Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children.Kahlil Gibran, (1883-1931) Lebanese-American painter, poet, and writer
These are the words of a man who left his home country of Lebanon and immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and siblings when he was 12 years old. Kahlil Gilbran is best known for his seminal masterpiece The Prophet, a book of poetic essays written in English which touched a chord with its readers from the time of its first publishing in 1923 to the present day. It is one of the bestselling books of all time and has been translated into 20 to 100 languages, according to which reference you heed.
Although his book is full of wisdom about how to live a fulfilled life, Gibran thought of himself as a painter and visual artist, not a philosopher.
What does Gibran mean by “the wisdom that does not cry”? His words speak to me clearly that he is referring to the puffed-up pontificators that love to hear their own voices and who care only for themselves. These pretenders do not care a fig for life-and-blood people and their lives. A man who sets himself up as one who is never wrong, who never makes a mistake, and who truly care or connect with others is not a man worthy of being heard. I grew up hearing that Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the New Testament: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” [1 Corinthians 13:1]. Such a man does not know or offer true wisdom.
And what about the “philosophy which does not laugh”? When I was an undergraduate College Scholars student at the University of Tennessee, we were asked to consider taking a special discussion course in which philosophy majors and psychology majors argued about important matters of the day. I took them up on their offer to take this course. I was curious to hear how scholars from each field of study approached issues that affected humankind. Sadly, however, I cannot say that I learned much from each class discussion because no matter what the topic, the philosophers were sure to state their case unequivocally broaching nothing that the psychologists brought to the table. The psychologists were not terribly persuaded by the philosophers either, but they were more genial about the debate. As for me, I was neither a philosopher nor a psychologist, but found that typically the psychologists’ opinions carried more weight than the philosophers who tended to weave spider webs in the sky.
Perhaps Gibran also found each philosopher he met thought they owned the market on truth and did not have a good sense of humor. In their defense, I will say that my husband majored in philosophy in undergraduate school, and he does indeed have an excellent sense of humor. Laughter is healing, it helps us live longer, and we certain need laughter to get through these long days of pandemic surges and the (hopefully) final days of the Trumpian would-be dynasty–at least for four years.
The final piece of Gibran’s trilogy is his hope to be kept away from “the greatness that does not bow before children”. Here he is fervently speaking to me about humility, innocence, and truth with a capital “T”. Tiny children are very truthful with their feelings and whims. They either want to do something or they do not. They will eat their food or they will not, they are interested in a particular person or they are not. A great man is one who from his height stoops low to place his ear close to listen to the infinite wisdom of children. Their eyes are bright with possibilities and visions of what can be. They do not yet know that human beings die, that disease eats at the soul of men and nations, or that justice is not a common occurrence in families or countries.
I have taught my granddaughter Penny the great wonder of trees. Before she could say more than a few words and we would pass a tree, I would carry her to the tree and touch its bark and say, “Tree.” Then I would say, “You can touch it,” urging her to touch the tree with her tiny hands and make a connection all her own.
Though she is not yet 2 years old, she now has a larger vocabulary. Two of her favorite words are “tree” and “leaf”. We were taking family pictures yesterday for Christmas cards and all she really wanted to do was touch the tree in her backyard and choose which leaf she wanted me to pull from the tree for her. It was her choice. Each time, I gave her a leaf, she was utterly delighted. She dropped it, and let me know she wanted another one. Again we would touch the tree, and again I pulled off a leaf and gave it to her. Simple joys are the best joys. Finally she picked up a dried leaf from the ground and claimed it as her own.
Experts tell us that trees communicate with one another. Well, Penny and I communicate clearly to each other too. I want my female grandchild to grow up choosing for herself who she wants to be. I want her to grow strong like a tree and withstand the storms of being told that being a girl is simply not good enough to compete, excel, and achieve. That a girl cannot grow up to be President or Vice President.
Well, at least on January 20, 2021, we will have finally put the lie to the idea that a girl cannot grow up to be Vice President of the United States. In my head, I find it hard to believe that my home country will elect a President who happens to be female–in my lifetime. Perhaps in Penny’s lifetime there will be such a President who towers like a tree above the others and bends low to listen closely to the wisdom of a child.
Children have much to learn from the adults who love them, but we have much to learn from them too. A fulfilled life is a balance, not white or black, but white and black; not male or female, but male and female; not the other or my tribe, but the other and my tribe. It does not have to be I get to win and you have to lose, we can learn something from children, and share the natural beauty and bounty of this world or we will find that soon there is no natural beauty or bounty for any of us to share.
We should stoop low and bend a listening ear to the voices of children–and heed their great expanse of wisdom.
~ Anna – 11/29/2020