The Meanderthals

Nghiep’s wisdom: a banquet for the psyche

When I speak with my friend Nghiep about life’s priorities – family, friends, love, living well and achieving happiness – it’s like a fledgling monk talking to a Zen master.

A high school golfer seeking putting tips from Tiger Woods.

Or a culinary student learning to make a soufflé from Julia Childs.

“Humanity has become focused on intelligence, not wisdom,” says one who, at 89, knows a thing or two about such matters.

Nghiep recently finished his 8th book on the subjects of happiness and living well, and as the creator of the Happiness Index he has made a life study of the issue.

Every conversation with him seems inexorably headed down a path of clarity delivered in a no-nonsense, gentle manner which makes his ideas nourishment for a kindred spirit. More than chicken soup for the soul, his philosophies provide a banquet for the psyche.

Nghiep has changed a bit since I last saw him eight months ago. His slight frame seems smaller, his belt a bit tighter around his waist. His hearing is more challenged, and pens and pads of paper are always at the ready to help clarify matters when verbal communication falls short.

But his mind remains pencil-point sharp, organized and focused; a filing cabinet of thoughts, ideas, observations and philosophies. His voice never falters, and he still pauses from time to time to repeat a particularly interesting observation as if the thought had occurred to him for the first time at that very moment.

A slight smile seems permanently fixed on his kindly face and he makes earnest eye contact and pays close attention. This is a man easy to embrace, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

It will forever remain a mystery to me how two men from such different backgrounds and cultures wound up being friends, but there exists a wonderful connection between us that I cherish and find humbling.

Perhaps it’s because we met at a time when I was ready and eager to learn and understand. Perhaps we knew one another in another time, at another place. Perhaps it is pure synchronicity – kismet. Sometimes life’s wonders defy descriptions or labels, and that’s fine by me.

For me, Nghiep’s thoughts and ideas are simple, powerful and compelling – a drink of philosophical water for a soul parched with thirst from a life of lesser thinking. I’m clearly playing catch-up on matters which Nghiep has been contemplating as long as I have been alive, and he is very much the patient teacher who quizzes but doesn’t judge, coaxes but doesn’t challenge, intones but never inflicts.

Here’s a glimpse of Nghiep’s evolving philosophy, his common-sense, in-a-nutshell digestible ideas about intellectual and spiritual order that best serves humanity’s quest for contentment and happiness:

Intelligence sponsors and promotes life goals: wealth, richness, creativity, power and facility to accumulate experiences.

Wisdom, however, is the higher goal, creating life itself, health and happiness.

“There are millions of cells in the body, and each has a purpose, a life and a value,” he says. “Each contributes to our ability to achieve life, intelligence and wisdom.” The outcome of all this, he says is pure and simple happiness.

And the ultimate source of happiness?

Not family, friends or love (my guesses, offered over a breakfast of banh cuon with Gabi,  Nghiep, his wife, son and daughter in law last Saturday in Ho Chi Minh City.

Not food, which was Gabi’s “partly joking answer.”

“It is good relations between people,” Nghiep opines, his dark brown eyes glistening with a sparkle which to me seems to emanate from wisdom itself. When it comes to understanding these sorts of things there’s seeing and there’s knowing, but the ultimate is sensing and feeling it.

“You should teach political philosophy,” I tell him over a cup of coffee, thinking that the world would be not only wiser but also kinder with a dose of Nghiep’s intellectual elixir. “I am old,” he retorts, then smiles and grants me the point with a casual nod when I point out that from age and experience comes wisdom.

It’s best to present one’s case persistently and with supporting ideas and facts when discussing these things with Nghiep, and I think I’m onto something which would benefit the world by inculcating a sense of purposeful goodness in politics.

Why, and what on earth am I talking about?

In the process of living a career as a senior oil corporation executive and Vietnamese citizen during the lengthy war with the US, more than 60 years of marriage creating six children and a vast extended family, Nghiep has figured out a few things.

The idea is to have an aim for your life, not objectives or goals.

Wealth, travel, experiences…many people accumulate them without achieving true happiness by forgetting to transcend objects to develop a life’s aim.

“I had a friend who lived in the US, very intelligent with high diplomas, fame and wealth. He achieved his objectives but lost sight of his life’s aim.” His friend became chronically ill, moved back to Vietnam but died at what in Nghiep’s view was a prematurely early age.

He shakes his head.

“It is vital to be clear of your life’s aim.” And that, he says, is to focus on the two kinds of wisdom.

There is the wisdom of capacity, which is the primary stage of wisdom. The true goal, however, is deeper and broader: Clear-sighted philosophy, which is sensing, feeling and actually living the product of one’s wisdom.

Nghiep smiles and leans forward to grasp his fresh coconut to take a drink before continuing. The three aims of life, he says, are simple but pure:

Good health



I equate this to my growing uneasiness with work in the US several years ago and the intellectually confusing and spiritually draining pursuit of money and stuff which precipitated our move to Southeast Asia. I see how right Nghiep is, and on a deeply personal level. I find myself thinking this is the essence of what I would like to share with my family and friends.

That there is a better way, a higher way, a more certain way to happiness than the way I was taught. For me, this will require re-wiring and re-engineering a system of priorities I have followed for 57 years.

And on a sultry morning in Ho Chi Minh City, sitting at a table with a man from a different culture, age bracket and mindset, the clarity and commonality between us is obvious.

So, too, is the benefit of this man’s wisdom, if I can only fully grasp it and incorporate it into my life.

And like Grasshopper before the Master, I listen, absorb and learn.


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