The Wisdom of Elders, the Truth of Paradox

The Wisdom of Elders, the Truth of Paradox

My retirement into Renaissance has provided time – and a bit of an obsession in these complex and paradoxical times – to discover wisdom in “elders” I’ve heard of forever and often quoted from but not ever read entire works of.  From Parker Palmer, a Quaker activist, writer, teacher, founder of The Center for Courage and Renewal: “Looking around at our shared world, its suffering and its promise, I see the courage with which so many live in service of the human possibility.”

Reassuring for the spirit of my 30 years as a psychotherapist, helping clients re-discover their own human possibility.

And as I wind down my own writing and posting, soon no longer venturing so regularly into commentary or offering resources for these complex and paradoxical times, I came upon this, also from Parker Palmer in his On the Brink of Everything, written as he neared 80: “Imparting hope to others has nothing to do with exhorting them or cheering them on. It has everything to do with relationships that honor the soul, encourage the heart, inspire the mind, quicken the step, and heal the wounds we suffer along the way.”

On the Brink of Everything quoted so many of my favorite writers to quote: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Howard Thurman, Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, Rilke, Leonard Cohen, that I decided to actually read some of the other elders Palmer quoted and I’ve quoted endlessly but never actually read: Thomas Merton, William James, Henry David Thoreau.

Oh my. So many different paradigms of wisdom, so many different perspectives on truth. A kaleidoscope of insights and instructions. Often contradictory. Teeming with paradoxes.

Last week I also had a chance to participate in a Poetry of Truth: Writing What Truly Matters “playshop” with Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, whose poems I have posted through this newsletter many times. One of the assignments for discovering what we could trust was true was about paradoxes. “You explore opposites with ‘but’; you explore paradox with ‘and.’ Seeming contradictions; both are true. 

That reminded me of another quote from Parker Palmer quoting the quantum physicist Neils Bohr, “The opposite of a small truth is a falsehood. The opposite of another truth is a great truth.” Certainly, when I was writing Bouncing Back, no matter how much I had written the day before or what the topic was, I would begin every morning’s writing with the inquiry at the top of the page, What Do I Now Know to Be True?

And that reminded me of yet another quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald that I’ve posted many times, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

It can be very hard for me to hold the paradox of the deeply genuine spiritual truth of the inter-connection, the sacred inter-being of all of life and the harsh realities of the “pandemics” that currently threaten all of that life: COVID, war, terrorism, addictions and trauma, climate change and environmental destruction, the greed of those who grasp for power and profit, ongoing racial injustice and social/economic inequities with increasing dehumanization and marginalization of fellow human beings, the viral spread of mis-information and dis-information that divides and polarizes. Perhaps the constant and inevitable paradox of the human condition. And the needs – sometimes contradictory – of what to do about them.

Parker Palmer offered another resource for wisdom in the paradox: the Sikh author and activist Valarie Kaur, who founded the Revolutionary Love Project to “empower people from all walks of life to harness love as a force for justice, to “see no stranger,” be brave with their grief, harness their rage, return to wonder, reimagine our institutions, and fight for humanity.” I did post her TED talk Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage two years ago and have tracked her moving into wise elderhood ever since.

And the death last week of singer/actor/political and humanitarian activist Harry Belafonte led me to  watch the 2011 film Sing Your Song, an extraordinary documentary about his lifelong living the paradox of creating some of the most popular music of our times (you may start humming some of his calypso hits as soon as you think of him) and his leadership in the struggles of common humanity: civil rights,  anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid, anti-incarceration movements. “All my life, I’ve made it my business to go where those in struggle live, to where I’ll find a deeper resonance with my own life. I’ve committed to use my art as an instrument of resistance and rebellion. And now, here in this moment, [as he turned 80] all that I have known, all that I have felt, all that I have experienced commands me to say, “What do you do now?” He lived heroically in that paradox until he died at 96. 

I’ve not yet fully answered my own inquiry about living the paradoxes of our lives, even having the privilege to live in paradox. But these two poems, Doing the Heart Work by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, and This Compost by Walt Whitman, arrived in my inbox last week as I was creating this post. More profound wisdom about the paradoxes of life and death, of love/beauty and hatred/injustice. The truth of what matters.

Doing the Heart Work

The heart circulates blood through the body
a thousand times a day and not once
do I give it a thought. Not once do I think
of those four chambers, flooding and releasing,
the valves opening and closing to keep blood flowing.
It does this while I eat, while I crumple, while I teach.
It does this while I hold my daughter as she weeps,
while I stumble, while I fall apart, while I sleep.
Oh body, though I speak of being broken hearted
and the gifts that come in the breaking, meanwhile,
you go on with your ceaseless heart work, the work
of flow, the work of current, the work of push through,
of never saying no, the work of life, the necessary work
that allows all the beautiful breaking open to happen.

– Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

This Compost


Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv’d,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.


Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!

That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will
   none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

– Walt Whitman