“Conventional Wisdom v. Crazy Wisdom”
Dr. P. Schultz
September 2, 2009
One of my favorite authors, Tom Robbins, makes a distinction between ‘conventional wisdom’ and ‘crazy wisdom.’ Here is what he wrote:
Crazy wisdom is, of course, the opposite of conventional wisdom. It is wisdom that deliberately swims against the current in order to avoid being swept along in the numbing wake of bourgeois compromise, wisdom that flouts taboos in order to undermine their power; wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything; wisdom that embraces risk and eschews security, wisdom that turns the tables on neurosis by lampooning it, the wisdom of those who neither seek authority nor willingly submit to it. [Wild Ducks Flying Backwards, p. 180]
We are, generally speaking, submerged in conventional wisdom. It is all around us and it permeates us intimately. In fact, if we are not careful, it will mold us, affecting how we think, how we talk, and how we act. One example drawn from a recent experience.
My daughter, a single mom of 37 years, wrote on Facebook that she had read somewhere that the pursuit of happiness had to be abandoned at times or one could burn out or go crazy. One of her friends responded that, yes, enough is often enough, so let go of happiness and don’t go crazy.
My response was as follows, basically: the danger is in thinking that happiness is something that has to be pursued. Of course, we learn this from a very young age and it is even there in that document that signaled the “birth of our nation,” the Declaration of Independence. All human beings – because that is what Jefferson meant by “men” – have the right to “the pursuit of happiness.” But what if this is wrong? What if happiness is not something to be pursued? What if happiness can be found, at almost anytime; e.g., in a smile, in a beautiful woman or man [or both if you are bisexual!], in a child, even in a classroom [yes, I know that is stretching it but it happens]?
The conventional wisdom says “pursue” happiness but if happiness is not pursuable then we need to ask: what is it that we are pursuing? My answer [and that is all it is]: SUCCESS AND SECURITY. Alright if you want to continue this pursuit, as it is your right to do so. But don’t forget that in that pursuit you have abandoned the possibility of happiness which lies in a different arena altogether.
Conventional wisdom, as demonstrated by the death of Ted Kennedy just recently, tells us that one of the best ways for human beings to live is to go into politics, “make a contribution,” help save the planet, stand up for immutable principles. Kennedy’s life was celebrated but so was his choice of lifestyle, as it were. He chose to enter politics, we were told over and over and over, and wasn’t that noble of him? Just as his brothers chose the noble life so too did Ted and we should be thankful that he did that.
But, as also demonstrated by Ted Kennedy’s life, very often those people who have gone into politics do things that indicate what we like to call a “lack of character.” But what if it is not a “lack of character” but rather a lack of happiness? What if the public life, the political life is not satisfying to human beings because it requires sacrificing happiness for, let us say, POWER. Or as I like to say FAME, the only kind of immortality we humans can be certain is available to us. What if the noble life is not and cannot be satisfying to human beings? What if being famous is, ultimately, unsatisfying just as it seems, from the behavior of those we call “stars,” that it is unsatisfying to live your life as a “star” or even with a “star?” Are any human beings unhappier than our “stars?” What if it is better for human beings to live simply, not grandly, to live peacefully, to live lightheartedly, not seriously? Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his last book something like the following: “I don’t care what anyone tells you. We humans were put here to screw around.”
Tom Robbins once more:
The fact that playfulness – a kind of divine playfulness intended to lighten man’s existential burden and promote what Joseph Campbell called ‘the rapture of being alive’ – lies near the core of Zen, Taoist, Sufi, and Tantric teachings is lost on most westerners; working stiffs and intellectuals alike. Even scholars who acknowledge the playful undertone in those disciplines treat it with condescension and disrespect, never mind that it’s a worldview arrived at after millennia of exhaustive study, deep meditation, unflinching observation, and intense debate. [p. 179]
The material in this course, Political Issues, reflects the thinking of Robbins and others. Where do we look for crazy wisdom? Well, we are mistaken if we think our politicians provide access to this wisdom. In fact, they are in the business of not only maintaining but even of manufacturing conventional wisdom, e.g., “Axis of Evil” or “the war on poverty” or “the war on drugs.” The same could be said for what is called, appropriately, “the mainstream media.” Fox News is merely the clearest example of how the mainstream media maintains and helps to manufacture the “truths” of conventional wisdom. It is no accident that one has to look to the Comedy Channel to cut through “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert calls it, to cut through the bullshit, to expose the absurdities of taking one’s bearings from conventional wisdom.
Another “place” to look for crazy wisdom is in what we like to call “fiction.” By this I mean novels and movies and even some television. Ever wonder why the politicians are so concerned with controlling what we see and read in these venues? Well, it is because they know that these venues are the home of crazy rather than conventional wisdom and, hence, they know that these media threaten their power, their ability to control us. It is an old expression: “I care not who makes the laws of a country, if I can write its music” with “music” being understood broadly to include all the above. Bruce Springsteen knew something like this when he sang, “We learned more in a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.” And Eldridge Cleaver knew this too when he wrote in one of his essays, “Convalescence,” that rock n’ roll was changing society because it reminded the overly intellectualized whites that they had bodies and that those bodies were supposed to be rockin’ n’ rollin’, “a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on….” As Cleaver put it: Rock n’ roll taught “whites how to shake their asses again,” something they had forgotten how to do. And, hence, in the fifties and sixties, when Elvis made it cool for whites to listen to R&B in the form of rock n’ roll, and to shake their asses again, their parents and others were worried for the fate of western civilization! And not surprisingly, millions, yours truly among them, have made their pilgrimage to Graceland, where “we will all be received in Graceland.”
Here, we will be reading some novels and watching some movies, some of the movies being based on the novels we read. We are doing this because I think it is a way to access crazy wisdom and it seems to me that accessing this wisdom is not only beneficial but even necessary if we humans are to be, well, happy.