6: “The Surest Sign of Wisdom” (Michel de Montaigne)

“The surest sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.” -Michel de Montaigne

         I have a tendency to see courage, integrity, and some other important abstracts as solemn: there stands the challenge, and here stand we. I’ve often assumed that someone who looked serious was someone who understood. Perhaps it doesn’t need to look like that. Perhaps it rarely does. I’m reminded of a moment in Richard Feynman’s biography: as part of joining a fraternity, Feynman and some other freshmen were blindfolded, taken midwinter to the middle of nowhere, and dropped off by a frozen lake. Their challenge was to find their way back to school. They started getting frustrated and scared–except one kid, Maurice Meyer. Maurice just kept laughing and joking and making puns. He was having a grand time.
         When they come to a crossroads, and everyone else was arguing about which way to go, Maurice said, “This way.” They didn’t want to listen to him; after all, he’s not even taking the situation seriously. What could he have to add? “Simple,” says Maurice. “Look at the telephone lines. Where there’s more wires it’s going towards the central station.”
         Perhaps a true explorer’s attitude doesn’t always need to be serious. It might be a little silly. The explorer might be having a lot of fun. There might even be some bad puns. We can hold ourselves to a task by sternly insisting on it, by demanding more of ourselves, but we can also work like we played back when we were children: for the joy of it. I remember working very hard at my games back then, I remember pouring my mind into an imagined world (where I had a lightsaber!) or the building of a lego castle. Perhaps that’s why just imagining was often all the game I needed.
         There are always clues to discover, connections to make, and frozen lakes to explore. Perhaps Montaigne, behind his smile, has realized that the chance to look for those clues and walk around that frozen water, whether we’re lost or found, whether we discover something or not, is one of the greatest gifts imaginable. And it’s also just plain fun.

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