Practical Wisdom

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November 3, 2011

Today during a field trip with the Intensive English Program at Eastern Mennonite University, the staff had some miscommunication. The resulting disorganization didn't cause any major problems, but was a bit frustrating and confusing for both students and staff. At our staff meeting when we got back, we discussed what went well and what we could have done differently to improve. We thought of past trips and how we could use ideas from there, how we could create times to meet and communicate before departure, and what unique situations had happened today that may or may not happen again. At the center of our conversation was the well-being and experience of the students and staff. It felt like a productive and helpful debriefing.

Later today, I listened to Barry Schwartz' talk on practical wisdom and I realized my experience at IEP was just that. We were using our creativity and thinking of new ways of doing rather than suggesting rules or incentives to get staff and students to do what we wanted. As Schwartz explains, "Dealing with other people demands a kind of flexibility that no set of rules can encompass. Wise people know when and how to bend the rules. Wise people know how to improvise." I'm grateful to be working at a place that seems to be filled with practical wisdom!

I wonder, though, how the church nurtures this kind of practical wisdom. In my understanding, followers of Jesus are called to the two responses that Schwartz describes as wise: subverting the rules of the system in order to do what is morally good for the sake of others, and working creatively to transform systems into better structures that serve the community rather than the good of a few.

Yet, the mainstream narrative of "the church" that I hear through media in the U.S. seems to use more language of rules and incentives, wanting to create laws and regulations that enforce what is seen as moral by the dominant voice. Perhaps this is part of the narrative in Canadian mainstream churches too, I'm not sure. In any case, it seems very easy to get sucked into the dominant language of rules and incentives, whether in education, economics, politics, or religion.

What stories and examples can we look to in our faith communities that can help us nurture "practical wisdom"? Like the field trip today, we may not have to look very far or big to find wise inspiration.

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