Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

The Days of Wine and Wisdom

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When I grew up on the west side of Detroit, not too many moons ago, I remember that no matter where you went or what you did, there were always people ready to share wisdom with you. That made you a better person. Much of this “wisdom offering” was unsolicited, but people everywhere prided themselves on teaching the younger generation those solid kernels of truth that made us “use our heads for something other than a hat rack.” This wisdom generously poured forth from the preachers and teachers, and also the barber, the butcher, store keepers, the owners of the cleaners, the men who collected garbage, the man or woman casually passing you by on the street, waitresses, coaches, friends’ parents, the mail man, the milk man, the handy man – and even the winos sipping Nature Boy, sitting by the garbage cans behind the store at the corner of Pacific and Ironwood. Wisdom poured forth from the formally educated and the informally educated, the lettered and the unlettered.

You could not go through any given day without someone dropping words of wisdom or advice on you, words that made you think, or gave you pause, or made you re-evaluate what you were doing with your life. These wisdom sayings I still remember. The education warning: “Don’t you be no fool. You better stay in school.” The respect your elders warning: “Unlettered don’t mean unlearned.” There was strategy: “Work smarter and harder.” When you got out of line: “Don’t be sassing grown folks.” There was the general principle: “Respect yourself and others will respect you.” The admonishment not to get too big for our britches: “Remember that even the village idiot can teach you something.” We were told to “Stop looking down, you might run into something,” and to “Treat other people like you want to be treated.” We were reminded that, “Every closed eye ain’t shut, and every goodbye ain’t gone,” as well as that “Dumb plus dumb equals dumber.” At an early age we learned spiritual law: “What goes around comes around,” “family” law, “Man chases woman until she catches him,” and the law of perception, “It is better to be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Financial literacy was on the curriculum as well: “Before you loan money to a friend, decide which one you need more, the friend or the money.” And these are just a few of the life lessons that I remember most.

At that time everybody wanted to “share some learning with you.” Also, we took pride in wanting to learn and know things. It was something special to be intelligent. It just seemed that during that time people prided themselves on being oracles of information and they were always willing to say something to you that would raise your game a bit. The teaching came from every nook and cranny in the community in small wisdom sayings, axioms, and other forms of knowledge that gave you pride as you learned them.

You may be surprised to hear it, but believe it or not, some of the greatest lessons we learned came from those winos by the garbage cans behind the corner party store, Buddy, Korah and Rasputin. I remember one day Buddy said to me, “Scooter, there are many people in this world who look like fools, but they ain’t, just like the millionaire who’s dressed in shabby clothes. And then there are many people who don’t look like fools, but they are, like the man who’s all dressed up but is crazier than a hoot owl. So always keep your eyes and ears open. It is better to be underestimated than to be over valuated.” Now here were words that came from a man who fell on hard times and had no more than an 8th grade education. But he had something of value to say that helped me at an important time in my life and the truth of those statements still resonates with me today.

Back then, people in professions like politics and sports were from a “wisdom generation.” They just did and said things that were smart and that grew out of wisdom rooted in years of experience. Back then, baseball great Yogi Berra was famous for such wit. His advice included such pearls as “When you come to a fork in the road…Take it,” and ” You can observe a lot by watching.” The late Atlanta pastor, the Rev. William Holmes Borders, would distinguish between those who attended the university and who also had wisdom – and those who attended the University of Adversity, or the school of hard knocks, who also had wisdom.  He’d say that you can learn something from people no matter which one of those universities they attended.

So it seemed, back then, that everybody was trying to rise higher and trying to help everybody else to get better by teaching them something. But today, when I look across the country, I don’t see the same level of hunger for wisdom. I don’t see as much of that same kind of mentoring of younger people. I don’t see as many people who seem to be proud to share their wisdom and intelligence with others.

When I behold some of the dumb stuff I hear coming from Washington and Lansing, I say to myself, “we are in deep trouble.” I wonder how some of these folks ever got into office. The Hollywood mogul who started MGM, Samuel Goldwyn, said “Any man who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.” I say, anybody who is denying climate change, in this day and age needs his head examined. I am just amazed and perplexed at the lack of wisdom displayed by some of our leaders. It’s as if they have no shame in parading their ignorance around, or saying things disguised as truth when they know full well that they are not true. Worse, it seems that the more ignorant some blowhards sound, the more intelligent they seem, to some people.

Foolish statements abound from some leaders who don’t seem to think before they speak and it makes me wonder. I’m not saying that we have not all, at some time or another, said dumb things. I have said some pretty dumb things myself, but those dumb things are not emblematic of my total spectrum of knowledge. I realized then, as I do now, that they were dumb. This means that those “dumbisms” had to be measured against a more intelligent corpus of knowledge and wisdom that helped me know that these less characteristic utterances were indeed dumb.

Upon finishing college, I was asked what I had learned there. My response was that I’d learned “how much I don’t know.” In other words, I am still learning. To paraphrase  Michelangelo, I am still growing and using what I have to make the world a better place. I am grateful for the university and street education I received growing up in Detroit from great teachers in the Detroit Public Schools and for the wisdom from teachers out on the streets and in the community, the wisdom of winos like Buddy and Korah and Rasputin and others. These guys always taught you not to follow their example but to be the best that you could be and to keep your mind open so that you could indeed learn something of value from everyone.

There was this pearl: “Even ants can teach you something if you pay close attention.” I truly believe that if we all used our heads for something other than hat racks, the world would be much farther along – and many of the problems that stem from just plain old ignorance and intellectual laziness would be gone in a poof.


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