Arts & Culture

Pain, joy, and wisdom

6 min read

Interdisciplinary course goes deep to look for answers to difficult, fundamental questions

Students seeking knowledge go to Harvard. Students seeking wisdom go to Harvard Hall — and there, on every Wednesday afternoon, grapple with some of the most difficult, fundamental, and existential questions facing humankind.

What is our purpose? How do we find it? Why do terrible things happen? What creates endurance? Where do we gain wisdom, on our path, or at our destination?

In a weekly dialogue, four professors and 80 graduate and undergraduate students in “Quests for Wisdom: Religious, Moral, and Aesthetic Experiences in the Art of Living” examine wisdom as it relates to everyday living, and look for strategies for living morally amid uncertainty. And they go to some very dark places to look for answers.

Last week the class focused on the experience of previous week’s guest speaker, Judith Sherman, a Holocaust survivor and the author of “Say the Name: A Survivor’s Tale in Prose and Poetry,” who spoke about “surviving survival.”

“Maybe the human predicament is not about survival or how do we survive, but it’s that we always survive — we endure anything and everything,” said Arthur Kleinman, Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor of Medical Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, one of the course’s co-creators. “How has wisdom been made in the experience of survival? What has been the means for creating wisdom?

The class content might sound like a heavy load because it sees suffering as an opportunity to gain wisdom. But it is also important to look to joy as a source, said Professor Arthur Kleinman (pictured). Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

“It is out of the poisonous stuff that we rebuild what our lives are. Learning from the experiences of others forces us to think radical thoughts — the most radical may be the question of our endurance. If we can endure everything, there is wisdom in that,” he said.

Kleinman created the course in 2013 with Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America. Michael Puett, the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History, joined them in 2015, and Stephanie Paulsell, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School, joined this year.

Kleinman said the class was inspired by Aristotle’s three approaches to knowledge: scientific, or episteme; pragmatic, or teche; and especially ethical, or phronesis.

“The central issues we face today have not changed very much” since Aristotle’s time, he said. “If anything, we have sharpened our awareness of their importance, and just how uncertain things are, how dangerous the world is, and how difficult it is to organize a life of purpose and a search for wisdom.”

“Students are seeking wisdom in the everyday, not just in extreme situations,” said Paulsell. “We examine this incredible mix of resources that are very different from each other, and we are starting to recognize how the world outside our classroom today is intertwined with the past. It is rich and applicable for life.”

By examining texts, literature, film, and artworks to join history to the present, the class addresses concerns about hope and salvation, pain and suffering, catastrophe and healing. The professors hope that by engaging with aesthetic, spiritual, and ethical issues, the students will transform.

“A sense of inquisitiveness is associated with wisdom,” said Carrasco. “Being among others, with others, and for others, it’s that kind of relationship that defines wisdom.”

It also helps to be with others when the discussion goes to painful places, as it did last week.

“In my section last week someone said that in the world today, we have turned the Holocaust into more of an idea,” said Michelle Walsh ’20. “Having this person who lived through it and hearing her own experiences, it was really moving.”

It also prompted a poignant question. At the end of the two-hour lecture, a student raised his hand and asked, “Have you ever asked God why?”

“This isn’t about God, this is about the evil that lurks in the heart of men,” Carrasco answered. “We need to cultivate love and understanding in our hearts because that’s where the response really comes from. This goes as far as the human capacity allows. How vulnerable this life is.”

Kleinman said the class content might sound like a heavy load because it sees suffering as an opportunity to gain wisdom. But he said it is also important to look to joy as a source.

Walsh said the course is one of the first at Harvard where “I’ve started to take what I’m learning in the classroom and apply it to my own life.”

“My life is less dramatic than some of the things we’ve read, but especially since I’m thinking about what I am going to do with my life, this class helps me think about humanities and what I really want,” she said.

Claire Laine, M.T.S. ’18, said every class opens with an “audio experience,” such as “Song of Songs” or Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses.”

“It’s not just random music, it’s always associated with something we’ve read. The lyrics are tied to the text. It’s always very unexpected,” she said.

“My favorite thing is the structure of the class, because one professor will lecture and another will respond and students don’t usually get to witness those conversations,” Laine said. “You see the dialogue happening in front of you, and then they open it up for questions. You see two interdisciplinary scholars interacting, which is interesting.”

Steven Núñez, M.T.S. ’18, a former special forces weapons sergeant in the U.S. Army, said that the class encourages students to seek wisdom from the inside, not the outside.

“The questions become, ‘What do we do, or what are we supposed to get from this?’ rather than, ‘Here’s what I’m getting from it.’”

Paulsell, who brings the Jewish and Christian threads of thought to discussions, said it’s the attention to the journey itself that is very important.

“We all have these periods in our lives where we have difficult decisions, make ethical choices, where we are in a labyrinth and are trying to find our way,” she said. “Being lost, making choices, finding the path — this is what it looks like to be on a quest for wisdom.”