Why We Need Wisdom More Than Ever
It’s about recognizing what we’re really seeking: connection and love.
Growing up in Athens, I was brought up on the classics and the Greek myths. They were taught to me not as ancient history, as my children learned them in their American classrooms, but as my personal roots and the source of my identity. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and, for me, the idea of wisdom is forever identified with her — weaving together strength and vulnerability, creativity and nurturing, passion and discipline, pragmatism and intuition, intellect and imagination, claiming them all, the masculine and the feminine, as part of our essence and expression.
Today we need Athena’s wisdom more than ever. She breathes soul and compassion — exactly what has been missing — into the traditionally masculine world of work and success. Her emergence, fully armed and independent, from Zeus’s head, and her total ease in the practical world of men, whether on the battlefield or in the affairs of the city; her inventive creativity; her passion for law, justice, and politics — they all serve as a reminder that creation and action are as inherently natural to women as they are to men. Women don’t need to leave behind the deeper parts of themselves in order to thrive in a male- dominated world. In fact, women — and men, too — need to reclaim these instinctual strengths if they are to tap into their inner wisdom and redefine success.
Wisdom is precisely what is missing when — like rats in the famous experiment conducted by B. F. Skinner more than fifty years ago — we press the same levers again and again even though there is no longer any real reward. By bringing deeper awareness into our everyday lives, wisdom frees us from the narrow reality we’re trapped in — a reality consumed by the fi rst two metrics of success, money and power, long after they have ceased to fulfill us. Indeed, we continue to pull the levers not only after their diminishing returns have been exhausted, but even after it’s clear they’re actually causing us harm in terms of our health, our peace of mind, and our relationships. Wisdom is about recognizing what we’re really seeking: connection and love. But in order to find them, we need to drop our relentless pursuit of success as society defines it for something more genuine, more meaningful, and more fulfilling.
Icarus, the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the sun until his wax wings melted, is a great distillation of the tragedy of modern man. Ignoring all warnings until it is too late, he plunges headlong to his death in the ocean below. As Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, puts it, “Puffed up by his power to fly, he falls into the state of hubris, the cosmic pride which is the essence of egocentricity. Hubris defies the supreme law of balance and proportion which governs everything in the universe, and the inter- relatedness of all its parts.” Icarus defies physical laws and the wax on his wings burns up as a result, just as we have been defying our true nature and end up burning out.
When we reexamine what we really want, we realize that everything that happens in our lives — every misfortune, every slight, every loss, and also every joy, every surprise, every happy accident — is a teacher, and life is a giant classroom. That’s the foundation of wisdom that spiritual teachers, poets, and philosophers throughout history have given expression to — from the Bible’s “Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without God knowing it” to Rilke’s “Perhaps all the dragons of our life are princesses, who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.” My favorite expression of wisdom — one that I keep laminated in my wallet — is by Marcus Aurelius: “True understanding is to see the events of life in this way: “You are here for my benefit, though rumor paints you otherwise.” And everything is turned to one’s advantage when he greets a situation like this: You are the very thing I was looking for. Truly whatever arises in life is the right material to bring about your growth and the growth of those around you. This, in a word, is art — and this art called “life” is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?”
I had a dream many years ago that sums up this thought in a different way, one that has become a sustaining metaphor for me. I am on a train going home to God. (Bear with me!) It’s a long journey, and everything that happens in my life is scenery along the way. Some of it is beautiful; I want to linger over it awhile, perhaps hold on to it or even try to take it with me. Other parts of the journey are spent grinding through a barren, ugly countryside. Either way the train moves on. And pain comes whenever I cling to the scenery, beautiful or ugly, rather than accept that all the scenery is grist for the mill, containing, as Marcus Aurelius counseled us, some hidden purpose and a hidden blessing.
My family, of course, is on board with me. Beyond our families, we choose who is on the train with us, who we share our journey with. The people we invite on the train are those with whom we are prepared to be vulnerable and real, with whom there is no room for masks and games. They strengthen us when we falter and remind us of the journey’s purpose when we become distracted by the scenery. And we do the same for them. Never let life’s Iagos — flatterers, dissemblers — onto your train. We always get warnings from our heart and our intuition when they appear, but we are often too busy to notice. When you realize they’ve made it on board, make sure you usher them off the train; and as soon as you can, forgive them and forget them. There is nothing more draining than holding grudges.
Divorce, especially if you have children, is one of life’s hardest classrooms and can be one of the biggest sources of stress in our personal lives. Michael, my ex- husband, and I were married for eleven years and have been divorced for sixteen. And though we no longer had a marriage to keep us together, we had something even more powerful and permanent — our daughters. And, spurred by our mutual devotion to them, we have made a huge effort to work through all the difficulties and be friends. This has included spending Christmas Day and both of our girls’ birthdays together as a family every year. And, little by little, with a lot of hard work, we’ve grown closer and closer. I remember the first time we went as a family on a summer vacation after our divorce, and how healing it was to be able to let go of our grudges and focus instead on the fact that we have two daughters together — a bond that transcends all grievances we’d built up through the years. We spent a lot of time on that vacation, and on many others since, strolling down memory lane with our girls or taking fanciful forays into the future (we spent a lot of time one night debating the pros and cons of evening weddings and the names of yet- to- be-born — and, thankfully, yet- to- be- conceived — grandchildren).
Our marriage may have been over, but our relationship wasn’t. And isn’t. And, like any relationship, it requires work and care and attention. The surest sign that my ex and I had reached a better place was a newfound willingness on both our parts to not let our pet peeves get in the way of our having a good time. Even in the happiest of marriages, there are little things that each partner does that inevitably set the other one off. These annoyances are magnified tenfold when you are no longer together as a couple — which is why making an effort to avoid them is one of the secrets of a good divorce.
For instance, Michael was a pioneer in insisting on no digital devices on holidays when the family was together. So I have kept to a 100 percent BlackBerry ban during our times together.
For my part, I was always put off by the way he would openly fume if I was even one second late for something — even on vacation (I always thought not having to adhere to a strict timetable was one of the defining features of a vacation!). But gradually that changed. When I would roll in a few minutes late to dinner, he wouldn’t glare.
While we did not survive as a couple, at least we’ve survived in the joint parenting of our daughters — and the children are usually the biggest casualties of a bad divorce.
“God,” Isabella said one day during a recent vacation, “it’s hard to remember you guys are divorced.” For some reason, that made me very, very happy. It felt like I had reached the end of a long and arduous journey. And we were all the better for having made it. For the sake of our inner peace and happiness, as well as for the sake of all the many children whose parents get divorced every year, this is a journey well worth taking.
There is nothing that we need more today than having proportion restored to disproportion, and separating our everyday worries and preoccupations from what is truly important. An amazing array of seemingly incompatible people and activities can coexist in our lives with harmony and a sense of order when we fi nd an unambiguous center in ourselves.
I felt that when I first went to India at the age of seventeen. I had gone to Visva- Bharati University, founded in Shantiniketan by Rabindranath Tagore, to study comparative religion. As part of my course, I visited the holy shrine of Benaras, where dead bodies floated by on the Ganges as part of a Hindu ritual of spiritual transition, and emaciated holy men knelt in prayer among goats and pigeons. Pilgrims, most in rags but one in a gold sari, listened to the nonstop buzz of gurus and hawkers. It was chaotic, to be sure, and yet, in the middle of the chaos, I felt an unfathomable peace. I knew then that my life was never going to be lived on a serene mountaintop, but I also knew that it was possible to find peace and wisdom in the middle of a bustling marketplace, that we can achieve that elusive combination between stillness and the stream of the world — that we can be in the world but not of the world.
The seventeenth- century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” When we have learned to sit quietly in a room alone, we can maintain that inner connection that allows life to proceed from the inside out, whether we are alone or in a crowd of screaming people. And we can remain in this state of being no matter how much we’re doing. It seems so simple, and when I’m in that place I wonder why I ever leave it. But it takes tremendous commitment and dedication to hold to it and, when I slip out of it, to catch myself quickly — again and again and again, and without judgment.
At HuffPost we developed a course- correcting free smartphone app called GPS for the Soul. It provides tools to help us return to a state of calm and balance. I know it’s something of a paradox to look to an app to help us reconnect to ourselves, but there’s no reason not to use the technology we always have in our pockets or purses to help free us from technology. Think of it as spiritual training wheels. GPS for the Soul connects us to a personalized guide, with music, poetry, breathing exercises, and pictures of our loved ones, to help us destress and recenter. You can also access the guides of experts, other users, or your friends.
It always amazes me how quickly I am able to move back to that centered place, and how it gets even easier as the path back becomes more and more familiar. We all have within us the ability to move from struggle to grace, whatever the challenges we encounter. When I’m in that “bubble of grace,” it doesn’t mean that the everyday things that used to bother, irritate, and upset me disappear; they don’t, but they no longer have the power to bother, irritate, or upset me. And when the really hard things come our way — death, sickness, loss — we are better able to deal with them instead of being overwhelmed by them.
I faced one such big test on March 4, 2012. That’s the day I got the sort of call every parent dreads more than anything else: “Mommy, I can’t breathe.” It was Christina, my oldest daughter, in her senior year at Yale, two months away from graduating.
Looking back on that March day as I was frantically driving from New York to the emergency room in New Haven, and later when we left the emergency room with my sedated daughter crying in my arms, and later still over the hard weeks that followed, I focused on all that I was grateful for: that my daughter was alive, that she had a loving family that rallied around her, and that she wanted to get well. Christina had struggled with drugs before, but we had thought that was behind her. And never before had it gotten to this point.
Everything else I thought was important in my life fell away. Over the next year, until Christina decided to go public with her addiction, only our family, her closest friends, and my daughters’ godmothers knew. I felt like it was her story and her life — and, therefore, her decision if and when to talk about it. I was proud of her when, thirteen months later, she decided to write about her struggle: Writing this blog a year ago would have been impossible, because of the shame and the deep guilt I felt about being an addict. I have never been abused or neglected. I didn’t grow up in an alcoholic home. I have been blessed with an unconditionally loving family and I have been given every opportunity to thrive. Why then? Why cause the people who love me so much pain? Why be seemingly intent on throwing it all away? The honest answer is: I don’t know. What I do know — and I have grappled with this over the past 13 months — is that addiction is a disease. It is progressive, it can be fatal and it can touch anyone. My life as it is today was unthinkable thirteen months ago. Yes, I mean the particulars — I have a steady job and healthy, loving relationships — but more than that I’ve learned to be vulnerable. I’ve learned how to apologize and how to forgive. I’ve learned how much strength it takes to let go. If writing this can help one person feel a little less alone, if it encourages one person to ask for help, if it allows one person to know that no matter how hopeless it feels right now, it can get better, then that is enough.
“Here’s what no one tells you about sobriety,” Christina says. “Giving up drugs is easy compared to dealing with the emotions drugs protected you from.” Learning to be vulnerable without shame and accepting our emotions without judgment becomes much easier when we realize that we are more than our emotions, our thoughts, our fears, and our personalities. And the stronger the realization, the easier it becomes to move from struggle to grace.
Moving from struggle to grace sums up, as well, the experience of childbirth — going from a body racked with pain to the miracle of birth all in a few hours (if you’re lucky). For all our medical advances, that miracle has never been diminished over the millennia. The staggering reality that we mortals can actually accomplish the act of human creation leaves us changed forever. It’s a miracle that we honor with a yearly celebration until we die.
Having longed to have children for years, I was over the moon when, at thirty- eight, I finally became a mother. A few hours after Christina’s birth, I had another grace- filled experience that, as I’ve since discovered, an amazing number of women have also had. And as personal diaries from previous generations show, this is not just a modern phenomenon.
I lay in bed nestling Christina to me for hours. When I finally grew sleepy, we put her in the crib next to my bed. A few moments later, after everyone had left the room, I began trembling convulsively. I tried to calm myself with the same soothing words I had just offered to my baby: “It’s all right . . . it’s all right.”
And then I stopped shaking. I had left my body and was suddenly looking down at myself, at Christina, at the tuberoses on the nightstand, at the entire room. I had no fear at all; I knew I would return. And I was awash in an enormous sense of well- being and strength. It was as if a curtain had been pulled back to give me a glimpse of the wholeness of birth, life, and death. Seeing them all at once, I could accept them all. For I don’t know how long, I hovered in that state of almost tangible peace. Then I watched a nurse enter the room; as she touched me, she jolted me back into the hospital reality. I returned with a great sense of confidence and joy. The anxiety of taking Christina home had disappeared. I knew we would be fi ne.
In our daily lives, moving from struggle to grace requires practice and commitment. But it’s in our hands. I’ve come to believe that living in a state of gratitude is the gateway to grace. Gratitude has always been for me one of the most powerful emotions. Grace and gratitude have the same Latin root, gratus. Whenever we find ourselves in a stop- the- world- I- want- to- get- off mindset, we can remember that there is another way and open ourselves to grace. And it often starts with taking a moment to be grateful for this day, for being alive, for anything. Christina found tremendous value during her recovery by doing a nightly list of all she was grateful for that day and sharing it with three friends, who, in turn, emailed her their gratitude lists. And she has continued this practice to this day. The Oxford clinical psychologist Mark Williams suggests the “ten finger gratitude exercise,” in which once a day you list ten things you’re grateful for and count them out on your fingers. Sometimes it won’t be easy. But that’s the point — “intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.”
Gratitude exercises have been proven to have tangible benefits. According to a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida, having participants write down a list of positive events at the close of a day — and why the events made them happy — lowered their self- reported stress levels and gave them a greater sense of calm at night.
I find that I’m not only grateful for all the blessings in my life, I’m also grateful for all that hasn’t happened — for all those close shaves with “disaster” of some kind or another, all the bad things that almost happened but didn’t. The distance between them happening and not happening is grace.
And then there are the disasters that did happen, that leave us broken and in pain. For me, such a moment was losing my first baby. I was thirty- six and ecstatic at the prospect of becoming a mother. But night after night, I had restless dreams. Night after night I could see that the baby — a boy — was growing within me, but his eyes would not open. Days became weeks, and weeks turned into months. Early one morning, barely awake myself, I asked out loud, “Why won’t they open?” I knew then what was only later con- fi rmed by the doctors. The baby’s eyes were not meant to open; he died in my womb before he was born.
Women know that we do not carry our unborn babies only in our wombs. We carry them in our dreams and in our souls and in our every cell. Losing a baby brings up so many unspoken fears: Will I ever be able to carry a baby to term? Will I ever be able to become a mother? Everything felt broken inside. As I lay awake during the many sleepless nights that followed, I began to sift through the shards and splinters, hoping to find reasons for my baby’s stillbirth.
Staggering through a minefield of hard questions and partial answers, I began to make my way toward healing. Dreams of my baby gradually faded, but for a time it seemed as if the grief itself would never lift. My mother had once given me a quotation from Aeschylus that spoke directly to these hours: “And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” At some point, I accepted the pain falling drop by drop and prayed for the wisdom to come.
I had known pain before. Relationships had broken, illnesses had come, death had taken people I loved. But I had never known a pain like this. What I learned through it is that we are not on this earth to accumulate victories, or trophies, or experiences, or even to avoid failures, but to be whittled and sandpapered down until what’s left is who we truly are. This is the only way we can find purpose in pain and loss, and the only way to keep returning to gratitude and grace.
I love saying grace — even silently — before meals and when I travel around the world, observing different traditions. When I was in Tokyo in 2013 for the launch of HuffPost Japan I loved learning to say itadakimasu before every meal. It simply means “I receive.” When I was in Dharamsala, India, every meal started with a simple prayer.
Growing up in Greece, I was used to a simple blessing before each meal, sometimes a silent one, even though I wasn’t brought up in a particularly religious household. “Grace isn’t something that you go for, as much as it’s something you allow,” wrote John- Roger, the founder of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. “However you may not know grace is present, because you have conditioned the way you want it to come, for example, like thunder or lightning, with all the drama, rumbling, and pretense of that. In fact, grace comes in very naturally, like breathing.”
Both monks and scientists have affirmed the importance of gratitude in our lives. “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race,” wrote Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from Kentucky, “though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.”
What the foremost researchers in the fi eld of gratitude, Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, have established is that “a life oriented around gratefulness is the panacea for insatiable yearnings and life’s ills. . . . At the cornerstone of gratitude is the notion of undeserved merit. The grateful person recognizes that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed.” Gratitude works its magic by serving as an antidote to negative emotions. It’s like white blood cells for the soul, protecting us from cynicism, entitlement, anger, and resignation. It’s summed up in a quote I love (attributed to Imam AlShafi’i, an eighth- century Muslim jurist): “My heart is at ease knowing that what was meant for me will never miss me, and that what misses me was never meant for me.”
Excerpt from Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder pp. 116–130
Image courtesy of Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash.