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To Avoid Folly, Study Wisdom!

The root cause of folly is ignorance.

Buddha image

The root cause of all folly is ignorance. A religious person once told me this. He did not say scientific knowledge was the lacking ingredient, although ignorance of facts could play a part. The Buddhist monk who befriended me was referring to wisdom.

Ignorance means not knowing something. To ignore is also deliberately to avoid something, to pay it less attention than it deserves. Ignorance of wisdom, of the sacred knowledge of how to be and behave for everyone's benefit, therefore leads not only to folly, to foolishness, but also to mischief and worse, to evil. Destructive speech and misdeeds, also silence and inaction (when kind words and deeds would improve a situation), follow equally from this kind of ignorance.

Knowing about this link between ignorance and folly makes it easier to understand people who cause us harm. It becomes easier to bear their insults and actions and the consequent emotional trauma. It makes it easier, in turn, to forgive.

To forgive perpetrators of harm is healthy. This is not about following some pious belief system. Abundant research supports the benefits of forgiveness. (See, for example, McCullough, Bono & Root in ‘Religion and Forgiveness', a book chapter in ‘The Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality', edited by Paloutzian and Park. New York: Guilford Press; also, McCullough, Pargament & Thoresen ‘Forgiveness: Theory, research and practice'. New York: Guilford Press)

Persistent anger has harmful effects on the immune and cardio-vascular systems. Forgiveness lowers stress hormones, boosts mood and reduces anger. It has also been shown to improve health and alleviate depression. People who score highly on forgiveness as a personality trait are less likely to be depressed, anxious, hostile or exploitative. (They are also less likely to become dependent on drugs or cigarettes.)

Bearing a grudge means holding onto emotional pain after being hurt by someone. When we suffer any kind of threat or actual harm at the hands of another, it is natural to experience the spectrum of emotions from anxiety through to anger and sadness. The more severe the harm, the more difficult it is to forgive. Holding on, however, hinders the natural process of emotional healing from reaching resolution.

Forgiveness is not about forgetting, condoning or excusing what has happened. It does not involve forgoing justice, relinquishing claim to any reparation that is due, and it does not mean reconciliation with a harmful person in any way that could endanger your health or safety. To forgive can undeniably be hard. It requires courage and maturity to feel the pain, accept the loss and move on. Even so, letting go of resentment is the quickest and best way to peace of mind.

It is folly, therefore, not to take responsibility for ending our own suffering, whoever we think of as the cause of it. Nature allows emotional healing following loss. The process involves catharsis, emotional release, and loosening the strength of our attachment to what must be given up, letting go.

Wisdom involves having confidence that, in letting go our emotional hold and dependence on some person, some thing, some idea, some place or some activity, we will survive; and not only survive but thrive. In other words, following the acceptance of loss, we will grow.

Chuang Tsu's 'Inner Chapters'

The process becomes easier with experience, with the accommodation of repeated loss. It is also possible to prepare ourselves in advance. Through ageing, illness and the approach of death, even without perpetrators (unless you want to blame God) losses are inevitable. It is a matter of wisdom then to get ready without giving way to despair, and wisdom can be studied, just as knowledge is studied.

Wisdom may be found in the literature that survives for many generations, as does holy scripture and other religious writings. You do not need to know anything about Buddhism, for example, much less call yourself Buddhist, to benefit from reading the ‘Sayings of the Buddha'; nor do you have to be Taoist to benefit from Chuang Tsu's ‘Inner Chapters', Muslim to enjoy Jalaluddin Rumi's ‘Book of Love', Hindu to value Paramahansa Yogananda's ‘Autobiography of a Yogi', Jewish to learn from the works of Joshua Heschel, or Christian to benefit from St Augustine's ‘Confessions', and the life and writings of Thomas Merton. These authors, and many other spiritual masters and guides, past and present, help us get the best value out of life, as well as preparing us for its vicissitudes, setbacks and disasters.

"We are what we think. All that we are arises in our minds.
With our minds, we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you...
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you...
As your shadow, unshakeable."
(From 'The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha'.)

One of Thomas Merton's many inspiring books

Whether found in books, or through observing and emulating human role models, when studied, wisdom eventually becomes personal to each of us and accumulates. One proverb has it that fools never learn from their mistakes, ordinary people do, and the wise learn from the mistakes of others. The wisest of all are those who actively seek out and study wisdom from the outset. These not only avoid mistakes but help others to avoid them as well. The life of such a person is a blessing to all.

Copyright Larry Culliford