When Ignorance and Wisdom Cannot be Separated

I was flipping through a book called When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and came across this line. “Wisdom and ignorance cannot be separated.” I cannot comment on that sentence within the context of what she is writing about, because I have not yet read the book, but I can comment on what that observation brought to heart and mind.

We are living through a time of tremendous pain, suffering, worry, fear, anger, frustration, and sorrow. I listen each morning to a podcast called The Daily, which is put out by the New York Times. As the stories unfold, I hear voices crack in sorrow and rise in anger and stall when the words just won’t come. Because I can’t see the images of the actual person waving through a window to their elderly father or the worried mother rushing her very ill teenager to the hospital or the heartbroken protester asking “Why are they doing this to us?” or the devastated business owner who must close down their business for good, I’m forced to focus on the voices of the interviewees, on the words they say and the words they can’t bring themselves to say.

It’s the images that will likely remain with us long after this time has passed. Pictures of city streets that mirrored ghost towns one month and battle zones the next. Pictures of exhausted health care workers in masks and then protesters bleeding from their wounds. So many of us have been glued to our TVs or the internet fixated by the trauma we see playing out before us, but are we really listening? Are we hearing the words the person in the forefront is saying, or looking at what the people behind her are doing? Are we letting a snapshot lead us to judgement or are we digging deeper to understand what we see? When was the last time you paused to really listen to the words of someone with whom you thought you disagreed?

We are all guilty of ignorance, and we only become wise when we choose to confront it. We can only do better when we understand the hurt we’ve experienced and the hurt we cause. We can only grow wise when we educate ourselves about what’s not working and decide that we’re not willing to live with that level of ignorance any longer, no matter how comfortable it has seemed to be.

We’ve been given tools, though, to access our wisdom. Compassion, empathy, curiosity, kindness, determination, strength, and creativity. This blog has always called upon the inner artist in all of us. It’s time to get creative. The old ways are no longer working. Bring your artist selves to the table, whether your art is advocacy, instruction, council, training, policy making, mindfulness, science, or storytelling. And remember, artists don’t just see what is shown to them, they look for what isn’t visible, they listen for what isn’t said.

There’s a reason wisdom is hard won. It’s tempting to say it’s time to do the difficult work within ourselves, our communities, and our nation so “we can heal.” But history has taught us that ignorance will always be with us. We will grow wise in some ways. We will improve, until the next thing arises to test us. But that’s the challenge and the joy of being human. Our ignorance will never leave us, but from that ignorance we can gain wisdom. If we so choose.

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