My daughter have a common rant, a type of personality that really puts us off. It’s being a know-it-all. My wife dislikes arrogance. I get that. But both Lucy and I don’t mind someone being confident in what they really know/understand, it’s when someone assumes they know everything about everything that this false certainty emerges. It’s irritating because you learn to no longer have faith in that person’s knowledge anymore, even on topics that person is likely to understand well. In essence s/he is undermining their own credibility.
If you’ve ever seen the film Being There starring Peter Sellers you will understand the way privilege often plays a part in what we think others know. There is a scene where the maid in a rich man’s home sees the mentally challenged man on TV whom she has cared for, dressed, fed, etc. and realizes that the culture she lives in has taken this man’s simple ideas and found a depth that is really not present. She knows that as a woman of colour she will never be given this kind of creditability, no one in this culture will seek out her knowledge, and she laments this awareness.
In a way, looking back, I can see that this woman was right. For many years in ministry being able-bodied, straight, white, and male afforded me credibility and even privileged in the eyes and ears of the churches I served. By being all these things people just assumed I knew, I was aware, I could and would lead us to the Promised Land. And when that happened, when churches filled and dollars poured in, and mission expanded, I assumed it had to do with me. To use the tired old expression I began to “drink my own Kool Aid.” It led to the inevitable crash and burn, when the combination of one’s arrogance and reach beyond one’s grasp leaves a new community less than impressed. They see that the Emperor has no clothes.
At that point a choice is to be made. Does one change gears, recalibrate, and re-evaluate one’s approach to life or double-down and move on to safer and more predictable communities where the applause will come back? I have tried to walk the former path. It does not make me better, there is no evangelical “aha” moment here. I don’t consider myself better or worse, just different. I was nicer then, more kindly and less provocative. But in my edginess now I feel more grounded, in my lack of certainty I can be open in a way I was not before.
Today a member of the church I now serve sent me this video of a Dalhousie Convocation address. It is all about humility and empathy, which the speaker reasons go together. I love the story of the stacks of unread journals being a reminder of what we do not know, that arrogance and certainty lead to being closed to the new and hierarchy and needing others to look up to you only defeats the culture of correction that we all need to improve.
This speaker reminded me why I loathe titles, degrees after my name, people putting me on a pedestal. It just all seems so sad, so obviously an attempt to give ourselves a certainty that is not real. Being aware of what we do not know opens us to the awareness that others know more than us, that answers are left to be discovered, and that our hubris is often the beginning of our own fall.
As Chance Gardener says, “A garden needs a lot of care and a lot of love. And if you give your garden a lot of love, things grow. But first, some things must wither. Some trees die.” May certainty and arrogance die and empathy and humility grow in our gardens.