More Reading: Take A Bite Of The “Wisdom Fish”
In the early 1830s, a young man went to sea, hoping to make his fortune. A Presbyterian by birth, he read his Bible each night in his shipboard hammock, and he was haunted by a verse in the fourth chapter of Proverbs:
“Wisdom is the principal thing: Therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.” Wealth, the youth piously decided, was nothing without this seasoning of wisdom. But where was such a combination to be found?
Presently his ship sailed into the harbor of Nantucket Island. Nantucket was then a wealthy and vibrant community, built and largely populated by members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers.
As he walked the bustling, cobbled streets of Nantucket town, observing the fine grey shingled houses and the plain but prosperous inhabitants, another verse from Proverbs came to him. It was something about “I am Wisdom, and in my right hand is riches and honor.”
The more he saw of Nantucketers, the more he felt sure that here was a group that genuinely understood and knew how to apply this kind of Wisdom.
When he turned down one street, which was known then as “Petticoat Row,” he saw a succession of neat, prosperous-looking shops and stores. Almost all were operated by Quaker businesswomen.
The sailor was so impressed with this commercial tableau that he impulsively entered one of the shops, a kind of grocery store. He walked up to the counter and said to the plain-dressed woman behind it, “Madam, I want to know why you Nantucket Quakers seem so wise in the ways of the world.”
The Quaker woman said to him, naturally very humbly, “Well, of course, it’s mainly because we follow the Inward Light. But,” she added, “it’s also because we eat a special kind of fish, the Wisdom Fish.”
“Wisdom Fish?” the sailor exclaimed. “What’s that? Where could I get some?”
“Friend,” the Quaker shopkeeper said, “thee is in luck. I just happen to have one here, which I can sell thee for only twenty dollars.”
Twenty dollars was a lot of money in those days, but the sailor didn’t hesitate. He pulled out his purse, handed over the money, and she handed him a carefully wrapped parcel, which he carried out of the shop with an excited smile on his face.
He returned a few minutes later, however, looking puzzled and a bit disturbed. “Excuse me, madam,” he said, laying the half-opened package on the counter. “This is nothing but a piece of ordinary dried codfish.”
Under her modest white bonnet, the Quaker shopkeeper raised one eyebrow.
“Friend,” she said quietly, “thee is getting wiser already.”
In late 1992, I was earning more than I ever had. Yet every week I felt the urge to dump it all, move far away and do something else. I also often found myself asking, “So what?”
When you get to the “So what?” part of life, at whatever age – whether you know it or not, or use the same words–you’re looking for Wisdom.
But “where,” to quote an earlier seeker, “is Wisdom to be found?” (Job 28:12)
One place I looked for it was in the Bible. Others may find it in different sources; this is where I looked.
One reason was that for me the “So what?” question had been asked more urgently, wrestled with more memorably, and expressed more tellingly than I ever put it, in one phrase from a short book more than two thousand years old.
This phrase is, or should be, familiar to us all:
“‘Vanity of vanities,’ saith the Preacher, ‘all is vanity and a striving after wind.’”
For many of us, a time comes when reading a verse such as this, in the first chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, is like having something reach out and grab you by the throat.
And if the first chapter doesn’t do it, the third chapter will:
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die….”
One result of my wrestling is a short book. It’s based on a series of lectures I gave at William Penn House in Washington DC in 1992.
Its four chapters consider various aspects of wisdom, in both the biblical and Quaker traditions, my own personal experience — and a generous dose of humor.
Wisdom and humor? Check it out.