What is Wisdom?

Wisdom is defined as the quality of having experience, knowledge, judgement, and using those three attributes to practical effect. Recently, I read a book called Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. It’s a story about a boy pursuing wisdom and challenging these three attributes, particularly knowledge. It’s the story of the twisted and convoluted ways we seek wisdom, and how they hamper our attainment of true enlightenment.

Siddhartha is a promising young man in ancient India. Everyone in his village thinks he will go on to succeed in life, but he has a hole inside of him that tells him otherwise. He dutifully prays and obeys his father, but feels that neither he nor the men teaching him will reach enlightenment on the path they walk.

Siddhartha decides to leave his family to join a group of ascetics. He believes their way of life can help him achieve his goal. He learns to fast, wait, and think. All of his teachers and fellow ascetics believe he will become a holy man. Siddhartha still feels that hole, though.

He sees Gautama Buddha speak, immediately recognizing him as enlightened and holy. A chance one-on-one encounter gives Siddhartha the opportunity to explain to the Buddha why he cannot follow him despite recognizing the truth in his teachings. Siddhartha explains that if he followed Gautama he would not be able to reach true wisdom because Gautama, himself, achieved wisdom on his own.

Siddhartha abandons his life of asceticism. He falls in love with a beautiful and wealthy woman, Kamala, who tells him he must achieve a higher status than that of a raggedy ascetic to successfully court her. He becomes a wealthy businessman and learns how to love with Kamala. The years slip by as he lives in comfort with food, drink, fine clothes, aromatic oils, and beautiful women. He slowly realizes this path is a waste of time, leading him nowhere closer to his goal of enlightenment.

Siddhartha leaves his life of opulence and meets a ferryman. He envies the ferryman’s life and decides to join him in his simple living. He learns from the ferryman how to sit and listen to the river. He hears separate voices from the universe in the river. One day, the ferryman tells him to listen closer. As Siddhartha listens, all the voices of the universe blend into one unified Om. He feels a sense of enlightenment he never knew before.

In old age, a childhood friend visits him and questions him about his beliefs. Siddhartha seems very wise to his friend but offers no logical reasonings or dogmas. Instead, he states that he is wary of knowledge. He is wary of beliefs and truths. Sid believes he has gained wisdom, but that it is incommunicable. His friend is confused by his talk but recognizes his holiness. He heeds Sid’s call to kiss his forehead and the universe blooms in his mind, pluming into an expanse where time does not exist, and everything is one.

This synopsis does not do the book justice. Herman Hesse writes with deep wisdom of his own. A key message of the book is the limits of knowledge. Siddhartha learns that in his seeking for wisdom, in all his learning, he only muddied the waters. He struggled, yearned, and came no closer to his goal of enlightenment. It didn’t matter if he was a dutiful and promising youngster, a disciplined and impoverished ascetic, or a handsome and successful businessman.

Siddhartha only reaches enlightenment when he empties himself of all his accumulated knowledge, stops trying, and listens. He doesn’t convey his wisdom with words, either. Instead, he emanates wisdom. His old friend is confounded by his words, but when he looks at Siddhartha, he recognizes a holy man and feels a deep love for him.

Knowledge is not useless, however. Learning more isn’t a futile endeavor. The message of the book is not meant to discredit knowledge or struggle completely. Hesse just wants to temper the expectations of what learning and struggle can bring, and show that wisdom does not rely on either.

The story reminds me of another book: Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. She explains that there are two halves of the brain. The left side controls your rational thinking. It’s verbal, temporal (keeps track of time), literal, linear, and likes to label things. The right side is nonverbal, nontemporal, imaginative, spatial, and intuitive. Your two halves are constantly duking it out, and usually, the left side wins. In our Western culture, the left side is the heavy favorite. It’s a consequence of evolution, it’s extremely powerful, and it’s automatic. It can be difficult for the untrained mind to tap into the right side.

The right side is equally important, though. It’s the part that kicks in when you see something beautiful that stops you in your tracks. It transcends labels or rationality. You don’t need to struggle for it. It comes of its own accord. These instances are at the core of wisdom, and they don’t require any amount of reading or studying.

Wisdom is not something you need to seek out and attain. It’s within you already. It’s in the moments where you feel at one with everything. Keep living your life, gathering knowledge and experience, but every now and again, stop and listen to the river.

Buffalo Bills Defense will Plow the Road to Super Bowl LVI

Leslie Frazier promoted to defensive coordinator/assistant coach

Update: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMnsPll5hEc

At 8:15pm tonight, the Buffalo Bills will be taking on the New England Patriots in the Wildcard Round of the NFL Playoffs. This season contained many highs and lows for the Buffalo Bills, and after splitting the matchups 1-1 with the Patriots during the season, it’s fitting that the true AFC East champion will be decided tonight. There are 2 big questions on Bills Mafia’s mind right now: Will Allen, Daboll, and McDermott get this offense firing, or will the mastermind behind 20 years of dominance, Bill Belichick, add to his storied record? One thing that isn’t in question, however, is Leslie Frazier and the Buffalo Bills defense.

Bills fans have a soft spot in their heart for the defense. The humble working-class population isn’t in it for flashy superstars that high step into the endzone – though we don’t hate that, either. The most beloved players are the defensive stars, though. Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, London Fletcher, Takeo Spikes, Jairus Byrd, and on, and on. Bills fans hold these names near and dear to their hearts.

Documentary on Bruce Smith is poignant, includes details fans might not  know | Buffalo Bills News | NFL | buffalonews.com

That legacy has continued under defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who has coached a top 3 defense in 3 out of the past 4 years. Last year the unit fell off, unexpectedly, but they returned to form this year, ending the season as the top-ranked defense. They led the league in points per game, yards per game, yards per play, 1st downs per game, and 3rd down %. Somehow there were no players from the defense selected to the pro bowl.

Despite this cold shoulder, the Bills have been the top defense in the league for the last 15 weeks. “Well, what about the rush defense???” Admittedly, this is the weak link. The bend but don’t break philosophy of Leslie Frazier can lead to problems, but the Bills still rank #1 in points and yards allowed, proving its effectiveness. Things make more sense, too, when you look at who ran over them. Ever heard of Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor? Yeah, they crushed the Bills…along with almost every team they faced. The defending Super Bowl champs, with Tom Brady at the helm and the #2 ranked O-Line also ruined their day. And then Bill Belichick – aka every team’s worst nightmare – and his #9 ranked O-line came in and got the best of us in brutal weather conditions. We tagged them back, though.

The flip side of the coin is that you cannot throw against these guys. Muki Hawkins coined the fitting name “Air Traffic Control” for this defense. Even without All-Pro Talent Tre’Davious White, the Bills DBs, led by Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, have dominated QBs and receivers all year long. The only QB to achieve 300+ yds against this team is Tom Brady, otherwise known as the best at the position of all time. Even then, the Bills were able to mount an incredible comeback, partially due to the defense holding Brady to around 70yds passing in the entire second half.

Buffalo Bills safeties Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde among NFL's best

Clearly, this is a talented unit, worthy of the #1 ranking. But the question is, will the Bills defense hold up? With inconsistencies on offense, you can bet McDermott will be relying on Frazier and Air Traffic Control to paralyze other teams. The bright side for Bills fans is that 6 out of the top 10 offenses in the regular season belong to the other conference. That’s right. Out of the top 10 offenses in the league, only 4 are from the AFC. And only 2 out of those 4, the Chiefs and the Bills, made the playoffs.

The Bills defense is licking their chops. Every team in the AFC better be ready. The defense is the most consistent and all-around best in the league, and they have a chip on their shoulder from the lack of respect. What’s more, this isn’t a Bills defense that just broke the drought. These guys are seasoned. Most of them have been playing together for 5 years now, 4 of which they’ve made it to the playoffs. They know play-off football.

Jordan Poyer: Buffalo Bills' defense is 'the best I've ever been on'
Pictured: AFC Offenses’ Worst Nightmare

The rest of the AFC better watch out. While there have been inconsistencies, the conference is up for grabs, and any team could be going to the final dance. I’m biased as hell, but I’m putting my money on the Buffalo Bills. After all, defense wins championships.

Writing as a Craft

When I think of a craftsman, I picture someone working diligently to make something with practical and aesthetic value. I think of my uncles, who were tough and crass, but also brilliant, skilled, and able to fix anything. It’s an attractive ideal and one I felt drawn to. My own pursuits in the “trades” taught me a lot about what it means to be a craftsman, and how it extends beyond being able to work with your own hands.

As I said, most of my Dad’s side of the family worked in the trades. My grandfather started a granite fabrication and installation shop in Lockport, NY, called D.G. Paterson and Sons. My Dad and his brothers grew up busting their asses on various construction projects. I listened to the stories they told about the projects and felt a draw towards that work. Last year I took an opportunity to follow the family’s footsteps in granite fabrication. For various reasons, it didn’t work out. Not to discount my own toughness, but I’m just not the same breed as the guys who pursue that career. It’s a whole other level.

I did enjoy the work, though, and learned a lot. One thing that changed was my perspective on work, overall, especially when it came to writing. I started to see how the steps I took to finish a kitchen island were comparable to the steps I took to finish an essay or blog post. I saw that writing can be a craft, too. The specifics are different, the two aren’t wholly separate endeavors.

In both writing and fabrication, you start with unworked and raw materials. Molding a blank slate into the finished product takes skill. Good fabricators turn incomplete cuts of stone into lustrous and refined tables, counters, vanities, and more. Good writers turn raw feelings and incomplete ideas into narratives with themes that penetrate to the core of their audience. Both raw feelings and granite put up a fight on their way to completion. Ernest Hemingway compared writing to “taming a white bull”. I argue this metaphor is just as relevant to a fabricator facing a slab of marble.

Both endeavors require an end goal. Fabricators work from blueprints and drawings, using meticulous measuring instruments and keen eyes to identify any issues along the way. Writers will construct outlines to direct what they’re going to say, and then work with editors to fine-tune drafts as they go. Both require a constant reworking of the same lines or edges. Writers and fabricators, alike, go over their work again and again until there are no errors and the piece shines like a gem.

In fabrication, you learn the process by watching more experienced guys do it and then copying their approach. I learned which tools worked on different materials, how to fix damaged stone, and the progression from step one to step done. After a few months, I didn’t think much about the steps. I was able to reach a state of fluidity in my work. I shaped the stone exactly to my liking without thinking.

Learning to write required a similar approach. In school, I made lists of words I didn’t know and copied definitions. I learned different types of writing and the tone needed to convey different messages. I found grammatical errors and rewrote sentences correctly. I figured out the progression from rough draft to final. Just like in fabrication, I can now reach a Zen state while writing. Time doesn’t matter and my words fly from my brain to the paper with little to no effort.

I can only reach this Zen state in either activity because I have a strong grip on the fundamentals. Learning the basics makes me more confident and willing to try more advanced techniques. I know I’ll fail, initially, but failing is how I got the basics down in the first place.  In the beginning, there’s a lot of exasperated cursing in both crafts, and a lot of asking wiser friends to show you where you’re making mistakes. After building the reps, though, it becomes more enjoyable and I can get into The Zone.

The truth is there are a million things I can compare writing and fabrication to. The crux to reaching a Zen state in any craft is patience. Patience can be difficult to cultivate. There’s pressure to get good fast. You could be learning to write, fabricate, ride a bike, ski, paint a landscape, take apart a car’s engine, and on and on. The pressure can get to you and demoralize you. It can make you the progress you’re making is insufficient. It can become self-defeating and lead you to give up.

After about 3 months of fabricating, my internal pressure almost folded me. I badly wanted to give up and go home. I had a year lease and had moved across the country to pursue this job, though. I decided I needed to accept the struggle and see what came of it. Slowly, I got better. I exchanged the pressure to get good fast for the patience to move through failings. I realized being a craftsman is a lot less about knowing everything about tools and fixing things, and more about being patient enough to learn. Besides, you never feel more deserving of a drink than right after you struggle your way through a day and know you did everything you could. That has to be worth something in and of itself.

A Vision of Hell

Lazlo Nemes’s directorial debut is a brutal and spellbinding look into a day in the life of an Auschwitz Sonderkommando.

The best horror movies can terrorize audiences with sound and offscreen action. The best directors don’t need to show you gratuitous violence. The evil lurking offscreen heightens your suspense and leaves room for the darkest parts of the imagination. Lazslo Nemes, in his directorial debut Son of Saul, utilizes these techniques, claustrophobic cinematography, and superb acting to deliver one of the truest horror movies to date.

Part of what amplifies this horror is the depiction of a real place and time: the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944. The film’s protagonist is Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew working with the sonderkommando. He is a prisoner tasked with assisting in the corralling and clean-up of fellow Jews condemned to the gas chambers. The unenviable position buys him time, but is far from salvation. Saul is completely stripped of his humanity. He is reduced to animalistic and mechanical action.

Saul stoically goes from one gruesome task to the next, devoid of any emotion other than urgency. In the midst of this, Saul discovers the body of a boy he believes is his son. He makes it his mission to provide the boy with a proper Jewish burial. It’s Saul’s last hope for redemption, but hounding SS guards and plotting conspirators, who are looking to escape, hinder him at every turn.

Geza Rohrig’s performance lends itself to the anxious atmosphere of the film, but the cinematography makes you feel like you cannot escape it. The camera focuses squarely on Saul’s shoulders and back. It follows on his heels in long and uncut shots, creating a sense of claustrophobia and immersion. The genius of this choice is that it makes the rest of the frame out of focus. The more incomprehensible horrors are on the periphery or offscreen entirely. You only hear the gunshots of mass executions and the panic of helpless victims thrown into the gas chambers. The viewer’s mind fills in what isn’t there with cerebral imagery. The bodies Saul drags out and stacks are out-of-focus or not entirely in-frame. When there is a closeup of Saul, the chaos is emphasized by the empty and desperate eyes of a man surviving moment to moment.

The chaotic pacing of the film emphasizes Saul’s herculean quest to bury his son. You’re transfixed, but it’s never confirmed who the boy really is. In fact, other characters question Saul’s claim. The look in their eyes suggests they believe he has cracked. It seems to be an absurd mission, but given the circumstances, each action of every character seems absurd. Death lurks around every corner. Why be apprehensive about Saul’s pursuit to bury this nameless boy when it’s impossible to wrap your head around the atrocities already occurring? Saul brazenly acts to regain any remaining humanity stolen by his participation in the Final Solution.

The power of this film does not only lie in its cinematography or Geza Rohrig’s performance. It also lies in the audience’s knowledge of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The horrors faced by real people, every day, are too immense to capture. However, Lazlo Nemes’s microscopic story is a powerful example of how film can come close. Son of Saul is an experience that confounds the mind and soul, making your body feel like the densest point in a black hole. You are left, in the end, with a question many victims from this fraction in history must have asked: “And now what?”