15 November, 2009

Wisdom, Absolutes & Art of Listening

Wisdom, Absolutes & Art of Listening
By Westermack Batanyika

A WISE GREEK man once said, “One who forms a judgment on any point, but cannot explain it clearly, might as well never have thought at all on the subject.” It’s the truth of this statement that touches my heart today and inspires my decision to pen some of my thoughts on the subject of wisdom, the world of absolutes we seem to be living in, and the art of listening.
So, if you bear with me, over the course of the next several paragraphs, I’ll try to explain and show, as clearly as I can, why I believe that the quality of wisdom is one of the most elusive and pseudo-possessed qualities of the human character; why the absolutes we love so much to hold clearly betoken our unwillingness to listen and see other people’s perceptions; and finally, why the act of listening, and being able and willing to understand others, should be foremost in our communication. Please, calm your mind and put your thinking cap on as you read through.

PERHAPS I OUGHT to start with a bunch of questions. What’s wisdom and what qualifies a person as being wise? Is it someone with a head full of grey hair? Is it some one with a library full of books, or is it someone with untold success in their field? Or perhaps it’s one who seems to have all the answers, and speaks with confidence and personal charisma of the likes of Adonis? Well, maybe, but again maybe not. I think there’re no straightforward answers to all these questions.
The 7th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, however, defines the word wisdom as a noun to mean: the ability to make sensible decisions and give good advice because of the experience and knowledge one has. It also defines the word wise as an adjective to mean: able to make sensible decisions and give good advice because of the experience and knowledge one has– which in plain language is to say, having wisdom.
Well, is that all there is on the subject? I don’t think so. I think we could probably write a whole book on it, but if I were to add anything now, I’d say that wisdom is very elusive in a sense that the wiser we become, the more and more we realize how much we probably don’t know as much as we think we do; the wiser we become, the more we realize that the views we hold so definitively probably aren’t as definitive– the wiser we become, the wiser we want to be. Any truly wise person acknowledges this.
As I continue to write, my mind rings with the name of one man who truly epitomizes the quality of wisdom. Though he lived more than 2,300 years ago, his philosophy is still highly esteemed today, and he’s even been called the father of Greek and– consequently– Western Philosophy.
In his time, his own government persecuted him, as it was argued that his unorthodox teachings were a bad influence, particularly to young Athenians. And though– unlike his counterpart, the great king Solomon of the Good Book, he lived the exact opposite of la dolce vita, Socrates is arguably one of the wisest men who ever lived.
Back in those days, when this sage of the ages was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was indeed the wisest man on earth, he denied it. “After all,” he said, “I know absolutely nothing for certain!” Then, he began questioning other people in Athens. Soon he discovered that they, too, knew nothing for certain. After that, he accepted the Oracle’s judgment. But at least he said, “I know that I don’t know. Everyone else fools themselves into thinking they know something for certain. Knowing that I don’t know, makes me the wisest.” Do I think he had a point? You can count on it!

MOST TIMES, IT’S the kind of thinking that we know what we know with absolute certainty that gets us into trouble. It’s this fashion of thinking that propagates absolutes: ideas which we believe are valid in any circumstances. It’s this brand of thinking that makes us like so much to reduce everything, even the most naturally complex, to the simplest sentences and words just to shoehorn all of it into our respective perspectives. It’s this kind of thinking that makes our asses so reluctant to stretch beyond our “niches”.
Need I remind us that, it isn’t that long ago when the whole world absolutely believed the earth to be the center of the universe– with the sun, the other planets and all other celestial bodies revolving around it? Or that the earth was a flat plate resting on the shell of a giant tortoise? Do I really need to reaffirm that, it isn’t long ago when an entire civilization absolutely believed that Zeus was God? Or that servitude was a just system willed by God, as it was pontificated by the Roman Catholic Church? It comes as no surprise that these ideas sound absurd to us today, but the fact is they are ideas that were once taken as gospel back then.
Such absolutes take many forms, of course, but my own personal “favorite” is prejudice. By way of an example, haven’t you ever come across that girl who makes it her conviction that “all boys are cheats”? Or met that guy who would cynically– and hopelessly– declaim that, “…shit…there ain’t no true love nowadays; all these chicks ever need is cash. You got it; you got ‘em all!” Well, that one guy or girl did you bad yes, but that doesn’t tarnish them all, does it now? As another example, it’s always fascinated me and captivated my sense of wonder how we fathom nothing of philosophy, theology, the workings of space-time, quantum mechanics or particle science and yet, when it comes to God, everyone’s an expert– the ultimate pundit even! My only question, which naturally follows from the foregoing discussion in this paragraph is that, for those of us who continue to hold absolutes, what makes us think we’re any wiser than these old, “absurd” civilizations?
Please, make no mistake my dear reader. I’m not saying that these absolutes of ours are always wrong, instead, I’m asserting that they aren’t always right, and that maybe we ought to learn a thing or two from some of the greatest minds from time immemorial.
Thomas Edison; the brilliant American inventor behind the common incandescent light bulb, and many other great discoveries once said, “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.” Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), that phenomenal writer and humourist, once said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Albert Einstein, in all his intellectual might and genius still believed that, with the exception of the speed of light, everything else in the universe is subject to change! Where, then, does that leave our absolutes?
That said, I’ll be the first to concede that one of the most fulfilling experiences we can have, comes from voicing our opinions and having someone listen. Can you imagine, for example, how boring, unfulfilling, and annoying relationships would be if there was no talking? Or worse still, if one party talked whilst the other party or parties didn’t care to listen?

I’M TALKING ABOUT the art of listening now. All cognitive psychologists– as I’m sure you too– agree that the key to learning any– if not most– language(s) is: to read it, write it, speak it and listen to it being used. And of course it goes without saying, it’s these four aspects of learning a language that are also vital for communication.
From as early as childhood, each one of us begins to learn the four skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening; and continues to hone them through adulthood. Unfortunately enough, for some reason(s) I cannot pinpoint, of all four, listening ends up being the bluntest. Way blunt! “Poor listener” is almost a proverb and certainly proverbial. And no wonder it’s been said that listening is a lost art.
It should be said however, I’m talking not of merely hearing someone– as wave after wave of sound energy beats at your eardrums without you making much sense of what they’re saying. I’m talking about listening– hearing out what others are saying whilst genuinely trying to understand them.
I think, by now, we’ve established that, the need to express our opinions and heard out by others is inherent in us all as human beings. One can only imagine the kind of rampant chaos that would exist if none in this world was willing to listen to the other, and instead, just held blindly to their convictions or absolutes. Would we have peaceful societies? Would homes be homes, or mere houses occupied by people?
I think now of the time during the independence struggles of my motherland, and other African countries. Would you pause for a few seconds, and think what could’ve happened had the British Crown refused to listen, as Mwalimu tried to talk his way toward our independence! Would we’ve shed blood for our land? It’s because they listened to, “…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection...,” that Lincoln’s immortal message resonated so much with the Confederates and the rest of the riven America. As for whether the story is true or fictitious, I couldn’t say but, you might’ve heard of the story of the tower of Babel. It’s basically a story of men trying to build an impossibly high tower to get closer to God. Half way through the project, God decided to end their endeavour by making them speak different languages. Because they no longer could understand each other, they started to argue and pass judgment on one another, leading to the project’s demise. Speaking different languages meant they couldn’t listen to one another, which led to chaos, and eventual strife amongst themselves.
The moral of the story, it seems, hadn’t been realized soon enough. The Grim Reaper’s scythe has claimed more lives in the name of religion, than any other cause known to man. In essence, most religions are different ways of saying the same thing. We hear things differently because we all speak different “languages”. More often than not, we fight our neighbours not because we disagree with them, but because we don’t understand them. If only we listened; maybe we would understand them and stop the fight.
It’s mostly our recently found concept of tolerance: advocating a willingness to listen, and compromise, that has fostered the fairly peaceful co-existence of our religious and other assorted conflicting institutions. Heaven forbid we go back to our old ways. It’s why we study history! The major setback here is, most of us love to be heard out by others but we aren’t as willing to hear others out. We’re not particularly fond of being on the receiving end. But, if we ourselves aren’t ready to listen, why then should we expect others to, or even think we are any worthier to receive a different treatment from others?
Have we forgotten the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Or perhaps we simply don’t know, or even don’t care, what it is? The truth is, a little listening has never done anybody any harm; quite the contrary. It’s an excellent opportunity to learn life lessons and acquaint ourselves with invaluable information from other people’s life experience. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that, if you’re one of those windbags who don’t bother to stop and listen, every time you open your mouth amidst people who are well informed, you reveal to them, then and there, who and what you truly are– nothing more than just a windbag with bleak prospects of changing. So, it’s in your interest, and wise, to be a good listener– or as that insightful writer, Napoleon Hill, notes:
Genuine wisdom is usually conspicuous through modesty and silence.

THANK YOU FOR taking the time to read my thoughts; or maybe to listen to what I’ve to say, I should say! It might not be that lofty piece of writing that could change the world but, on the one hand, I wasn’t looking to change the world. On the other hand, I read somewhere sometime ago that the key to changing the world is one act of random kindness at a time; touching one random person at a time. So, if any part of this piece– no matter how minute– has touched you in any way or maybe even provided a paradigm shift of some sort in your own thoughts, my dear, that’s more than fulfilling for me. That alone, positively warms the red juices of my heart!
I hope by now you appreciate what genuine wisdom truly is, and that it truly comes with a steep price. My only hope in this regard is that your wisdom teeth attest their name, and that when they grow, your personal wisdom grows with them.
To me, to firmly hold absolutes betrays our inability– or more aptly– unwillingness to unlearn, learn and relearn that which we know. This unwillingness fosters bigotry and intolerance. In my experience in dealing with people in business, and otherwise, I’ve seen individuals corner themselves into such untenable positions, all to just not concede others their points of view. It’s critical that we stand our ground for our convictions, but maybe this is no longer meaningful and reasonable in the face of compelling evidence that we could be mistaken. It’s in these circumstances that it’s particularly worthwhile to be flexible.
Be open to new ideas, and know that it’s never too late to learn and hone that essential art of listening. We’ve all probably heard the cliché that “you were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. To do twice as much listening as you do talking”. And maybe it’s a cliché for a good enough reason– its arguable truth appeals to so many. Life’s too beautiful, multifaceted and diverse to limit ourselves see it through our eyes only, and think it ends with only what we know and experience. See it through the eyes of others as well. There’s actually a life outside the box!
In closing, may I borrow from my recently favorite song written by Tia Sillers and Mark Sanders, and as recorded by Gladys Knight. I hope you never lose your sense of wonder, I hope you still feel small when standing by the ocean, and when you get the choice to sit it out or dance; I hope you dance– for life’s too beautiful, multifaceted and diverse.


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