Month: June 2016

The Difference Between Wit and Wisdom

When I graduated high school, the popular gift book that almost edged out Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss was The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.

100_1891

Me before high school graduation. I clearly need lots of advice.

I got two or three copies, I’m pretty sure, so I read at least one of them to see what all the fuss was about. There is only one part that stood out to me (no offense to anyone who loved the book…I’m just so cynical that inspirational books don’t always work for me, which, incidentally is why I love the “Except when you don’t, because sometimes you won’t” pages in Seuss’s book).

Here’s the quote I distinctly remember reading:

I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every time, because hip is short-term. Earnest is long-term.

Earnestness is highly underestimated. It comes from the core, while hip is trying to impress you with the surface.

“Hip” people love parodies. But there’s no such thing as a timeless parody, is there? I have more respect for the earnest guy who does something that can last for generations, and that hip people feel need the need to parody.

Do you know why I remembered reading this?

Because I was, even at that moment, working on a parody of a song our choir class was singing for graduation, which put me immediately on the defensive.

Was I hip as a high schooler? (Is the word “hip” even hip? Not really.)

I convinced my history Academic Superbowl team to dress up as nerds the day of our competition. And I created a “Civil War Candy Land” review game that included stops like Secession Taffy Pull and Uncle Tom’s Gingerbread Cabin, if that gives you some context. So no, I was not anything close to hip and I did not try to be.

But I remember being annoyed at The Last Lecture’s mockery of parodies. He didn’t know my life! I didn’t re-write song lyrics or draw cartoons or write satire to be cool. I did it because it was creative, an unexpected twist on the familiar. (And also because I really, really hated cheesy graduation songs, see above-mentioned cynicism.)

What about that, huh, Randy Pausch? Do you want all of us to mindlessly follow the system? Are you suppressing my unique gifts and protagonist-like ability to do great things?

Besides, earnestness as he went on to describe it, sounded…boring. And clearly it wasn’t an adjective that would ever appear in a Top 5, 10, or 25 list of adjectives to describe me. It might not even clear the Top 100.

“Earnest” probably meant things like wearing matching socks or calling the dentist yourself to reschedule your appointment instead of making your mom do it or not passing off your forgetfulness on your personality or actually praying for people when you said you would or being faithful to your commitments even when it was hard….

Ah. I see what you mean by “highly underestimated” there, Randy Pausch. Points for you. High school Amy considered herself duly lectured.

That probably wasn’t the exact moment the shift happened, but somewhere along the line, I learned: there is a difference between wit and wisdom.

I like wit in conversations and movies and books. People with a sharp, quick sense of humor are fun to be around.

They can also be exhausting, because sometimes people whose persona is built on wittiness make me feel a constant pressure to perform.

Do you know that feeling? When you have to be “on” at all times, always having something clever or interesting to contribute to the conversation. When you know you’ll be made fun of if you accidentally say something stupid and you can’t stop comparing yourself to the others and feeling inferior.

It’s not an awesome way to do friendships.

Once, in a rare moment of speaking like a character in a book and not like a real person who mostly caves to generic social etiquette in conversation, I actually said out loud to a witty acquaintance, “It seems like every time we talk to each other, we’re both working so hard to be clever that we never say anything meaningful. I’ve known you for a year, but I don’t know you at all. What can we do about that?”

Wittiness, by itself, is pretty shallow.

Contrast that with wisdom. If you read through Proverbs once or twice, you’ll notice that wisdom can be uncomfortable, difficult, and decidedly not cool. Wise people will tell you things you don’t want to hear, urge you toward conflicts you don’t want to have and away from ones you do, and inform you when you’re being a prideful jerk.

Sometimes I want to be surrounded with lots of witty people. I need to be surrounded by a few wise people.

Sometimes seeking wisdom has a pride component, so when post-high-school Amy decided she wanted to become a wiser, more earnest person, that was probably a mixed-motive goal…but a good goal, none the less. Because at that point, I started trying to evaluate people not based solely on how fun they were to be around but by whether they exemplified character traits I wanted to develop. I stopped wanting my friends to be just comedians who I enjoyed spending time with and started wanting them to be mentors who I looked up to.

Is it great to have friends who are both witty and wise? Yes.* But sometimes I think we shift the weight of importance too far to one side…especially Millennials like me. And that has consequences.

We focus on impressing others, and then ask why our relationships are so shallow. We come to friends to be entertained, and then find out we’re not being encouraged or challenged. We expect church to be fun and meet our needs, and then complain that it doesn’t feel very purposeful (because we’re not meeting others’ needs). We halfheartedly accept our comedy-club, social-media-slideshow semblance of community and wonder, as we shove our smiling face into another group selfie, why we feel so left out and lonely.

That’s what happens when we value wit over wisdom, hipness over earnestness. To me, it doesn’t seem like a fair trade.

Let’s change our generation’s reputation by striving to be more earnest, more wise, more real, because that’s what builds relationships and communities that last.

*It’s kind of like pie and whipped cream. I am not really that interested in whipped cream by itself, whereas pie by itself is amazing and all I really need. That said…pie with whipped cream is especially exciting. As long as it’s not pecan pie, because what were we thinking when classifying that as a pie and not just, I don’t know, nuts cemented with a sludge of sugar?

(Ha, you thought this was going to be the usual really deep and thoughtful footnote, didn’t you? Surprise!)

The Danger of Us vs. Them

I know I said I wasn’t going to post a blog today, but I heard about the mass shooting in Orlando while reading about the Rwandan genocide.

We Wish

I’m going to assume you know the details of the former by now, so here’s a Cliff Notes version of the latter: in April 1994, over 800,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority were slaughtered by the majority Hutus—hunted down and hacked apart with machetes by their employers, teachers, and neighbors, incited by government leaders and ignored by religious leaders.

This is a horrifying scale of human depravity that almost made it hard for me to register the shooting in Orlando because I was weeping for an entire people group lost, pacing the living room as I turned the pages, wondering, “How could this happen?”

Here’s how it happened, and here’s how the two events relate: almost everyone accepted the lie of us vs. them. Hutu resentment of the Tutsi elite built up for decades, and when the political structure flipped, the Hutus wanted power, and it was out-of-control hatred and revenge that got them there.

Friends, hating the other—whether that other is Muslims, the LGBT community, the opposite political party, or the person who disagrees with you on Facebook—has, historically, had devastating consequences. (Also relevant: my earlier post on Nazis and faceless Star Wars stormtroopers.)

I’m a Christian, and I think the reason Jesus paired his famous command to “love your enemies” with “pray for those who persecute you” is because it’s basically impossible to think of your enemy as something other than human if you’re praying for him. Even if you’re praying through gritted teeth, in the face of personal hurt or ideological differences, prayer creates compassion.*

I want to be careful to point out that loving others doesn’t mean that we can’t say, for example, “You believe that and I believe this opposing thing, and only one of us can be right.” I have absolutely no patience for people who think tolerance involves never voicing critique of a person or worldview, of accepting and affirming everything anyone says.

To love our enemies, we have to have enemies, and we will. Our command as Christians is not to turn everyone into our friends by accepting all of their beliefs and practices. And yet, that said, I think Christians hide behind that truth too often, use it to justify words that Jesus never would have spoken. The signs that we’re slipping into “us vs. them” are more subtle than simply disagreeing with someone…but they are there, and we—I—often fall into them.

When you start to generalize about all members of a particular group…be careful.

When you find you’re primarily motivated by fear…be careful.

When you’re voicing most of your beliefs secondhand from one person or news source…be careful.

When you can feel absolutely no empathy for a person or group and don’t feel like trying…be careful.

When you forget that the people of God are to be known above anything else by their love for each other and for their enemies…be careful.

Please, please be careful. We think tragedies like Rwanda are beyond us, a “civilized” country, but that’s only the arrogance of people who underestimate the darkness in the human heart. I’ve seen my own heart at times. I know better. It could happen here.

Even if it doesn’t, even if there’s not a brother vs. brother slaughter in our country, there are always consequences for arrogance and failure to love others, even if it’s only the hardening of our own hearts against the very people Christ died for.

As I read the beautiful and incredibly difficult book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, I came to one passage that stopped me, a description of the editor of a fantastically popular Hutu-power newspaper that printed genocidal rhetoric in the years leading up to the massacre.

This editor made a list of “Hutu Ten Commandments” that was often quoted by Hutu leaders. It said all Tutsi women are traitorous—do not marry or befriend them. All Tutsi businessmen are dishonest—have no dealings with them. And all Tutsis are dangerous—show them no mercy.

The author summed up this man by saying, “He was one of those creatures of destruction who turn everything hurled at them into their own weapon. He was funny and bold, and in one of the most repressed societies on earth, he presented the liberating example of a man who seemed to know no taboos.”

Sound familiar?

Trump

Please understand: I am not saying Donald Trump is genocidal or Hitler or that those who will be voting for him in November might not have thought carefully about the political implications of their choice. I am perfectly fine with you disagreeing with me on who to vote for in November (see above points on how disagreement doesn’t have to turn into demonizing).

I am saying that turning the world into us vs. them, dehumanizing the other, is always a terrible choice, whether on a political or personal level. It’s often a dangerous one. And sometimes it leads to consequences so terrible that in the aftermath we pace the room, weeping, and wonder, “How could this happen…again?”

*Stuffy Theological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: That’s why I have no problem with Christians saying they’re praying for or mourning with the LGBT community after this tragedy, even if before this they weren’t sure how to talk about welcoming LGBT people into the church, even if in their attempt to speak the truth their rhetoric was divisive and hurtful. Some say this is hypocrisy, but I believe God can change people’s hearts and make them more compassionate, and he often uses prayer for the victims of tragedies to do so.

Save

Let’s All Go to Camp!

I recently thought about what I’ve learned at summer camp, besides the fact that you should be very careful which side of the pocket knife you’re using to peel bark off a stick. (Like…don’t press down on the blade. Super advanced, I know.)

I went to various church camps from second grade on through high school, and while I can’t recall the exact year of each incident, I do remember bits and pieces of lessons learned along the way.

Smores

Meet junior high Amy. She’s…I don’t know quite what you’ll think of her, exactly, but she’s highly imaginative, enthusiastic, and rocking a bowl-cut-like hairdo and an unapologetic love of all things camp.

The most life-changing thing that happens to junior high Amy at camp is probably that her counselor teaches her how to play Mafia. After one round, in which Amy successfully fakes being the sheriff while killing everyone else around her, the counselor says, “You, kid, are going to be a special kind of terrifying someday.” Amy decides this is a compliment.

Later, after one of the messages, one of the leaders shares her testimony and talks to Amy later about it. “I don’t mean this in an arrogant way,” junior high Amy says, “but that’s not just something I struggle with.”

The leader looks at her, and says, “You will.” And she is right, but for the moment, Amy is doing just fine, roasting almost-perfect s’mores, killing spiders in the cabin when other girls scream and run, and ripping up enough long grass to disguise herself as a bush during a nighttime game of Capture the Flag. (Yes, I’m serious. It worked pretty well, too.) All is well in the world.

(more…)