Portrait of John Adams, c. 1816, oil on canvas, by Samuel Morse
In Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough's excellent biography of John Adams, he shares a correspondence with Adams' granddaughter Caroline in response to her being distressed over how little she felt she knew about life. This letter was written towards the end of Adams' long and illustrious time on earth (he was 90 when he died).
"You are not singular in your suspicions that you know but a little. The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know... Do justly. Love Mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough... So questions and so answers your affectionate grandfather."
John Adams was paraphrasing the words of the Biblical prophet Micah. The full quote from Micah 6:8 is:
"He has shown you, humankind, what is good! What does the Divine request of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your Lord?"
John Adams concluded that accumulating knowledge in the interest of trying to figure out life doesn't work. He found connecting to and honoring the something greater, the source of life, or whatever you like to call the loving intelligence that is at the core of conscious life, was the deepest wisdom he could offer his granddaughter as a guide to live a good life in a complicated world. Let's see how his answer to Caroline fits into our hyper-driven world and lives.
Built into life is a drive to seek balance and harmony. This drive works on a massive scale as well as a personal one. Doing acts of justice in whatever ways we can helps balance energies calling for attention. Feeding someone who is hungry is a clear example of correcting an imbalance. Someone in emotional distress might need a friend to listen without judgment to regain some balance. Being sensitive to how you can be of service in this way cuts through the noise and imbues life with meaning and purpose.
The literal translation of this term from the Biblical Hebrew is 'love loving-kindness.' Loving-kindness is an active energy. It is another way to use our energy to help restore balance. Acts of loving-kindness are filled with compassion. Abraham is the Biblical archetype who embodies it. It was out of Abraham's love of God that he felt called to extend that love to anyone who crossed his path. In focusing his life on loving loving-kindness, Abraham models another way to cut through the distractions modern life offers and live more from your heart and soul.
The most humble person in Torah is Moses, someone who was so close to God that he was able to speak face-to-face to the Divine. The implication of Moses' humility is profound. When we are filled with ourselves, or filled with accumulated information that is ultimately of little use, we leave little room for the Divine to work through us and for us to be in relationship with It. When we take time to connect to the Source of Life, it is natural to live from a deeper place. Humility opens the way to be more present to life, to be more open hearted, and to be a greater vessel of blessings.
In perhaps the most dramatic example of Moses' humility, he refused God's offer to annihilate the Israelites after the Golden Calf mishap and in their place make him and his progeny a great nation. In pleading with God not to destroy the people, Moses illustrated the self-sacrifice that is a hallmark of humility. His disregard for accumulating personal power is a far cry from the current standard of what it takes to make it.
In a culture where running to catch the wave of the next new thing is dominant, returning to Biblical wisdom might not be trendy. But as we learn to manage information overload and to integrate amazing technological devices into our lives in a healthy way, doesn't it make sense to draw on time-tested tips to help keep us sane, grounded, and connected to what deeply matters in the process?