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Monday over Coffee

Need a Word of Encouragement?

Contenders

The futility of trying to map out our future in too much granular detail is captured in former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson’s famous adage, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Given that this past year has certainly been a real punch in the mouth, maybe it’s a good time to ask, how do we better roll with the metaphorical punches this season is delivering and develop the skills needed to contend with more uncertainty ahead?

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, in their book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, remind us although life is made up of unpredictable events, ebbs and flows, and subtle cause and effect relationships that are hard to detect and trace, we’re not merely helpless riders on the tides of fate. When our forecast horizon is short as it is right now, rather than making plans to try to dictate the future, they urge us instead to hone critical skills like agility, adaptability, and resilience to deal with it.

The late Steven Browning Sample served as the president of USC for almost 20 years and authored The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership which provides this interesting piece of advice: Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow. Sample suggested that a calm and patient decision-maker receives the benefit of clearer vision as time flows forward, more information comes to light, and the world in which a choice is made converges with the world in which its effects will ramify. This idea speaks to the development of both an agility of mind and a tolerance for fluidity we might need at this juncture. More to the point, while we all have deadlines which demand decisions, sometimes we worry out ahead too much of them, needlessly wrestling with unknowns that, if we were just willing and able to wait a bit, would gain further definition, making the best path ahead more clear. Perhaps this strategic brand of patience is a way to develop that supple quality of mind and spirit that will help us roll with the punches better and better as this season advances.

And as we wait for things to further take shape, we might also consider the wisdom of Calvin Coolidge. President Coolidge who, when faced with a dilemma, famously never took ‘doing nothing’ off the table too quickly. He also provided us with this sage advice: “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” Even in the midst of a year of rolling boulders, this sound counsel directs us away from imagining the worst and ‘catastrophizing’ ourselves into paralysis. Instead it encourages us to practice steadiness, keeping an eye on things until acting is really necessary.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is one of my favorite movies. The film tells the true story of Josh Waitzkin who was eight years old when, on his way to play on the monkey bars in New York City’s Washington Square Park, he saw some men playing chess. He asked if he could play. Once at the table, Josh immediately began showing signs he was a prodigy. Josh’s dad soon signs him up with a chess instructor (played by Ben Kingsley in the movie), who encourages Josh, in the midst of his matches, to picture an empty chess board to clear his inner vision to more adeptly imagine his opponent’s options in conjunction with his own moves ahead. Josh, who had played largely instinctually before this, begins to mindfully see the game forming and developing on the board inside his head. Ben Kingsley’s character instructs Josh to ‘see’ a dozen or more moves ahead until he could envision the winning path. “Don’t move until you see it,” he tells Josh. “Don’t move until you see it.”

Within the Sermon on the Mount, following a series of beautiful phrases concerning birds which neither sow nor reap and flowers which neither labor nor spin, Jesus urges us to slow our extra motion and not worry so much about our lives and our needs because God loves us deeply. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,” He tells us. “Focus on that,” He says. “Set your mind on that, then all these other things will be added unto you.”

Stay patient. Refuse to catastrophize about tomorrow. Clear your inner vision so you might see the Kingdom of God forming, developing, prevailing ahead. Then, with this mindset, even though you still may not be able to see the future, you’ll have developed more of the aptitude needed to deal with it. Roll with the punches. Don’t leap too fast. Let the ball travel. Let the game come to you. And don’t move until you see it.

God — 
 
May I begin to reframe uncertainty not as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn patience and grow in my trust of You. Help me to shed the incoming punches, becoming skilled in all the ways of contending.

Amen.

—Greg Funderburk