You know the serenity prayer. It encapsulates the human condition so elegantly.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I might imagine that “know” to be instantaneous. How often I carry on banging my head against a wall, though there is no crack in it, no way I will break through in that way. I should “know” it is fruitless, I should perceive immediately that it will do no good, but often I have to learn that. I carry on banging my head against the wall because I have not accumulated enough evidence to convince myself that it will do no good.
Or, I sit amongst wonderful opportunities, taking none of them, because I do not see them. I should know they are there, and choose one, and pursue it. I should know, now, not have to work at learning of their existence.
So, perhaps we should change the word “know” to “learn”. I did not know, I say. I thought the wall would crack eventually. I had not seen the possibilities.
But I am insane, not seeing because I do not want to see. I want to believe that what I am doing has value. I want to believe my choices and decisions so far have been good enough, and my perception clear. Admitting I am wrong is painful. And so I carry on beating my head against the wall, because it is better than admitting I have been wrong.
So another word for “know”, there, is “accept” or even “admit”. There is blood streaming down my face, sweat stinging my eyes, and my trembling fingers find no cracks in that wall. There is a moment when I must admit all my virtue- courage, tenacity, intelligence, strength of will- has been insufficient to break it down.
But I know, really. I can carry on
banging my head against the wall
or stop. I can carry on
ignoring the possibilities
or consider them.
That wisdom entails admitting all the pain I carry into my immediate awareness. All the choices I have made that have not gone well. All the false hope and illusion. All the times I claim to desire something but take no steps to bring it to fruition. It involves choosing what I actually am over what I wish myself to be, and choosing reality over fantasy. It involves staring unblinkingly, and acting. This is who I am, here, now, with these characteristics, with this fixed past, with these possible futures. Wisdom is terrifying, the face of God.
I am going to die. My chance of life after death is in the memories of people who know me, and the lives of people I influence. My life will be finished: before then, it is for me to complete it, to make it a whole.
I have not actually been reading existentialist philosophy, just an introduction to some of its concepts. Some of them chime with me, though. Even when I do not admit, I still know.