14 November 2011

Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, & Muhammad Never Wrote a Word

Bernard had been drinking. His eyes were watery and his grin sloppy. He was preparing for Thanksgiving with family. I was his designated driver. When he is drunk, Bernard seems to be in one of two states - giddy or quiet. He'd been quiet long enough that I thought I'd risk his becoming giddy by asking a question. As it turns out, no topic is sober enough to counter a drunken Bernard.

"Have you noticed one thing that Socrates, the Buddha, and Jesus have in common?" I asked.
Bernard began to chortle. "No! But I do know what John the Baptist and Winnie the Pooh have in common," and then he dissolved into laughter.
"What," I groaned.
"Same middle name!" he doubled up in laughter, nearly hitting his head on the table.
I was trying to feign tolerance but in fact I had to laugh. "No," I shook my head. "Although I guess this is true of Winnie and John as well. Have you ever noticed that Socrates, Buddha and Jesus never wrote anything?"
"No," Bernard confessed.
"At least, as far as we know. They just wandered around and taught people. And yet look at how long their teachings have lasted," I said. "Look at how much impact they have had on people's thinking for thousands of years."
“Same with Muhammed,” he called out from the backseat.
Muhammed didn’t write anything down,” Bernard said. “Add him to your list of great, unpublished teachers.”
“Wow,” I nodded. “Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammed.”

"Oh, Ron," Bernard giggled, "did you hear about Buddha's lost teachings?"
"No," I replied.
"Everyone knows that the Buddha taught that want is at the root of unhappiness," and Bernard began to giggle some more. "Did you know what he taught is at the root of happiness?"
"No," I repeated.
"Wanton!" And Bernard giggled at his wit. "Want makes you unhappy, and wanton makes you happy! Get it?" And again he laughed. Bernard is, to his credit, a cheery drunk.

"That's very witty for a man who slurs his words, Bernard. But seriously, doesn't this call into question the whole model of writing as a way to change people's thinking. I mean, doesn't this seem to you like some kind of indictment of writing?"
"Maybe," Bernard bobbed his head while wrinkling up his bottom lip. "Or maybe it just proves that you can't focus on getting published and changing the world at the same time." And again he laughed.

Then Bernard sounded very sober. “Well think of this. Three major religions – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – call Abraham their father and yet he didn’t write a thing.”
“Abraham is another I didn’t think of.”
“And think of this,” Bernard said. “All three groups have given birth to religious people who are considered ‘people of the book.’ That is, people who define a great deal of their religion by reading scripture. And yet given none of it would have been written in Abraham’s time, he couldn’t have defined his religion that way. Maybe all three religions have killed religion by putting it into books.” And then he giggled, throwing what I thought was a good insight into doubt.

"I guess," I said, actually considering the possibility that he was serious in spite of his giddiness.
"Or it might just prove that if you write things down you make your message harder for future generations to co-opt and call their own. Precision makes popularity less probable," he said with amazing precision for one so bleary eyed. "If you want to be happy, be wanton with your words Wonald," he laughed again. "And if you want to have an impact, don't write anything down. Leave other people creative freedom to change your words so that lots of people take ownership of them."

"Too late," I said shaking my head. "I've written hundreds of blog postings."
"Ha!" Bernard snorted. "You call that writing?." And then Bernard tilted his head back and laughed loudly.

(revised and updated from Nov 2009)

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