Pathways to wisdom

The famous Chinese philosopher Confucius once said that “wisdom was learnt one of three ways, through: reflection – the noblest; imitation – the easiest; or experience – the bitterest.” Sometimes, despite how much we may meditate on or muse over the challenges in our lives (reflection), or despite the myriad advice proffered from self-help authors and their books (imitation), we need to go through adverse experiences. It’s more often than not how we learn, and sometimes those experiences appear enormous and leave us feeling bitter! But over time, once we’ve passed through those experiences, the mind settles and then we get a chance to reflect on the experience, how we felt about it, and perhaps most importantly, what we learned. It also gives us a chance to discover a part of our mind that has a wisdom to that experience. A part of our mind that reassures us, graces us with tenacity, gives us the capacity to push through, to withstand, to survive, and for many, to thrive.

An inspirational man

Today was a very sad day. Today was the day that Stephen Hawking died. A man who, despite experiencing seemingly great personal adversity, could envisage more than any other the possibilities that life could offer us. Despite the physical limitations brought on by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of just 22, he inspired the world. He gave us insights into physics and science, including the existence of black holes and the theory of relativity, like no one else could. And how did he do that? He did it by caring about the world and because he conquered his fear of death.

On the subject of death

On death he said this….

‘I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first’ – Interview, the Guardian, May 2011

Statistically, technically, he should have died around the age of 26. He lived to 76! We may never rationally know why he lived so long, but I suspect it had a lot to do with his faith; in life, hope, love and in a better world. I remember him saying that the two things that would destroy the world had nothing to do with science but everything to do with the human mind. Those two things were greed and aggression. He said that if we continued on our current trajectory we would need to discover a new habitable planet as we would surely destroy this one if we kept living through these two aversive aspects of mind.

The best the human mind has to offer

Like many who suffer great adversity throughout life, ultimately it is not what happens to them that they are remembered by, but rather, they are remembered for what they did and how they responded to life’s seemingly tragic circumstances. Stephen Hawking exemplified the best of what the human mind has to offer. The capacity to stay positive despite adversity, to think deeply on behalf of and for the benefit of others, and most importantly, to love. In so doing, he exemplified what so many who have gone before of us have also done. He taught us how to live. He showed us how powerful generosity of mind and spirit along with passivity (the effects of his disease was a profound metaphor for this) could benefit the world far more than their opposites; greed and aggression.

On life and the presence of God

On life he said this….

‘One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away’ – Interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, June 2010

What I really admired about Stephen Hawking was that he was prepared to maintain an open mind as to the presence of God. He never let normative biases colour or influence his view of the possibility of the existence or the non-existence of God. His mind always remained open to the possibility, one way or another. As an example, he was involved with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which fosters ‘interaction between faith and reason and encouraging dialogue between science and spiritual, cultural, philosophical and religious values’. He gave a talk on ‘The Origin of the Universe’ during the group’s 2016 conference at the Vatican.

On God he said this….

‘Einstein was wrong when he said “God does not play dice”. Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.’

He also said….

“I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science…. the laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.” – Reuters 2007

The choice that is granted to us all

As I said in my very first blog, ultimately we get to find out whether the basis of our faith has validity or not at the moment of our death (or soon thereafter). Ultimately, faith is rightly a mystery and one that we need to engage with profoundly as we navigate through life. Ultimately, Stephen Hawking never answered that question definitively one way or another. Publicly, his mind remained open throughout the entire course of his life. He certainly challenged the traditional notions of religious thought, and in that context, he was, by his own admission, an atheist, but a deeper contemplation of his views revealed a much more sophisticated understanding of the universe than conventional religion could contemplate. And I’m glad he didn’t ultimately try and answer that question. Because, importantly, that choice is granted to every living being. It’s a part of being human. We get to choose what we believe, why we believe, and how we believe. Most importantly, through that belief we get to live the very values and ethics that those beliefs, through faith, teach us. If Stephen Hawking taught us anything, and indeed he taught us profoundly about science, physics, and the universe, he also taught us about faith. Faith in life, faith in love, faith in hope, faith in possibility. And that my friends, is indeed the basis of a good life, an authentic life, despite seeming adversity to the contrary!