What is the meaning of life? What should I do with it? Haim Shapira invites us to challenge our perspectives on wisdom and happiness and provides us with alternative ways we may view what is important.
The Russian existentialist Lev Shestov said that life is like a huge wall, and there are two ways to traverse it: either you make yourself very big, develop delusions of grandeur and leap over it; or you make yourself very small, modest and meek, and slip under it. A Central Asian fable says that when a lion attacks you, you can either become a huge warrior and slay it, or make yourself very tiny and hide in one of the lion’s teeth cavities.
Jewish sages recommend that the wise maintain two beliefs at all times. According to one, you need truly to believe that the world was created just for you. The other urges that you accept that you are ‘nothing but dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27). The belief that the world was made for you is a profound truth, because its very opposite – ‘I am nothing but dust and ashes’ – is a truth just as deep. Indeed, people try to get through life either by making giant leaps over that wall or by cautiously crawling under it. Delusions of grandeur coincide with inferiority complexes. We are both manic and depressive. All conflicts inhabit the human soul.
Small wisdom is like water in a glass: clear, transparent, pure.
Great wisdom is like the water in the sea: dark, mysterious, impenetrable.
One day the Little Prince met a railway switchman whose job was to help people move from one place to another – some going left and some going right. It appears that all the members of the grown-up tribe are never happy where they are. A friend of mine once said that there’s no point in moving from one place to another because wherever you go, you take yourself with you. I don’t know where he is now, but he’s probably right.
The truth you’ll find on top of Mt Everest or in an Indian ashram is your truth, the same truth you brought along with you.
To clarify this, let me quote from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the classic novel whose numerous pages contain quite a few philosophical ideas.
‘The highest wisdom and truth are like the purest liquid we may wish to imbibe,’ he said. ‘Can I receive that pure liquid into an impure vessel and judge of its purity? Only by the inner purification of myself can I retain in some degree of purity the liquid I receive.’
There are two types of prayers. People with good intentions pray that the workings of the world change to accommodate them, while the enlightened pray for the power to change themselves. It’s critical to realize that those of us who want to fix the world must first try to fix ourselves first.
One man was sitting idly at home when rain started falling. Gradually, the rain grew heavy and then turned into a real storm, with thunder, lightning and heavy rain. Then the man noticed that his roof was leaking. Braving the storm, he put on his coat, stepped out of his house, looked up to the sky, and started directing the clouds and blowing at the wind to go away. ‘Rain, rain,’ he yelled. ‘Go away! Don’t fall on my house. And you, clouds, blow away, or move more to the right … yes, a little more.’
Leo Tolstoy, The Reading Circle
Now, if you ever did what that man had done, kind people in white robes would come to take you away. But wait, Tolstoy said. Isn’t it what most people do most of the time? While a storm is raging in their souls, instead of going in to find the leak and fix it – that is, look after their turbulent mind and calm their own spirit – they rush out and try to change their environment.
By the same token, we can see how people are always trying to save the world and change humanity. To be honest, this is a Mission Impossible. However, if each man and woman took care of themselves, mended their homes and pacified their minds, humanity would be saved as a whole. Sages of all cultures knew that.
Most people feel that their inner world is a vast ocean, and they don’t have enough courage to dive in, study it and slowly make the necessary changes there. Sooner or later, having failed to find true comfort and peace on the outside, most of us will have to seek refuge inside ourselves. Until then, however, many people choose to save the world instead of saving their souls.
Tolstoy suggested that we stop staging revolutions out on the streets, that we stop changing the world; and that we start being kind to one another. These days, many countries are in turmoil as people take to the streets and seek political reform, social justice, equality, liberty and human rights. Instead, take it easy on the outside, the sages have said, and invest inward. That should make things better.
Gandhi suggested an even bolder tactic. If you want to change the world, ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. Gandhi was speaking of the difference between human being and human doing – believing we should focus on the former.
And maybe, after all, you will reach the sky,
and maybe, after all, you will rejoice in life.
You’ll thank it all, and like water you will be,
and you’ll be as one with the Mercy Sea.
Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance
£9.99, Available from Watkins Publishing
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