15
Aug
17

Certainty, Wisdom, and the Fugue

Three tinhornsMy wife and I had some fun over the weekend. We were part of a local musical revue that featured songs and dances from several well-known Broadway shows.

One of my favorite parts of the show was when I got to sing the Fugue for Three Tinhorns from “Guys and Dolls” with two other men.

Even if the name of the song doesn’t ring a bell, you have probably heard it before. It is the song that features an amateur horse race bettor singing, “I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear…” The other two guys join in, fugue-style – singing the virtues of THEIR picks in the upcoming race; horses named Valentine and Epitaph.

The concluding line of the song is when the three point to their tip sheets and sing in harmony, “I’ve got the horse… right… here!!”

It was fun and (I thought) went rather well.

Thinking back on that show and our song, I suddenly realized our frivolous moment onstage might have actually concealed a deeper message.

That message is about CERTAINTY and the ways we arrive at it.

In the song, each of the bettors believes they have a foolproof source of information. For the first guy, the race day weather is the key. The second bettor’s friend is the jockey’s brother so he feels secure with his “inside” information. The third guy relies strictly on the odds displayed in the tip sheet.

The point is, each bettor believes his horse is THE horse.

In fact, they are each certain of it.

Thinking about the song in those terms brought to mind a phrase I read recently in the book, A Failure of Nerve. This book, written by Rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant Edwin Friedman, includes insightful prescriptions for those who lead during turbulent times.

Friedman says, “An anxious system demands certainty.” Naturally, that anxious system looks to its leader(s) to provide them with the sought-after certainty.

More often than not, leaders are very willing to provide certainty to the anxious system. That certainty usually comes in the form of strong declarations of righteous, unshakable principles. It comes in the form of definitive lines drawn to help us understand who is on the “good side” and who is on the “bad side” of the issue. It comes in the form of vague, but bold-sounding statements of steps that will be taken, “… going forward.”

Sound familiar?

The problem, according to Friedman, is that certainty is almost always the antithesis of wisdom. When we allow anxiety to drive us toward sure and certain answers, we find that we must also silence the voices that challenge our certainty.

The tinhorns in Fugue sought certainty about an uncertain horseracing event in the future. But by definition, the future cannot be certain until it gets here. And when it gets here it is no longer the future!

Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity is absolutely necessary if we hope to achieve wisdom. According to Friedman, our comfort with ambiguity is, “… critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.” (A Failure of Nerve, New York: Seabury, 1997).

As I see it, racism, intolerance, xenophobia, and all forms of hate have their roots in the desire for certainty AT ALL COSTS. We look around us and see a dynamic, uncertain, and changing world… and it seems threatening. The dynamism of that world leads some of us to rush out and erect walls of protection against a world that looks less and less like the one we grew up in. It also makes us hostile to the forces of change.

The good news is yes, there is a timeless truth. Yes, there is omniscience and ultimate wisdom. But it does not reside with you or me or anyone equipped only with this puny three pounds of gray matter we have inside our skulls. It resides only with the One who created us and placed us here in love.

Psalm 111:10 reminds us that: “Fear [meaning awe, or respect] of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom.” Proverbs 3:5 tells us, “Trust in the Lord… do not rely on your own insight,” and a little later that, “… wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” (Proverbs 8:11).

I believe God calls us to be wise rather than certain. I further believe that the first step on the path to wisdom is HUMILITY… in other words, knowing that we do not know.

May your path lead you to wisdom today.


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