What do We Know Anyway?


“Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise.”

[The Lankavatara Sutra]

Humor is a wonderful tonic for the spirit. Whenever we feel down and done for, a quip, as the British would say, pun, or well-timed joke does the job. Comedians, actors, and writers know the art of turning something perfectly ordinary into funny —they use crazy wisdom. They explore a lot of ideas and get feedback systematically.

Here's one from Louis C.K.:

“I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.”

Nora Ephron highly recommends having Meryl Streep play you for a day:

“She's so good people don't really notice. I call her at the end of the day to find out how I did and inevitably it's one of the best days I've ever had.”

Here's Steve Martin:

“First the doctor told me the good news: I was going to have a disease named after me.”

“I saw the movie, 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and was surprised because I didn't see any tigers or dragons. And then I realized why: they're crouching and hidden.”

It makes sense, with a twist that surprises us. That's where crazy wisdom comes in — it's both crazy, and wisdom says Wes Nisker. He's collected The Essential Crazy Wisdom for our enlightenment, delight, and nonstop humor. Nisker asks a better question in the introduction: “What do we know anyway?” and sets off on a gentle rumble down a hillside of both crazy and wisdom:

If crazy wisdom knows anything, it is that we don’t know. We don’t know who we are, where we are, or what this life and universe are about. We may be able to describe the world as we see it, give names to things, and even tentatively understand how some processes work, but we don’t have a clue as to why things are the way they are. Or why they are at all.

“What’s fire? You can tell me about oxidation, but that doesn’t tell me a thing.”


We can explain how the respiratory system functions, but who can speak of the mystery of breath? Even if we think we understand the evolution of the human species, we still don’t know where it’s going next or why it developed in the first place. Although many spiritual schools claim to lead to self-knowledge, we cannot know ourselves completely. It is impossible to see the exact nature of a box when you are inside of it.

The only thing that we can know is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human reason.


We may admit that we cannot know the ultimate meaning of life, yet we still assume that we can and will understand the laws of nature and how the universe works. However, looking back through history at our knowledge of the world, we find that basic “facts” change with every century and every civilization. By now it should be evident that what we know, or think we know, is perceived through a dense series of veils—culture, language, historical moment, and biological development. We and the world around us are always hidden from ourselves by ourselves.

Everything you know is wrong.


We can always use a good belly laugh, especially on a Friday. The Essential Crazy Wisdom delivers that, “Reason has become our ideology, but we may not yet be able to tell it apart from wishful thinking.”


Watch Nora Ephron salute legendary director Mike Nichols at the AFI Life Achievement Award (NSFW just at 0:47). It's a fun 2:35-minute and a fine example of love of the craft.



[image above La Linea, created in 1972 by Osvaldo Cavandoli]