Saturday, January 24, 2009


51. Wisdom

One of the first things I put up on the walls of my graduate school studio was a piece of paper with the following statement written in black brushwork. “Wisdom lies in knowing what you really want, why, and how much.”
Our culture has only recently begun to examine the many different ways in which a person can be “smart.” Certainly we’ve all known people who seemed to have a lot of facts at their command but didn’t have much in the way of ideas. Or maybe they’ve got plenty of ideas, but all of those ideas have been picked up from other people and relate to irrelevant situations. And it’s almost a cultural cliché that self-made millionaires are not the people who were brilliant in school. They grow up learning that they will have to work hard at something unglamorous, and they do, magnificently.
If we believe only in capitalism as our cultural paradigm then money is how we keep score and wealth is the best indicator of our fitness. “Smart” people prove that they are really intelligent by also becoming wealthy. Either their abilities are worth fabulous salaries to their employers or they make wonderfully clever business investments, or both. It’s the Calvinist model of virtue being rewarded in this life without waiting for the hereafter.
This struck home to me, particularly in the years following graduate school. How smart could I be if I was also poor? In my defense, I was only poor financially. I was married with two great kids, living near friends and family, in a comfortable climate and culture. We were all in good health and eating regularly. Only financially did I feel like a failure, but this is capitalism, and money is how we keep score.
I suppose the situation wouldn’t have been quite so poignant if I hadn’t spent all that money going to college and graduate school. Ideally, I should have used those college degrees to immediately get a teaching job somewhere, anywhere. On the other hand, I’ve done some travelling. And I’ve been to “anywhere.” And I was unwilling to expend the time and money to send applications, slides, and resumes out by the hundreds in the hopes of getting a low paid overworked community college teaching job at a decaying facility in “East Jesus, Wyoming.”
I want to teach (and I have taught) but not at so high a price. I have been happier in the long run for knowing that. I have been “rich” in other ways.
Which brings me back to my quotation on the subject of wisdom. You say you want to study Ceramics? Do you understand why you want this? Sure, your reasons are complicated, but do you want this for direct, pleasurable reasons associated with the ‘here and now’ or for the imagined benefits you foresee in a rosy future? Are you choosing clay to avoid something else? Has someone sold you this idea? Are you hoping to make someone else happy by doing this?
And finally, if you truly want this, how much do you want this? What are you willing to pay? What objects and experiences are you willing to do without? Will your desire give you the strength and stamina to continue into the indefinite and unpredictable future? This could be a foolish thing to do.
Is it smart to be a potter or to want to teach future potters? Yes it is, but only if you can do so with conviction and clarity of vision. You’re going to need some strength of purpose and the path will be neither straight nor smooth. There’s still time for you to have a half-hearted career as a bank loan officer, office clerk, or salesperson if it’s really all the same to you. Perhaps your passions and genius lie elsewhere, at home, for instance, or in a bass boat.
Just take the time to understand yourself and to be smart about what you will need to live a “rich” and valuable life.

“The merit of an action lies in finishing it to the end.”
-- Genghis Khan, to his sons

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