I remember sitting with a young man in our church in a diner near my office. He was frustrated with me. For two months now, we’d been meeting about his anxiety. It wasn’t chronic or crippling, but it tended to put him on edge and came with occasional outbursts of anger his young wife and daughter had to deal with. Sitting in the same diner two months before, he had asked for help and we had agreed to start meeting. He wanted to change. He had punched a hole in his apartment wall and it scared his daughter and enraged his wife. He didn’t want to be like that.
It had been two months, but he was still edgy and still couldn’t resist the urge to fly off the handle. He was irritated. The problem, he suspected, was in my counsel. That may be, I confessed, but nevertheless, change takes time. The more he insisted this wasn’t working, the more I realized what he wanted was a technique, not transformation.
Victims of a Calculating Existence
In 1955, the famous philosopher Martin Heidegger gave an address on the importance of a “reflective mind.” He looked around at the state of his day and warned his listeners they were in jeopardy of losing something fundamental to our humanity: the ability to reflect. He called his age a “calculating” age. They were driven by technique and up-to-date data for success, which was prohibiting deep reflection and self-correction.
Taking a look around today, I can’t imagine Heidegger would say things have improved. In fact, he might accuse our age not only of consenting to a technique-driven mentality, but of being obnoxious about it. We look for an “expert” in our area of interest, who has a technique, and then we apply it to our situation, hoping for success. We download the “9 quick steps to a better X” and the “10 rules for a successful Y.”
The problem is that these techniques tend to oversimplify human complexities, human relationships, personal experiences and histories, and other dynamics that create problems or hindrances to success. And so we drop the technique whenever it fails us and start looking for a new one. We adapt this technique-driven life to our spirituality, our work, our leadership, our marriages, our parenting, our friendships. What Heidegger saw in the technique-driven life was a pervasive indifference to reflection, a danger of becoming victims of a “calculating existence.”
Edwin Friedman observed (in 1996!) in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix that our society is in a data deluge and that we depend on the newest techniques like an addict depends on the next hit. This kind of dependence, he wrote, “erodes . . . confidence, judgment, and decisiveness” and lives with the illusion that “if only we knew enough, we could do (or fix) anything” or that “we failed because we did not use the right technique.”’
This mindset, Friedman noted, prohibits leaders, parents, families, and clergy from entering into the “emotional process” of difficulty and shaping others into deeper persons—persons with more resources in their emotional, spiritual, and intellectual bank to face the challenges of life.
This is what people mean when they talk about “emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence has a wide variety of usages, but Dan Allender defines it as the ability to “step into the morass of hurt, accusation, and defenses in order to hear and see the real issues.” He calls it “wisdom tempered.”
The one not over-dependent on new data or the next technique has slowly garnered wisdom and “emotional intelligence.” Therefore, they can draw on creativity, intuition, wisdom, freedom, commitment, and passion for every challenge or crisis.
Psalm 107’s Path
In Psalm 107, the psalmist gives four test cases that can help us in this regard. He lays out situations in which a person or group was in extreme need, whether through mere circumstance or personal sin, and yet was delivered by God every time. Each test case ends the same way: “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man.” In other words, God’s love and deliverance should produce thanksgiving. The entire psalm concludes, “Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD.”
The wise considers his life and ponders his circumstances, ultimately to see God’s hand and steadfast love during any challenge or difficulty. The fool goes on with his life without attending to how deeply God has loved him. In each of the four cases, the subjects had to be confronted in either their weakness or their sin—and had to either change or repent.
The new techniques, quick fixes, and “9 steps” tend to sidestep this sort of self-correction. They offer an easier path, but the easier path offers a small return. The wise, however, experience fullness: “For he satisfies the longing soul, the hungry soul he fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9). The psalmist knows he feels the pangs of hunger when he resists the quick fixes, but it’s a hunger the Lord satisfies with good things.
Learning a Reflective Life
The mindset the psalmist suggests is hard to maintain. It is contrary to the technique-driven life. In order to live a reflective life, then, you must be okay with the tension of not always having immediate answers and quick fixes. You must be patient with people, with prayer, and with the Spirit of God for wisdom. You must be comfortable with failure and with repentance. You must be okay with other people’s successes while you are tangled in trials. None of us are good at those things, naturally.
Maybe the first stage in the reflective life is to find someone wise to follow. Someone who has experienced difficulty and challenges with joy and creativity. This isn’t likely the person who forwarded you the article titled “9 Ways to Start Your X.” They are likely patient, tender, prayerful, and joyful. They listen well. They don’t try to do everything “efficiently,” but prayerfully. Frankly, they’re probably older. Spend time with them and you may not immediately become wise, but you’ll at least know where wisdom dwells.