How And When To Behave Yourself


I will confess to you: the scholar and the academic sells his soul to the obsessive pursuit of ideas. He can never retire. The pursuit is endless. He will study and do research. And if he is also a professor who has spent a lifetime at a university trying to teach young people how to think, his troubles are magnified. How do you stop teaching? I keep this little Sufi story with me in my appointment book: Abdullah ben Yahya was entertaining a visitor, someone from the town where he lived. In order to keep the conversation going, he brought out a manuscript he had recently written and showed it to the man. That was, of course, his one mistake along the way. The guest looked at the document, pointed to a word, and said, "Ah, but I see you have a misspelling here!" Immediately Abdullah crossed out the word and rewrote it as his visitor suggested.

When the man left, one of Abdullah's associates who had witnessed the entire proceeding spoke up: But Mulla, why did you make that change? The "correction" was inaccurate. Your original word was the right one."

"Ah, yes," replied Abdullah, "but you see, this was a social occasion. The visitor thought he was being helpful and did not realize that the knowledge he shared was actually an expression of ignorance. But I applied the ethics of refinement and courtesy, not the ethics of truth, because when people want politeness and sociability, they can't stand truth. Now, if this man had been my student, circumstances would have been otherwise. Only savants and witless people think it is their responsibility to instruct everyone at all times, when, in fact, people are often more interested in attracting attention than in seeking knowledge."

Why can't I remember that? There is, after all, a time for everything under the sun a time to teach and a time to be polite and respectful. I'm wise enough to know that when you live in what our culture calls "retirement", you should not be a pendant. Why is it so hard to remember at the right time? You will have few honest occasions for teaching; and if you don't recognize when the occasion is social, you will have few social occasions.

Which reminds me of a social occasion not long ago. A close friend of the family stopped by to introduce us to her new male suitor both of them living in the luxuries of "retirement." Cynthia called me in to meet him. "You know," said my guest, "people with a lot of education have no common sense. They can't tighten a nut or saw a piece of wood." "You're absolutely right!" I replied, as I excused myself and left the room to return to my workshop, where I was restoring an old walnut table. For once I applied the ethics of refinement and courtesy; the visitor had not.

Richard E. Wentz is Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University and resides in Strawberry. He is the author of numerous books and articles and is also a professional storyteller. His column appears on the first and third Fridays of each month. Dr. Wentz welcomes comments and questions that may be sent to the Payson Roundup at P.O. Box 2520, Payson, AZ 85547 c/o Richard E. Wentz.

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