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Monday, October 21, 2019

How to Develop Discernment and Wisdom

Last week I wrote about the importance of (repeated) failure, and while I have plenty to say about all that stuff, I thought I'd said enough on my blog. After some more thinking, though, I realized I wanted to do a follow-up on how, exactly that process works, on a micro level.

Remember, repeated failure paired with perseverance leads to a greater capacity for discernment, which is necessary to obtain wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to reconcile opposites. But "opposite" is an English word that leaves me wanting. Because they aren't always direct opposites, but rather, things that differ in some degree, like how pewter gray differs from steel gray. Both are gray, but they are still different. (Maybe wisdom is the ability to reconcile differences, but I'm not sure on that word either.) Anyway . . .

This is useful to writing, because the more you can discern and the more "writer wisdom" you have, the better you can write with precision. But really, this applies to almost everything in life. Every failure. And even things that aren't failures.

Like I said last time, often we are taught with black and white principles. That makes complete sense. We don't have the time nor energy to address all the grays, which are essentially infinite. There are infinite shades of grays just as there are an infinite amount of numbers between 0 and 1 (1.01, 1.1, 1.27 . . .).

But black and white principles are also important because we need them to get us introduced to the subject to begin with, to give us some guidance, some boundaries. We need them so we can be grounded in something, to start with. We don't teach a child to count by having them go from 1 to 1.000001 to 1.000002 . . . it's too much! Instead, we teach them the basics, give them the guideposts, and then later have them encounter the grays. (Surprise dear child, there is actually an infinite amount of numbers between 1 and 2!)

In reality, it's like this with almost everything. Most of the blacks and whites are man-made anyway, to help us have the capacity to perceive the world around us at all. And we are limited by the boundaries of our language, but . . . I do not want to get more confusing than necessary. 😆

So let's get to an example, so you know what the heck I'm talking about!

Say you are a child that has recently learned how to categorize animals (mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and arthropods).

You have been given (man-made (whoops, promised not to over complicate)) guidelines for how to discern what animal fits where.

You run into a snake. Easy, it has scales (and is cold-blooded)--clearly a reptile.

You run into a robin in a nest. Easy, it has feathers and a nest of eggs--clearly a bird.

You run into a cat. Easy, it has fur, drinks milk, and has live births--a mammal.

But then something weird happens.

You discover a platypus.

It's swimming in the water. It has a bill like a duck. A tail like a beaver. Fur like an otter. Webbed feet like an amphibian. Lays eggs like a reptile. And feeds its babies with milk (but doesn't have nipples?).

It doesn't seem to fit the principles you've been taught!

In other words, it doesn't fit the black and white guidelines. It's a "gray."

Naturally, as you try to make sense of this, and study the platypus, hoping to categorize it, a few things will happen.

First will probably be confusion.

Holding on to what you've been taught (after all, those are the rules for animals), you may try, unsuccessfully, to make sense of it by putting it into one of the categories.

Well, it feeds its babies with milk, so it must be a mammal.

But that doesn't work.

You were taught that mammals don't lay eggs.

But birds, reptiles, and fish don't have fur.

As you try again and again to unsuccessfully categorize it, you naturally invite in feelings of frustration and disappointment. I mean, who wouldn't be frustrated trying to categorize a platypus when you have been given strict guidelines?

Now, remember, this is a simplistic example/metaphor. Stay with me.

As you keep trying and failing to categorize this animal, a few things happen.

1 - Either you come to the conclusion that you are the problem, that you are doing something wrong (and therefore must be stupid) . . .

or . . .

2 - What you have been taught is wrong.

If you take route one, you may start to internalize failure. You might get stuck in a depressing loop, thinking you did something wrong.

If you take route two, you may bring into question everything you've been taught to be true. "These categories can't be right!" you say. "This creature doesn't fit into any of them! And these are all the categories there are!! I've been taught wrong all this time!" 😡

People in the first category have the tendency to quit.

People in the second category have the tendency to jump ship too early.

People in the first category may feel depressed, insecure, and sad.

People in the second category may feel angry, wronged, or cheated.

But in reality, a lot of times, neither of those routes are actually accurate.

It's a platypus. It has nothing to do with you being stupid. It has nothing to do with you being taught "wrong." It's a gray creature.

Just because you can't get it to fit in with everything else doesn't mean you are doing something wrong.

And just because you can't get it to fit in with what your teacher taught doesn't mean they are wrong.

It's not necessarily wrong to teach a child to count from 1 to 2 to 3. It's just that real life is much more complex than that. Some mammals lay eggs. Some reptiles have feathers. Some fish have live births. You can try to cling to the black and white all you want, but that's just the way reality is.

Sometimes there are platypuses, and dinosaurs, and molly fish, and steel gray and pewter gray.

So you have to look at the third route, which is that, this platypus is a gray. It doesn't actually fit the generalizations of any of the categories, but as you study it, you begin to discern more detailed things about it, and you are able to reconcile the oppositions it embodies. "Okay, well," you say, "maybe a mammal can lay eggs, even if that's unusual."

I admit, that even classifying a platypus as a mammal still seems questionable to me, as they actually do have significant similarities to birds and reptiles--but like I said at the beginning, the categories are all man-made anyway. They only exist to help us perceive the world. In other words, to help us discern. Even the basic categories (mammal, reptile, fish, etc.) are only there to help us discern the difference in animals in general. But someone somewhere decided that a platypus fit best as a mammal, but in order to get it to fit, they had to be more specific, by calling it a "monotreme mammal," which means, we now have the power to discern in even more detail.

But lots of people, loyal to the black and white beginner principles of the world, want to deny that 1.000001 exists, that pewter gray exists, that platypuses exist--figuratively speaking of course.

In fact, I think all of us probably do this to some degree.

See, in order to see those things, to gain more discernment and wisdom, we have to be willing to look at opposition--things that oppose (to some degree) our own thoughts and perceptions, maybe even personal beliefs.

Because if I'm dead set that the "Show, don't Tell" writing rule is always right, and I run into a book that uses telling very good, I'm going to have a problem--there's conflict. It is in opposition to my beliefs.

Now, like I mentioned last time, some of us would actually rather be blind to the grays and platypuses, because we are too loyal to the blacks and whites. We refuse to see them. In fact, we may refuse to believe that such opposition even exists. We'd rather live in a state of ignorance and innocence, in our own figurative Eden.

Sometimes, we are afraid of seeing the 1.000001, because that means we have to change our perspective, that 2 always comes directly after 1.

It also means that we aren't getting the self assurance, the validation, that our initial beliefs and understandings are right. We may have to face . . . opposing concepts. 

In fact, sometimes acknowledging gray exists may even be painful . . . or ugly.

But not always.

Opposition creates confusion, which can lead to disappointment and frustration, which can potentially lead to low self esteem or us questioning the correctness of the beliefs we use to govern our lives. These are feelings much of us try to avoid.

But in reality, complexity happens when opposition collides. How can a platypus lay eggs, give milk, and have a duck bill? The space between those seeming contradictions, the answers that justify that existence, is exactly what creates complexity. As a result, we have to become more discerning and precise. We have to figure out how to reconcile the opposites. The result is where wisdom lies.

Ironically, we seem to live in a world that wants to move away from opposition--but considering the seemingly negative emotions involved otherwise, it shouldn't be too surprising. The world would have you surround yourself with only like-minded people, teachings, and ideas, which can stunt growth. If everything were always black and white, you'd never learn to discern, you'd never learn wisdom, you'd never learn to judge accurately.

But, on the other hand, when you do see grays, you need to make sure you don't always internalize them as personal failures or abandon all your previously established truths.

Instead, slow down, study, and discern. Work to reconcile the differences. Refine specificity.

This is what it means to be wise.


Don't worry, next week I'll be back with a regular writing tip :)


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