Posts Tagged ‘wisdom

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.

13
Jun
17

Humble learning

Welcome-to-GI

“… but wisdom is with the humble.”
Proverbs 11:2, NRSV

I learned something this past week.

I learned that Grand Island, Nebraska is actually a pretty cool place.

I learned this as a result of spending three days in Grand Island at the Annual Conference of the Great Plains United Methodist Church.

It was a “command performance” kind of thing… meaning that attendance for me was not optional. Fortunately my wife agreed to go along at the last minute.

And since I am persuaded that this kind of thing is good for the soul, I have a public confession to make: when I first heard about the location of Annual Conference, I was not all that excited about spending three days in the town of Grand Island, Nebraska.

In fact it is possible I even poked a little fun at the notion that the word “island” is part of the name of a town in the state of Nebraska. I may also be guilty of encouraging my friends to wear Hawaiian shirts for each day of the conference… as a celebration of “island life.”

But then we arrived in town. And drove around. And met people and saw sights.

And as a result… I learned! I learned that Grand Island is a wonderful, clean, vigorous, engaging city of 48,000 souls on the plains of south central Nebraska.

(I’m still not entirely sure where the “island” part of the name comes in though.)

In the process of learning these things about Grand Island, I learned another important lesson. I learned something about learning.

Here is what I learned: sometimes learning happens when a vacuum gets filled. For me, there was an empty place in my mind called “the location of Grand Island, Nebraska.” I filled that empty space by looking on a map and finding it… right there off of Interstate 80, about 90 miles straight west of Lincoln, NE.

That’s one kind of learning.

But I learned that there is also another kind!

On some occasions, an unlearning has to happen before new learning is possible. That is because knowledge that is askew or off-base has to be corrected, re-shaped, or removed altogether before it can be replaced by something a little more reflective of reality.

In my case, for example, I first had to unlearn (or “dump,” to be a little more scientific about it) my earlier perceptions about the kind of town Grand Island was before I could replace them with the truer, better, more informed picture.

In thinking about these two kinds of learning, I also discovered that people LOVE the first type (the vacuum-filling type), but are not at all fans of the second type (the one that begins with unlearning).

It may be because the second type of learning requires HUMILITY… the willingness to begin by saying, “You know what… I was wrong about that.”

This is not a sentence that comes easily to my lips. I like to feel as if I have a few things figured out at this fine, ripe age I’ve attained. Retracing and retracting are not actions I rush to embrace.

And yet…

… my sense is that the learning that begins with a humble retraction seems to settle in at a deeper place inside me. It feels somehow “heftier”… a little more like WISDOM or INSIGHT than just information.

That may be what the writer of Proverbs meant by saying that “wisdom is with the humble.”

So then where does that leave us?

It would be hard to argue with the conclusion that the world has rarely had a greater need for wisdom and insight than it has today. At the same time, the world seems to be facing a desperate shortage of humility – the key ingredient of wisdom.

Because after all… when you already have all the answers, why look further or deeper?

Fortunately we have the prophet Micah to remind us what is good. And so, in case you have forgotten what he said, here is that reminder once again: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8, NRSV.

To paraphrase the most interesting man in the world: Stay humble, my friend. Gain wisdom.

Abundant blessings;




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