The Wisdom Project

Bernie, age 94


What are the greatest life lessons you would like to pass on to others? How did you learn this?

Everyone has a hunger for dignity and it’s a much more powerful force in people’s lives than they recognize. I really learned this while negotiating with the Salvadoran and Colombian guerillas, convincing them to negotiate peace settlements and end decades long civil wars.

The biggest threat to happiness and the biggest source of violence and destruction comes from narcissism.

  • Like the Greeks taught: Koros Hubris Ate (enough, too much, no limits/no restraints e.g., Narcissus fell in love his with own reflection and drowned; Icarus made wings of wax and flew too close to the sun)
  • Narcissism leads to losing all perspective and becoming so self-centered that you destroy yourself and others
  • I learned this through observation:
    • The lesson is that you screw up in life more often when you are succeeding than when you are failing
    • With success we become heady, thinking we’re the center of universe, invulnerable
    • That’s when you slip
  • So know your limits, keep a kind of humility, be empathetic to others – listen to understand


You’ve seen a lot of significant events and changes over the course of your life. What wisdom can you share from your observations and experiences of the world in your lifetime so far?

  1. Moral leadership is important in any social or political movement
  2. Getting to the values at stake in an issue is very important in moving people to change. MLK, the civil rights movement – they didn’t condemn the country as irredeemably evil but held up a moral ideal to fulfill the constitution an the promise of the bill of rights. They summoned the country to be our better self through non-violence and moved the country to pass the great civil rights legislation.

What obstacles and disappointments have you faced that you were able to put into perspective, turn into a positive, and/or contribute to in a way that made things better? What did you learn from these experiences that you can share with those who did not have those same experiences?

I started a run for Congress many years ago. I was relatively newly married, did not have much money and it seemed too risky. I could have won the race and there was an open seat that doesn’t come along very often.

I learned that I could have a lot more influence as an appointed official and I could have more influence over Latin American policy than a congress-person or even Congress itself. The lesson is that there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is more than one way to achieve goals if you are persistent.