Wisdom Calls (and the Line is Busy)

Categories: Sermons

Wisdom Calls (and the Line is Busy)SDC11994

  5/22/16

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; John 16:12-15

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

Wisdom is calling. Understanding is trying to be heard.

On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

Wisdom cries out, seemingly from everywhere – from on high, by the roadside, at the gate, the entrance, and the crossroads. High so she can be seen, by the road where traffic passes. At the entrances, at the beginnings. Where roads cross and travelers must choose where to go.

Wisdom calls out again and again, while understanding practically shouts. Why do you think wisdom works so hard? Or perhaps a better question, why does it take so much effort to make people wise? You would think people would be listening carefully for wisdom, for understanding.

Oh what’s that?  You say I will be given a million dollars and all I have to do is give you my social security number? What could possibly go wrong? Too bad I was not standing at the crossroads with that wisdom lady shouting at me.

This reminds me of the expression, sadder but wiser. Is wisdom somehow paid for through sadness? In a sense, yes. I can give someone knowledge and he or she might make use of it. I can offer advice and it might be accepted or rejected. And yet if I end up saying, “I told you so,” to the suddenly sadder recipient of my discarded knowledge and unused advice, there is the possibility of wisdom in that moment. Falling on your face is wisdom inducing behavior.

This week, I read a story about a researcher. Angela Duckworth, who is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies a particular personality trait: she studies grit. What is grit? Duckworth’s working definition of grit is “perseverance plus the exclusive pursuit of a single passion.” She argues that grit is a critical component of personal success.

Duckworth conducted a study at West Point to determine what factors would help predict which cadets would endure the first seven weeks of grueling training at the academy. All subjects were top students and athletes who had made it through the various screenings for leadership, academics, and physical fitness. Duckworth presented these freshmen twelve statements, and asked whether each statement was more or less like them or their behaviors.

Here are a few: “Setbacks do not discourage me.” “I become interested in new pursuits every few months.”  “I finish whatever I begin.” “I am a hard worker.” Her Twelve Point Grit Test is available on the internet if you are interested. This assessment of grit was the only factor that helped to predict whether a West Point cadet would make it through those weeks of grueling training, whether he or she would quit and go home.

Grit is about perseverance. Perseverance in the face of frustration, disappointment, or boredom. Grit is not about natural ability or talent. Unlike talent, grit seems to be something that one can learn, to cultivate as a good habit. Which is good. Work hard and keep at it, great old school advice.

Wait, I knew that – everyone knows that. Why is this new? It is new because it was the only predictive factor in this case of the West Point cadets. Not strength or speed, wealth or intellect. Only grit.

There is however a drawback to grit. It is actually not a problem with grit itself but with the perception of grit. Hard work is valued in the abstract, less so in direct experience. I will give a personal example from my former profession. When I was first starting out as a lawyer, projects took me longer to complete. A lot longer. Research and writing took much more time. And time was the problem.

Lawyers generally charge by the hour, not the project. So if I took 8 hours to do something that would have taken someone else 2 hours, I was four times less efficient. Now I would be charged out at less per hour, so you would think it all worked out. But not always.

What could I have spent a day’s work doing? Making mistakes. Not knowing what I did not know. Avoiding asking questions every five minutes out of embarrassment. More senior lawyers often claimed to have open door policies. But for new lawyers, that was an open door to headshaking and disappointment. It was an open door to trouble down the road. So you did not walk through that door. You worked longer and longer hours and then did not put them all on your time sheet. A law partner might be scandalized by that admission. But I remember the questions. How on Earth did it take you that long? Don’t you know what you are doing by now? This should take you a few hours at most.

Actually, it would have taken my boss a few hours at most, because he or she had spent twenty years doing it, doing it again and again and again. It may seem obvious that being a hard worker is a source of success. But appearing to be a hard worker can be a mixed blessing. Practice makes perfect, just look perfect without practice.

What is the difference between the novice and the expert, the newbie and the old timer? Well, time of course, but not just time. Someone who has spent twenty years doing bad work is no expert. Repetition is not enough. At first there needs to be correction and instruction. Then there needs to be insight and understanding. And, eventually, down the road a fair piece, there might even be wisdom.

Grit is not about correction or instruction. Grit is not about insight or understanding. I can be bound and determined to keep doing what I am doing, but that does not mean I will get any better.

Wisdom is depicted as a woman calling out to people in various places. Up on the mountain top and along the roadside. There at the gateway and the crossroads. Wisdom calling, understanding shouting.

But notice where you find wisdom and understanding. Notice the places. Up the mountain, that you needed to climb. Along the road you had to travel. By the gateway you seek to enter. And at the crossroad where you must choose.

Did you stumble on the way to the mountain top? Did you get lost on the road? Were you able to figure out which gateway was the best one to enter the city? Which direction did you decide to travel at that crossroad? Wisdom takes work and suggests more than a few mistakes.

As I was thinking about the interplay between grit and wisdom, it reminded me of a poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This is one of Frost’s best known poems. It may be the best known American poem. It is best known because the poem seems to represent a marvelous can-do spirit, of forging out along the path of one’s own making – rugged individualism at its best. That is a reason why the poem is favored by some.

Unfortunately, that reason has nothing to do with the poem, at least according to Robert Frost. The poem is not about individualism. It is about indecision. About fretting over which path to take, worrying about minor differences and lost opportunities regardless of what was chosen. In Frost’s words: “Whichever way they go, they’re sure to miss something good on the other path.”

Here the closing lines again, with a little difference emphasis:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

What was grit again? Perseverance plus the exclusive pursuit of a single passion. Just follow the road. No regrets, no turning back, no second guessing. If we understand the poem as being about indecision, then some grit may be what is needed. Head down, eyes front, one foot in front of the other. We have diagnosed the problem and offered up a time honored cure.

But which road should the man have taken? I have no idea. We know nothing. Nothing about where he was going, what he was trying to do. The assumption that he had taken the better road because it was less travelled by was just that, an assumption. There is no reason to believe that either road was better because there is no way of knowing where he was going, what he was doing. Indecision is not an attractive quality. But marching out with no sense of direction or understanding of purpose is not much of an improvement.

Grit is what you call it when perseverance leads to a positive outcome. Grit is the pretty version. What do you call it when perseverance leads to a negative result? Inflexibility? Obstinancy? Plain old stubbornness? My way and only my way.

Even Frank Sinatra in his famous song, My Way, offers up often ignored limitations to going it your own way. I will not sing it, mercifully.

I planned each charted course;
Each careful step along the byway,
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

Planned, charted, careful steps along the way – the way to my way is actually not as simple as hauling off in any old direction.

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall;
And did it my way.

He knew there were problems. Too much to handle at first, even some doubt, if not within himself certainly among others. And in response, he faced it, standing tall, with dignity.

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried.
I’ve had my fill; my share of losing.
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing.

Loved, laughed, cried. He loved, so he cared. He laughed, so he finally came to understand. He cried, knowing what it meant to lose as well as having his fill. The tears come and in time they pass.  In time he even learned to find it all amusing. Regrets, I had a few but then again too few to mention – or at least too few I am willing to mention.

How will we know when wisdom comes? Wisdom finally comes along with the laughter. Wisdom comes with the laughter because laughter arises from understanding. Understanding what we did right and how much we got wrong. Perspective comes to us with time and distance and more than a little toughening up. Looking backward, the road we hacked our way through makes more sense, much more so than when we were first staring into the wilderness. The horizon of too many choices and with absolutely no clue as to how to choose – wisdom is a reminder of how we got lost and where we found all the thorns.

Wisdom is not waiting on the mountain top or at the crossroads. Wisdom is not waiting anywhere. Wisdom comes to us with the doubts, the mistakes, the bumps and bruises – it is a package deal. Wisdom comes when we have bitten off more than we can chew and then have to find a way to finish eating without choking. Wisdom comes with love because we care enough about something to tough it out, to have grit not for its own sake but because what we are doing matters to us and to others. Wisdom comes in time, as we persevere and as we learn the hard way. Once we pass through the sadness and dry up all the tears.

And then, and only then, we can laugh. Laugh about how we tried to do it all our way.

Amen.

 

Author: Rev. Mark J.T. Caggiano

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