The Shoulders of Giants by Wayne Saalman

A COMMON EXPRESSION we have all heard is that we are standing on the shoulders of giants today. This is most readily apparent, certainly, when we look around us and see the architectural and technological wonders that make up our great cities, our homes, our fantastic jets, trains and cars, and all of the amazing electronic devices that we currently enjoy. Quite obviously, the giants whose shoulders humanity stands on in these instances are engineers, architects and visionaries of the highest caliber.

If we seek the meaning of life, however, we need very different shoulders to stand on and these giants are sometimes neither obvious nor apparent beyond a handful of ancient philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and those to whom a major religion is attributed.

I remember once when speaking with a man widely regarded as a great war hero how true this particular contention is. He had fought with the army in World War II in the Pacific Theater. He had been captured and had been made to walk the notorious “Bataan Death March”. He had been tortured and starved to the very brink of death, but had – against all odds – survived the ordeal.

Eventually, the man had gone back to America and while stationed at a certain army base had met and married a woman who had also served in the war. In her instance, she had been a nurse who had been stationed in Europe. Her regiment, as it transpired, had been among the first to enter some of the concentration camps in Germany and she had, therefore, witnessed firsthand the horrors that had gone on there.

Together, the couple had raised many children and the man had become a professor of history at a certain university.

Despite having endured such experience, this gentleman, elderly when I spoke with him and wise in his own way, told me during the course of our conversation that he had no idea what life was all about. He said that he had never uncovered life’s ultimate meaning. That it had eluded him completely.

I was profoundly surprised by this confession and wondered how that could be. After all, here was someone who had seen it all. He had seen the worst evil that humanity could inflict on itself. He had been tortured by his fellow human beings and starved to the brink of death. How could he not have gleaned an insight into the colossal magnitude of the human dimension?

Perhaps, I speculated afterwards, it was because of, or despite, what he had experienced during the most horrendous war the world had ever known that he had never pieced together the full meaning of life. Perhaps seeing humanity at its worst could only yield a form of abject nihilism. Perhaps witnessing the carnage unleashed during World War II had all but killed his spirit or at the very least had deadened it to the point where it was traumatized beyond measure.

Needless to say, I was profoundly taken aback by this stark admission.

On reflection, however, I believe that the reason for this is that experience, as history shows, is one thing, while grounding oneself in the widest possible philosophical, psychological, metaphysical and spiritual insights that humanity has elucidated over the centuries is what raises one up to see life on a higher plane. Clearly, all those who have contributed to this grand quest for knowledge provide the shoulders we can stand on in order to discover the sublime meaning of life.

In other words, confronting evil, face to face, is not sufficient in itself to make us wise. Wisdom comes from deeply reflecting on humanity’s collective insights into the vast spectrum of its experience and contemplating the full charge of what has been learned in the process.

It is crucial, therefore, to pursue the widest possible review of humanity’s thinking in order to achieve this end. We must read with relentless passion in order to do that and persistently ruminate on what the wisest among us have said and say now.

Yes, we can go a long way toward gaining deep spiritual insight by pursuing a single, particular stream of thinking; that is one philosophical school or religious tradition, but experience tells us that it is only by comparing one stream to another that broader, more expanded insights can come to us. In fact, quite possibly, this is precisely what wisdom is: knowing that only a grand overview can yield the highest insight into the full meaning of our existence on this planet.

Yet, it is also crucial to understand that even the most illuminated of historic individuals will have derived their insights by standing on the shoulders of others, as well. No one lives in a vacuum. We live and learn by becoming social and cultural participants. No doubt the most common of people have contributed to every illuminated individual’s advancement as the person’s life unfolded. Valuable lessons are always shared and knowledge gets passed along little by little.

The point is this, then: we must not underestimate the value of everyday learning that can be gained from those around us. It is up to each of us to glean the wisdom that may be found in the most mundane of situations, but we must also read the words of the most esteemed thinkers who have shared their insights with us over the centuries.

As the Zen master, Hakuin, stated: “Should you desire the great tranquility, prepare to sweat white beads.”

In other words, an intelligence upgrade for ourselves is down to self-evolvement. Knowledge and experience are ever entwined and must be pursued with boundless psychospiritual passion of a magnitude and scope that are as charged with as much peak energy and persistence as we can muster. 

To face our mortal end with fearlessness, we must seek out and understand every aspect of our existence in this world of flesh and bone, as well as what is invisible to the naked human eye; namely the workings of the mind and spirit, which are as real as any material object, only infinitely – yes, infinitely – more valuable.

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