The Man on the Silver Mountain
When I wrote my last letter from the editor, I was sitting in my garage, bemoaning the fact that at the beginning of the pandemic I bought some woodworking tools, thinking I would have spare time to begin home repair projects. My naivete is laughable. Of course, the spare time never materialized (this is a minor point) and my concerns were pettily self-centered (this is a major one). While everyone knew that we were facing a time of personal upheaval, I had no clue of what lay ahead politically. I was resting on the tectonic plates of history as they ground beneath my feet, but in my head I was planning to build birdhouses.
Writers and those with a public platform often assume the role once held in society by elders and people of wisdom. We try our best to offer small insights and bits of advice that can help readers understand, decide and participate. So, what happens when you sit down to share some of this wisdom and insight and are left with a heightened sense of your own inability to fathom strikingly complex global crises? What if you intuit that these forces are beyond the scope of any single human, no matter how learned or thoughtful or experienced?
I realized in my helplessness as I tried to put this letter together that my inability to speak, my yearning to simply listen and to understand, paralleled in its own bumbling way something that Socrates extolled at the outset of the Western philosophical tradition.
Socrates (at least through the lens of his student Plato) claimed that true knowledge came from knowing that we know nothing.
He began in uncertainty and seemed skeptical of anyone who professed to know what they were talking about. The way out of this uncertainty had as much to do with the ears as the brain — it lay in dialogue — using logic and reason while engaging others in conversation on life’s most important questions: What is the ideal life? The ideal government? How do we acquire and validate information so we are not swayed by strongly-worded but specious arguments and charismatic individuals? Socrates spoke of this wisdom in terms of light — not light as in sunlight, but light as in something that is the opposite of heaviness, an unburdening from false suppositions and prejudices — a liberation.
Beard-length aside, I can’t claim that 2020 has made me more like Socrates. You won’t find me in a robe, wandering the streets of Lowell with my hands behind my back and stopping sidewalk strollers to plague them with questions. Never have I felt more acutely than right now that I am not the wise one.
This all stands as a convoluted way of making clear that wisdom, to me, now resides in dialogue, listening, and accepting the limits of my own understanding. It means recognizing that my old ways of looking at the world have fallen short, and that the way forward begins in openness and humility. It will not be easy.