Back in the 1960s, there was a story about an earnest young man who was seeking the meaning of life. He sold everything he had and traveled to the Himalayas to try to speak personally with the world’s most renowned guru.
After riding on planes, a train, a car, a donkey, and after walking several miles, he finally reached the guru. He asked him, “What is the meaning of life?”
The guru said, “Life is a river,” then remained silent.
The young man said, “I have sold everything I had and traveled thousands of miles to come to see you, and this is all you have to say, ‘Life is a river’”?
The guru thought for a moment and said, “Maybe not a river.”
To me, the seeker’s journey was entirely worth it. He got the guru’s message: “Hey, I am just another human like you. Maybe I’m wrong. This is just a story I made up. Maybe it’s not true. Or at least, not true for you. Trust your own judgment. Trust what makes sense to you.”
That lesson is worth $1 million.
Actually, it’s priceless.
But the guru didn’t make up his answers all by himself. He was influenced by other teachers whom he talked to or read. Then there were those he was immediately influenced by – his family, his associates, his favorite podcasts or newscasts. But in the end, he took responsibility for his own statements, for his own beliefs. This is what I call integrity.
We are the product of dozens of voices. Every teacher has dozens of voices speaking through him or her. Yet it seems important for us to find and cling to our “right” answer, right religion, right political party.
Who is truly the wisest person? Do you see how impossible it is to answer that question?
The only two directions we can go are: 1) Listen to somebody else (who listens to somebody else, who listens somebody else), or 2) Listen to ourselves. Listening to ourselves means we are rigorous with ourselves, honest about what we really know and what we don’t. Doing that with integrity makes a wise person.
Socrates did that and discovered that he didn’t know very much at all.
So he went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked, “Who is the wisest person in the world, so that I may go and learn from him?”
The Oracle responded, “You are, Socrates.”
Now Socrates knew he definitely was not the wisest, but he also knew that the Oracle did not lie. So he set out to find someone wiser than himself.
He questioned the politicians, the philosophers, the craftsmen, the reputedly wise. He found that when he dug down two or three levels with his questions, no one really knew what they were talking about — other than the artisans knowing about their crafts.
Unfortunately, people don’t like to be shown that they don’t know what they are talking about, so Socrates made a lot of enemies. Yet he came to realize that the Oracle was right.
I have taken some liberties in telling this story, but Socrates’ conclusion was clear: “Whereas I know that I don’t know, others don’t even know that they don’t know. So maybe I am the wisest.”
If you are still looking for quick answers to important questions from the wisest people, here are some: First, there was a study to find out which is the wisest and best religion in the world. It turns out to be the Mormons. But hold on. That was only the study of the best Christian religions. The best overall religion turned out to be the Sikhs.
In other areas, the study showed that the best country in the world is Senegal. The best overall philosopher was Voltaire. The best woman ice skater was Tonya Harding. (You have to be at least 40 years old to get this last one.)
When it came to which is the best natural waterway in the world, people were, surprisingly, quite indecisive.
The best answer they could come up with was, “maybe not a river.”
Finally, in studying which is the wisest and best political party — Democrats or Republicans — the answer they came up with was: “maybe not a wisest political party.”
By the way, the study also determined that the Republican and Democratic parties are actually religions.
The author lives in Santa Barbara.