitate rummaging around for some time in books and magazines before one would find lines worth memorizing and internalizing. Internalizing the second rule would necessitate a continual search for beauty in everything one picked up through the senses (sight, hearing, touching, or smelling); over time, as one concentrates on beauty rather than ugliness, one’s character would reveal proportional upward growth. The third rule (helping someone else rather than brooding about self) would open up a continuous succession of doors into joy.

Try them – and see if they won’t work for you.

Why Is Brevity So Rare?

BLOG #9, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHY IS BREVITY SO RARE?
March 4, 2015

I really didn’t know just how difficult it was to be brief until one day, in Colorado Springs, when I delivered a one-minute short for Focus on the Family. There, in that broadcast studio, the sound people were all business. Their injunction all too precise: “We need a 60-second short from you—not 59 or 58, and not 61 or 62. Just 60 seconds.” And so we did take after take after take before I finally completed my task in exactly 60 seconds.

As a story anthologist, I’m always searching for powerful short stories I can read on the air. Believe me, they are mighty rare!

Same for poems. One of my favorite poets is the late Edgar A. Guest, one of the most beloved folk poets America has ever known. In one particular poem, he pulled off a twelve-line masterpiece that captured the essence of one of the most difficult words to perfectly define in the English language. Here it is:

WISDOM

This is wisdom, maids and men:
Knowing what to say and when.

Speech is common; thought is rare;
Wise men choose their words with care.

Artists with the master touch
Never use one phrase too much.

Jesus, preaching on the Mount,
Made His every sentence count.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Needs not one word more nor less.

This is wisdom, maids and men:
Knowing what to say and when.

From Guest’s A Heap O’ Living Along Life’s Highway (Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1916)