Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Conflicting folk wisdom

Sometimes, folk wisdom – the collected accumulated human wisdom – provides conflicting guidance. For example, Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture with Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), p. 73) writes that brick walls are to stop other people. In the Christian tradition, people frequently speak of open and closed doors as a way of knowing God's will; in this context, a closed door represents a sign from God that the person should head in a different direction. Which perspective is correct?

I’ve not found a reliable rule by which to discern which principle applies to a particular situation. On the one hand, persistence is a key to success in almost every endeavor. A plebe had been at the Naval Academy for a week when he came to see me. He began our conversation with a long story about how God had enabled him to become a Midshipman, helping him overcome one obstacle after another. But now, after less than a week of plebe summer, this young man was convinced that God wanted him to return home. I suggested God was not that fickle! This young man had given up at the first brick wall instead of mustering the interior fortitude to persevere. (The first six weeks of plebe summer at the Academy are miserable by design; plebes may disenroll on request only after completing that experience and beginning the academic year.)

On the other hand, I took piano lessons for seven long years. At the end of that time, when I told my teacher I was quitting, he informed me that I should have done so at the end of the first year, not having achieved any progress since then. I had hit a real brick wall and not been sufficiently self-aware to recognize the experience (nor had my teacher had the integrity to tell my parents they were wasting their money on my lessons!).

Those extremes are clear. Most of the time, however, we live in in-between spaces, and the wisdom of particular choices seem less obvious. When facing such a situation, I often:

·         Consider which alternative I think will bring me the most joy (joy is a much deeper level of satisfaction than passing happiness)

·         Consider which alternative appears to best suit my personality and abilities

·         Ask people who know me well and who want what is best for me what they think

·         Reflect on which alternative will produce the most love for God and others in me and in others

·         Look for an option that I have not yet identified

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