Daily Archives: October 5, 2015

Wisdom & Empathy: Undoing the Cycle of Folly


The Author on the Iraq-Syrian Border, December 2007

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been continuing to be a bit reflective and it seems with each day there is something to cause me to reflect on different aspects of life and the human experience. When I am in these reflective times I tend to look back at flawed, yet brilliant men who had unique insights into their times and even the future, but who were often ignored by those who supposedly knew better.

British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“A study of history, past and in the making, seems to suggest that most of mankind’s troubles are man-made, and arise from the compound effect of decisions taken without knowledge, ambitions uncontrolled by wisdom and judgments that lack understanding.  Their ceaseless repetition is the grimmest jest that destiny plays on the human race. Men are helped to authority by their knowledge continually make decisions on questions beyond their knowledge. Ambition to maintain their authority forbids them from admitting the limits of their knowledge and calling upon the knowledge that is available in other men. Ambition to extend the bounds of their authority leads them to a frustration of others opportunity and interference with others’ liberty that, with monotonous persistency, injures themselves or their successors on the rebound.  

The fate of mankind in all ages has been the plaything of petty personal ambitions. The blend of wisdom with knowledge would restrain men from contributing to this endless cycle of folly, but understanding can guide them toward progress.” B.H. Liddell-Hart “Lawrence of Arabia” DeCapo Press, Reprint, originally published as “The Man Behind the Legend” Halcyon House 1937 

Over the past few days I have been thinking about the reaction to the near government shutdown, the latest mass murder in this country, and the latest events in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. I have found each of these events troubling in their own way, especially when I see the statements of powerful leaders, political, religious, military, and media about them. With the exception of the response of President Obama to the killings in Roseburg Oregon, I was troubled because it seemed like most commentators had no empathy about any of these events. Power, politics and ideology seem to obscure the pain and suffering of people.

Since I returned from Iraq I have become much more empathic regarding the suffering of others. In some ways this is good, but it also brings about a certain amount of pain as I feel that suffering. Some account that as wisdom and tell me so, though most of the time I feel painfully unwise. Even so I strive to seek wisdom even as I recognize my own limitations, and as such I look to history and the lives of others who seem to have struggled with some of the same issues that trouble me.

The ceaseless repetition of these tragedies and the lack of empathy of so many powerful political, media, and even religious leaders cause me a lot of pain, and sometimes I wish I did not feel so much. That is interesting because until I went to Iraq and came home I was very good at being able to compartmentalize my feelings. But that kind of compartmentalization is now very difficult for me, so I have to try to integrate them with reason and knowledge and act on them, and to do this I turn to books and history for lessons and examples.

The late James Baldwin, a noted African-American author and civil rights activist wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” I can understands that, because when I find myself experiencing such feelings I turn to history, to books and the lives of people much like me.

One of my favorite flawed heroes is T.E. Lawrence, or as he is better known, Lawrence of Arabia. I think that Lawrence was gifted with profound insights and had a rare sensitivity to humanity, politics, conflict, and even peace than many people before or since. Lawrence wrote, “The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

Sadly, all too many of our leaders, and not just American leaders have eyes that are misted and minds warped by ambition for success. But as I mentioned yesterday, nothing that we despise in others is entirely absent from ourselves.

But that is a hallmark of our humanity.


Padre Steve+


Filed under ethics, History, iraq,afghanistan, philosophy