Narrow focus

I was twelve when I camped for the first time with the Boy Scouts. I’d never slept under canvas before, never slept on the ground before, never cooked food over a camp fire before, and never used a hole in the ground as a toilet before.

And I’d never walked through woods in the dark before.

The scout master announced a late evening hike so I grabbed my torch. A flashlight would be essential to avoid holes on the path, or low-hanging branches, or a tiger stalking us. (Okay, no tigers but I had a vivid imagination.)

Off we set, my torch trained on the path as we entered the forest. I needed to be sure where I was putting each foot. But less than five minutes into the walk, the scout master ordered: ‘Switch off your torches. You’re spoiling everyone’s night vision, including your own.’

So all the lights went off, and now I’d no idea where to put my feet. Until, that is, my eyes adjusted. Gradually I began to see bushes and branches, the route of our path, and even my compass as light from the moon pierced through the trees. To my amazement I could see more now than when I was using my torch.

Of course what had happened was obvious. My torch beam superbly lit up what was right in front of me, but had diminished vision of anything outside its beam. Once the torch was off, and my eyes got used to moonlight, I could see the shape of everything.

What I’d been experiencing initially was a form of ‘tunnel vision’. My dictionary defines tunnel vision as ‘a tendency to think only about one thing and to ignore everything else’.

There are situations when that’s good, such as when racehorses wear ‘blinkers’ so they’re not distracted by cheering crowds.

But a narrow focus is more usually a hindrance, perhaps even a danger. Two statements help us understand why.

Looking only one way means not looking other ways

My torch beam lit up only about 30 degrees of the 360 degree circle around me, so I was seeing less than ten per cent of my surroundings. What about other trails I could have followed, or a pond that I might slip into sideways from my path? There were opportunities and dangers, but my narrow vision never picked them up.

Not seeing the big picture has sometimes allowed great evils.

In 2007 many events marked the bicentenary of when the ‘Act to Abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade’ was passed in Parliament. It didn’t end slavery, but banned British ships transporting slaves from Africa to the New World.

I researched the background to that 1807 Act. I asked myself, ‘Why did it not get passed earlier?’ People like William Wilberforce had campaigned for years. The opponents of change knew what slavery involved – taking people captive, transporting them across the ocean in appalling and dangerous conditions, selling them into bondage to work on plantations. But they didn’t ‘look’ at that. They were focused on other interests. Wealthy and powerful plantation owners knew their huge profits would disappear without slaves. Affluent citizens knew their fine clothes would cost more if slaves didn’t pick cotton. In their ‘beam’ was only what they gained from slavery, and they kept its immorality and cruelty in the shadows.

I spoke at one of the 2007 bicentenary events, and challenged the audience this way: ‘If those people were blind to injustices so they could keep their comfortable lifestyles, what inconvenient evils are we blind to today?’ I read out a news story of women in Bangladesh earning three pence for each shirt they made for an elite western brand. And I described clothes for sale in my local supermarket: jeans for £3; women’s suits for £12 & £7; a sweater for £5. At those prices, how much – how little – did those who slaved over sewing machines making the garments get paid?

A hard truth is that we don’t see what we’d prefer not to see. We focus on what we want, and leave the inconvenient consequences of our ‘wants’ in the shadows. It’s what the affluent did in the 1800s and it seems not a lot is different now.

Things we can’t see or don’t want to see won’t change

If I don’t see my (imagined) tiger lurking in the shadows, I’m unprepared if it pounces. If I don’t see a friend lying injured under a bush, I can’t help him. If I don’t spot increasingly large pools of water on either side of my path, I may walk into a swamp. In short, we’ll do nothing about what we don’t see.

Here are three times when nothing changes because we can’t or won’t see what’s outside our narrow vision.

When there’s no will to change    Tony was a good friend while we lived in America. He’d had rough times with his health and become long-term unemployed. But, despite his troubles, Tony’s mind was always active. Which is probably why he scoured the internet for right-wing conspiracy stories, the more outrageous the better, and sent them to us and all his other friends. The subject line of his emails was usually ‘We need to know this!’ These were important news stories for Tony. Well, we searched online for the background to them. Invariably they were either rumours or malicious tales. So we alerted Tony, assuming he’d stop circulating these narratives. But they didn’t stop. ‘After all, they might be true,’ he told us.

Tony’s gaze was focused only where he directed it, in line with his political perspective. He didn’t want to look elsewhere. He didn’t want evidence that contradicted what he already believed, so on he went circulating stories.

It’s easy to criticise Tony for doing that, yet there’s plenty evidence most of us pay most attention to news that confirms the views we hold already – a version of ‘confirmation bias’. We also miss what we don’t want to see, and because what we don’t see doesn’t affect us, we’re not motivated to change anything we think or do.

When we see no way we can make change happen    If we’re sure there’s nothing we can achieve, we don’t try. That point is obvious. Jack can’t swim – he sees someone drowning in a pond, only a metre or two out from the edge – he wades in, grabs the man’s arm and pulls him to safety. Jack knew he’d never be out of his depth, so he acted. Next day Jack is walking by the edge of the pond again – sees someone drowning right out in the middle where the water is at least ten metres deep – because he can’t swim he calls for help but does nothing else because he can’t. The man in the pond drowns.

Now we’ll excuse Jack because he really couldn’t save the drowning man. There was nothing he could do to rescue him.

But what’s our excuse? Sometimes we give up, not because there’s nothing we can do but because we don’t believe we can do enough. Because our efforts won’t make much difference we don’t try. For years I’ve heard reasons/excuses like that for doing little for the eighty per cent of the world that’s poor. Or for doing nothing to cut back on energy consumption in response to climate change.

If William Wilberforce had thought like that there would never have been an 1807 ‘Act to Abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade’. If William Knibb, a leader among the following generation of abolitionists, had thought like that there would never have been the ‘Slavery Abolition Act’ of 1833 (put into effect in 1834 and slightly later in some territories), which finally set slaves free in British colonies. History is littered with stories of people who faced impossible odds, but went forward anyway and change happened. What history doesn’t record is how many could have made some contribution to change, but they didn’t try. They knew something in the shadows wasn’t right, but made no effort to change it because that seemed too hard. Their legacy is that they did nothing.

When we see what needs to be done but don’t care    I chaired a meeting of about 60 people discussing why people didn’t give enough support for overseas mission and aid. Lots of ideas were put forward: ‘The economy isn’t strong at present’; ‘People are worried about how to support their retirement’; ‘We need to communicate our message better’, and so on. Then a man got to his feet, not someone who normally said very much. But that day his words were powerful: ‘I believe the main reason why support is poor is because people simply don’t care. We – those of us here – don’t care enough to give until it hurts. It’s not surprising then that others, who know much less about the need, don’t care enough either.’ He spoke like that for two minutes. When he sat down there was silence. His words pierced every heart, and there was nothing else to say.

Caring for others is a comfortable concept in our heads, but if care only exists in our thoughts no-one benefits. It has to infuse and energise our hearts and our hands before it does anyone any good. What we see in the shadows never changes if we don’t do anything about it.

Strictly speaking then, sometimes we do see outside our narrow focus. But only dimly; it’s  dark enough we justify leaving the problems in the shadows where they won’t discomfort the lives we enjoy. That’s sad, very sad.

There are times when it’s good to be focused. That’s true. But a narrow focus will always run the danger of becoming tunnel vision. We won’t give attention to all the other things that matter and need our help. Look around, see a world of need and opportunity, care about it, and use everything God has given you to make it a better place.

Surviving Susie

I’ve told Susie’s story many times, almost always at pastors’ conferences. It seems every pastor has a ‘Susie’. The story is not mine but Joel Freeman’s in his delightfully titled book Kingdom Zoology.* (Susie is not the real name of the person he describes.)

Susie approaches Pastor Freeman with these words: ‘Everyone else I have talked to has ultimately abandoned me..’ They’d all given up on her, but Pastor Freeman had preached about unconditional love, so surely he’d help. ‘I know that you won’t abandon me,’ she said.

Freeman calls himself a turkey ready to be plucked by this damsel in distress. His ‘Messiah Complex’ kicked into high gear. He was flattered that she needed him. He’d ride to the rescue. He wouldn’t give up on Susie.

So he promised his help, day or night, and gave her his home number. The inevitable followed: Susie began calling at all hours including the middle of the night. And she could ‘talk like a windstorm with gusts up to fifty miles per hour!’

His wife spoke with Susie too, but was soon drained and gave up after three days. Freeman persevered and got the whole story – how her life was going nowhere, she felt constantly guilty, had a strange relationship with her mother, and men were out of favour. She panicked at any sound of disapproval from Freeman. But conversations went nowhere. Every idea was destroyed by excuses and circular reasoning.

After five days Freeman snapped when the phone rang at 3.15 a.m. He listened as Susie described a weird dream about Hitler playing a piano, but then he cut in, told her this could wait for a better time, that she could sleep anytime but he couldn’t, that he was tired and needed to rest now, and she could call him tomorrow. With that he slammed down the phone and unplugged the cord.

Susie was far from a happy lady. Freeman says he faced ‘an intense case of verbal assault and battery’. She asked what kind of Christian he was because he’d said he’d never abandon her. He was a hypocrite like all the others. On and on she went, making him feel angry, guilty and defensive. ‘She was an expert, and I was putty in her hands,’ he says.

Freeman leaves Susie’s story there. There were a few more Susies before he learned lessons, including the dynamics of a victim/rescuer relationship. His words made a lot of sense to me as a pastor, though experience also taught me there are no easy answers when someone has desperate problems.

But ‘Susies’ – and I’ll keep using that name to avoid revealing anyone’s identity – don’t just have problems. They use their problems to build a relationship with a willing listener because that attention is significant for them.

Before sharing insights and policies I implemented, let me say that dealing with Susie isn’t just an issue for pastors or others in caring professions. Susie can be a family member, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbour, a fellow golfer or church member – anyone who sees you as the person to whom they can pour out their troubles and use to prop up their challenging life.

Here are my lessons and best practices.

I had to beware my strong desire to care. Thankfully many of us sincerely love others. It’s such a good thing to do, Jesus listed loving your neighbour as the second greatest commandment of all. So, how can you just turn away someone genuinely distressed, overwhelmed with their problems? You can’t. But that’s not the same as becoming deeply involved with their needs. Sharing someone else’s burden too easily devolves into carrying it for them, and then it becomes near impossible to lay down.

Also, there’s a dangerous flattery in being asked to help. Freeman felt that with Susie. ‘My ego was stroked’ he writes. She saw a depth of wisdom in him she’d never found in others. It’s hard to recognise or accept, but in trying to meet another’s needs, we may be satisfying our own need to be needed. A ‘need to be needed’ is insatiable, and can draw us into seriously unwise relationships.

I had to get real about how much I could really help. Initially I didn’t realise three things:

  1. I was often out of my depth. I was trained deeply in theology but very little in psychology or counselling. What my Susies needed was well beyond my understanding or skill set.
  2. The problems were Susie’s, not mine, and Susie had to find and own the answers or they would never be fixed. I could help but I could not solve.
  3. The Susies I knew kept inventing or revealing new problems, guaranteeing the ‘counselling’ would never end. My attention and support were what Susie wanted, not a resolution to her troubles.

Susies can be Simons. In other words, the highly needy people I encountered were not all female. Men were just as unsettled and anxious, but on the whole shunned attention initially. They’d try to resolve their issues alone. When they couldn’t, and anxiety and insecurity grew, then they sought help. Soon they could be as needy as any Susie. George would invite me to meet him for lunch, because, he said, he wanted to encourage me. So we’d get together and George would talk incessantly about his disappointments and problems. Not a word of encouragement for me. (And, though he’d invited me, he didn’t pay for lunch.)

I had to set the limits. I told a more experienced colleague that I was finding myself enmeshed in lengthy counselling with some people. He described how he controlled his counselling appointments. ‘I never meet with someone for more than one hour,’ he said. ‘They know that before we start.’ But, I explained, just when the conversation is ending, Susie will suddenly tell me something new and important about her life. ‘Exactly!’ he replied. ‘And so I tell my counselee that’s great because it’s where we’ll start talking when our next appointment comes.’

He was right. My counselling was going on so long because I’d fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. Susies were dropping juicy morsels whenever they sensed the conversation might end to make sure it didn’t end. I had to set limits and keep to them.

I couldn’t be the permanent crutch for someone’s life. I had congratulated myself that those I supported had told me things no-one else knew. ‘And no-one else can know’ they’d say firmly. I was wrong to agree to that total confidentiality. There can be legal obligations to disclose facts to authorities, and counsellors should have accountability and support for their work. But, even setting those aside, the consequence of being the sole prop for someone’s life is the inability to remove yourself. Their stability now depends on you, and you can’t leave them with no support. You wish you’d never got into that position, but you did. And so the relationship runs on indefinitely.

One of my friends shared how he defined in advance the number of times he’d counsel someone. Usually it was a maximum of four or five. During that time he’d set his counselee steps to be taken towards wholeness or problem resolution. Those might be new behaviours, or sharing their struggle with another person, or apologising, or something else appropriate. If, by the next time they talked, nothing had been done about those action steps, the meetings would stop until action was taken. Side-stepping issues and excuses were common, but they were usually unacceptable reasons. Unless someone would make positive moves towards wholeness, the process couldn’t continue. In general, my friend’s method had wisdom. The alternative may be never-ending counselling.

Susie’s behaviour can become seriously inappropriate. It feels presumptuous to believe someone else will behave badly. But it’s naïve to assume a needy person’s attachment will stay within proper limits.

One of my Susies lived on my route home from church, and, because she didn’t have a car and might have to wait for a bus on a dark, rainy night, I’d occasionally give her a lift. After a while I became aware that she was stranded without a ride home more often than before. I learned too late that Susie was declining other offers of transport, telling people I’d already promised to take her home. That wasn’t true. The final time came one night when, as I pulled in beside her house, she reached her hand behind my head, leaned over and made a determined attempt to kiss me on the mouth. She caught me by surprise, but thankfully I reacted quickly and avoided contact. I told her in an angry voice that what she’d done was unacceptable and not at all wanted by me, and she needed to get out of the car immediately. She did. I drove home, still angry, and immediately told Alison what had happened.

She wasn’t the only Susie who became amorous, and I began to invite my female pastoral team colleague to sit in on meetings. Needless to say, the counselee wasn’t thrilled, but it wasn’t her decision to make.

Anyone who thinks they’re invulnerable to inappropriate behaviour is either naïve or wears armour.

You have to make decisions you can live with. You need to be able to find peace with your conscience.

It wasn’t common but occasionally I’d get a desperate call in the middle of the night. I had a phone right beside the bed, so would struggle into some kind of wakefulness and listen as someone described how terrible they felt. Alison would tell me next morning how calm and attentive I’d seemed; not at all what I was thinking at the time.

The call one night was from one of my Susies. I knew her struggles very well. But this time she was calling me at 1.00 in the morning from a phone box near the shore. In the dark that was not a safe place for her to be. I listened, I reassured, I encouraged her, and gave other counsel as best I could. All the time a voice in my head said ‘Get dressed, drive down and rescue Susie’. And another voice said ‘Do that and you’ll have to be her rescuer every night she feels troubled’. I listened to the second voice. I shared all the hopeful, positive things I could with Susie, she became calmer, and I gently brought the conversation to an end. As I settled down to sleep, I didn’t know for sure what Susie would do next. It could be the worst. If that happened, would I be able to live with my conscience? I believed I could. Thankfully Susie went home to her bed.

Families matter more. I’ve put that statement last in my list, not because it’s less important but because it’s more important. I want it to be the most remembered paragraph of all. I’ve never forgotten a cartoon drawing I saw years ago. It portrayed a clergyman heading off for work, with his wife and children farewelling him. Her parting words to him were: ‘How about switching things round today: be mean with those you meet doing your work, then come home and be nice to us’. Ouch! That cartoon likely made a lot of pastors feel guilty.

Someone once told me, ‘We hurt the ones closest to us because they’ll forgive us’. That’s true, but it’s not how it should be. Our families may be understanding and forgiving, but putting them behind everyone else who claims our time is simply wrong. It’s verging on cruel. When we look back over the years, it’ll be our biggest regret. Unless, that is, we change while there’s time. Susie is not more important than our families.

Let me finish with the story I heard directly from Pastor Tom. He’d counselled his Susie many times, but her problems and worries were endless. She’d call him at all hours. But one night – when the phone rang at 2 o’clock in the morning – he’d had enough. He told her: ‘Susie, go and stand outside, look up at the myriad of stars in the sky, and tell yourself that the God who made all this is well able to look after my problems. And then go back to bed.’ That said, he swiftly put the phone down.

We could all question the rightness of that approach, but I suspect we understand why Tom said it.

*Freeman, Joel (1991/3), Kingdom Zoology, Word (UK).

Necessary endings

I’ve not always been grateful when people told me that I should really read such-and-such a book. Too often what gripped their interest didn’t grip mine.

So, when my friend Steve recommended Necessary Endings, I thanked him but never got round to buying a copy. Then the book arrived through the post, a gift from Steve. ‘He must really want me to read it!’ I thought. I’m so glad I did. I’d put Necessary Endings high up in the top ten of important books I’ve read in recent years. Much of it is directed to business professionals, yet the insights relate to ordinary life for ordinary people.

Henry Cloud is the author, a clinical psychologist who also wrote Boundaries which is subtitled ‘When to say yes; how to say no’. I needed to read that book 30 years earlier.

Necessary Endings* conveyed a message to me I needed to hear later on.

Cloud sets out his main ideas in the opening pages. Here are some brief quotes:

‘Today may be the enemy of your tomorrow.’

‘In your business and perhaps your life, the tomorrow that you desire and envision may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today.’

‘…you will see that endings are a natural part of the universe, and your life and business must face them, stagnate, or die.’

The principle is simple: To get to the good that’s right for you, you must let go of what you have already.

That immediately reminded me of a critical scene in the 1975 film, The Eiger Sanction, which stars Clint Eastwood. (I won’t give away the story line or ending but will describe a critical scene. Those who think they might still watch the film may prefer to skip beyond this paragraph.) Near the end, the main character, Hemlock, leads the descent of the north face of the Eiger, heading for a tunnel in the mountain. Others fall to their deaths, but Hemlock survives, though left hanging from a rope over a 4000 foot drop. He’s only a few metres from the tunnel ‘window’ and rescuers standing in the tunnel throw Hemlock a rope which he catches. But he’s already held by his own rope. It’s saving him from falling to certain death. Yet he can’t be pulled to safety unless he cuts his rope, the rope which has literally been his lifeline. That’s a huge risk. What will he do?

I’m not answering that question! But the analogy to Cloud’s point is clear. There are moments when the only way to the next good thing is by cutting free from what holds you now.

Cloud develops his theme masterfully through his book. But, for this blog, the comments which follow are mine, because I’m sharing only what I’ve seen or experienced to be true.

What you have will usually feel safer than anything you don’t yet have. We are secure with the present, because we know it. What might happen in the future is unknown, uncertain and therefore unwelcome. But what we have isn’t better just because we have it! Or just because we understand it. I may know exactly why I’ve got a headache, but that doesn’t mean I want to keep it!

Familiarity doesn’t just breed contempt, it breeds complacency. Our self-preservation instincts bias us to stick with what feels safe. Hence, the person considering leaving secure employment to become self-employed will often choose to stay in the job with the regular salary. The ‘run your own business’ dream is at war with the ‘stay safe at all times’ instinct, especially when there’s a mortgage to pay and a family to feed.

But safer isn’t necessarily better. Some years ago a radio programme interviewed women who’d given up lucrative careers to be stay-at-home mums. They were abandoning professional ambitions and a second income in order to spend time with the family. The loss of income forced their families into more modest lifestyles. But the women reported that the overall quality of family life had increased hugely. Everyone was happier, more relaxed, more content. They’d no regrets about the change. The safe choice would have been status quo; but they ended what they had in order to gain something better for themselves and their families.

(By the way, I don’t know why the husbands weren’t those who let go of their careers! Perhaps another programme covered that.)

For others, the decision those women made might have been entirely wrong. My point, though, is that there are criteria other than ‘safeness’ to be considered when deciding between ‘change’ and ‘no change’.

The choice may not be between a ‘bad’ present and a ‘good’ future. Sometimes the present is good and the future looks good, but of course you can only have one. You must decide which.

That’s far from easy. Alison and I faced that situation choosing whether or not to have more children after we already had two. Two was great, a boy and then a girl, the exact family unit described in old-fashioned books. Yet we’d always thought we’d have a third. Hmm…? Inconveniently there’s no middle ground. You can’t have two and a half children, nor ‘return baby to store’ within two weeks if everything doesn’t work out well. A third would be a decision for life. Our family was wonderful with two, but having another would also be wonderful.  We chose to have number three, and we have no regrets. Nor did we regret it when we chose to have number four!

In some of the most practical decisions of life – having children, moving home, changing jobs, buying another car – there are necessary endings. You have to let go of what’s great to gain something else that’s also great. When new opportunities are possible, we have to choose. And that, after all, is a great privilege.

Failing to recognise the time for an ending can be disastrous. We lived in the north of the USA, right alongside Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes. Those lakes are massive, almost seas. But there are smaller lakes all over the northern part of America, and in the far north they offer the opportunity for ice fishing.

There’s a Wikipedia page headed Ice Fishing. Here are the opening two sentences:

Ice fishing is the practice of catching fish with lines and fish hooks or spears through an opening in the ice on a frozen body of water. Ice fishers may fish in the open or in heated enclosures, some with bunks and amenities.

That description nicely sums up the sport, but almost underplays it. Use a search engine related to ice fishing, and you’ll find a myriad of special tools for sale: snowmobiles to get far out on the ice; augers to cut the hole in the ice; shelters to keep comfortable while fishing and overnight; super-warm clothing; books that will explain how to do ‘jigging with a spring bobber’. And much, much more.

That wouldn’t be my kind of sport, but if it was, there’s one thing I wouldn’t want to do. I would not want to be camped in the middle of a frozen lake as spring warms the air and melts the ice. The goal of the sport is to fish, not to have the ice beneath your feet collapse consigning you to certain death in super cold water.

There’s a time when something feels exactly right, and a time when the same thing has become seriously wrong. Knowing when an ending has come is essential. My friend wanted just a few more years to build up his business. He knew his health wasn’t great, but he’d stop soon. But his ‘soon’ never came. He died suddenly from a massive heart attack. What had been so right for him had become so wrong. There’s a time to end what we’re doing, and nothing good comes from ignoring that.

Sometimes there’s an ending which is not our decision. Elite sports stars may have to retire years earlier than they expected because of injury. Or firms merge and people are made redundant, perhaps with little chance of employment again in their field. Or someone is fired, deservedly or not. Or a relationship, perhaps a marriage, is ended by the other person’s choice, not ours. Or a talent someone believed would take them to the top proves not quite good enough, and the dream dies.

These situations are all very different. What they have in common are disappointment, sadness, confusion, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, and perhaps false guilt.

There’s a saying that if someone goes through life with no failures, then they didn’t try hard enough. There’s some truth in that. Ambitious people push boundaries, but not all boundaries yield. And not everyone wants to cooperate with our plans. So there will be an ending, with all the grief that brings.

Three short paragraphs of advice.

As best you can, end well. Our instinct is to get angry, and let everyone know how cheated or hurt we feel. But that usually only inflicts damage, much of it damage to ourselves.

Lean on others. The temptation is to keep our hurt secret, a private agony we don’t share. That’s not wise. There are times we need strength beyond our own, our burden shared, but others can’t help if they don’t know. Let them in, and they can listen to our anger or disappointment, reassure us of our worth, and give hope for the future.

There’s a saying that ‘when God closes a door he opens a window’. I’m not a fan of trite sayings. Yet, every ending is a new beginning. There have been things in my life which had to end so God could give me the even better future he had planned for me. When something ends and we let it go, we’re not left with empty hands. God gives us new dreams, new skills, new friends, new ways to be useful and fulfilled. There are good beginnings beyond even the worst endings.

I’m grateful to Henry Cloud for his book, and to my friend Steve for giving me a copy. The simple thesis – that there are ‘necessary endings’ – has become an important truth for me, and hopefully also now for you.

* Dr Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings, 2010, Harper Collins Publishers. It’s easily found online, but be careful not to confuse it with a book with the same title by another author.  Cloud also has his own website:

Some things can’t be taught

I was listening to a podcast during which the hosts were responding to a listener’s complaint that his doctor lacked compassion. Seems the podcasters also knew compassion-deficient medics. The podcast conversation was about general practitioners (primary care physicians), people we’d expect to communicate care and concern. But apparently these doctors didn’t. And one of the podcasters said she was surprised about that, because, after all, ‘we can teach compassion’.

Really? We can teach the importance of compassion, and perhaps ways in which a doctor can show compassion appropriately. But can we make someone compassionate? Could any content of a lecture result in the uncaring people who walked in, later walking out as caring people? Compassion isn’t an idea or a piece of knowledge. It’s a heart-felt desire to love, support, encourage, sympathise. That’s how it is, not just for doctors but for anyone.

It got me thinking about what else can’t be taught. It wasn’t difficult to come up with a long list. I’ve set down only a few here.

Wisdom  Someone might have a fistful of university degrees, but that’s no guarantee they’ll act wisely. The captain of the Titanic had all the necessary sea-faring qualifications, but on one fateful night lacked the wisdom to take his vessel slowly through iceberg-strewn water. The Titanic was travelling at virtually full speed, leaving only 30 seconds from the sighting of the iceberg to the moment of collision. The captain had knowledge, but on that night lacked wisdom.

Kindness  A couple of years ago I was walking in our local shopping centre, when a female voice with a slightly foreign accent said, ‘Excuse me, didn’t you work in the offices just up the road?’

‘Yes, I did…’ I said hesitantly, turning to see who’d asked the question. I couldn’t place her. I wondered if she’d mistaken me for someone else, but she was right that I used to work in those offices. ‘I’m sorry, I said. ‘I don’t recognise you.’

‘That’s all right, but I recognise you. I worked in the early evenings cleaning the offices, and you often asked me how I was. And listened while I told you. You were kind to me.’

Now I felt slightly guilty, because I still didn’t remember her. But I did speak with the cleaners who came in when others had gone. Their work was important, and they were important. So I enjoyed getting to know them. And, for at least that lady, it had mattered.

But there was not a single class during my theological degrees or business degree on kindness. No-one taught that. Kindness, thoughtfulness, caring and similar qualities should have been talked about, but I suspect they were never on the curriculum for two reasons: a) no-one thought they needed to be taught; b) no-one thought they could be taught.

Spirituality  Now surely that was taught in theological college? I remember lectures on different approaches to spirituality, one of which resulted in the challenge to meditate for as long as we could, with one hour as the minimum. (I did reasonably well for about 30 minutes, after which my mind kept meditating on why the clock wasn’t going round faster. Failed that challenge.) And there was an interesting study on the theme of prayer in Luke’s gospel.

So, we talked about spirituality, but lectures could never make anyone spiritual. Why not? Because true spirituality is practising the presence of God, living close to God, longing to know God and to serve God. It’s the desire for every part of your being to belong to God, and every area of your life dedicated to his purposes. That’ll result in prayer, Bible study, and maybe even meditation, but these are disciplines of spirituality, not spirituality itself.

Someone could sit in classes on spirituality for ten years, and not emerge any closer to God. Spirituality is a thing of the heart, of the mind, of the will, of someone’s desires and motivations and goals. It comes from inside, and can’t be taught from outside.

I could go on with my list. There are plenty more ‘unteachables’: empathy; friendliness; leadership; humility; patience; virtue. And even the supremely important love. If only love could be taught, wouldn’t the world be a much better place? But it can’t, because, like other attitudes and attributes, it lives in the heart and flows out through all that’s said and done.

So, is there no way to help anyone discover and own qualities like these in their lives? It’s not hopeless.

First, some things are caught, even when they can’t be taught.

I was about 20 when I met Paul. He was 25 and married. Paul and his wife were warm-hearted, outgoing, friendly Americans. They’d come to Edinburgh so Paul could study for his PhD in a subject I didn’t really understand, other than it was to do with the New Testament. I had just left full-time journalism, and was studying to pass exams that would get me admitted to university. The long-term goal was to become a minister. Paul and I became friends. Soon I picked up on his passion for study, and in particular for understanding the New Testament. He inspired me to get hold of a book called The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961 by Stephen Neill. I travelled by bus every day, and read a few pages going out and a few more coming back. Sometimes I read it while walking down the street. Some of it didn’t make sense, but I was hooked. That book, which I still have today, plus Paul’s enthusiasm for New Testament study, gripped me. I passed my exams, and was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. After a few years I had my Arts degree, then began studying theology. I could have specialised in several areas, but I had only one aim: to do an Honours degree in New Testament. That worked out well, and I was awarded a national scholarship to study for a PhD in (you guessed) New Testament studies.

Paul never told me that I should love studying the New Testament. But his passion became my passion. It communicated. It inspired. It motivated. And therefore changed the direction my studies would take and therefore my life would take. He didn’t teach any goal to me, but I certainly learned one from him.

Second, sometimes coaching gets you where teaching can’t.

I learned to swim when I was about five years old. Who taught me? It would seem my Dad did. But not really. My Dad couldn’t teach me because he couldn’t swim. He understood the basic strokes with arms and feet, but he was hopeless at coordinating his movements and sank like a brick. But Dad wanted me to learn, so he’d take me to the swimming pool and coach me as best he could. Lean forward, arms out front, then pull to the side and push forward again, all while pulling my feet up and out and back. He’d put his hand just under my body, not holding me up but reassuring me that he’d never let me drown. And one day I took off through the water with a near perfect breast stroke, unafraid, somehow having mastered one of those abilities you never lose.

Dad couldn’t teach me, but his coaching and encouragement got me there. I’ve seen that model followed in other areas. It happens in sport when a football team coach, perhaps never the best of players, inspires and guides others to greatness. Or someone helping people become capable public speakers. There’s no formula for that, for each person must find their own ‘voice’ and their own mode of delivery. The good coach doesn’t impose a method, but helps each person become the best they can be by showing them how to apply their own gifts to the task.

Third, each of us can learn by finding our own mentors.

I’ve never had anyone with a defined role in my life of a mentor. But there are people I’ve pummelled with questions, whose example I’ve copied, whose thinking has challenged mine. My pastor friend Peter is one of those. So was Tom, whose life and mine were on parallel tracks through our twenties. He was my confidante, my guide, my companion. Caroline had a passion for mission and a toughness of spirit which motivated and strengthened me in my early days heading up a missionary society. Karen helped me understand and appreciate academic study, and modelled how to motivate as well as educate young adults for Christian service. There are many more, certainly including my scholarly friend Paul I mentioned earlier. (When Alison and I lived in America, we tracked down Paul and his wife and met up with them in Texas. He’s still studying the New Testament and writing books about it. So, still inspiring and challenging me.)

Learning from how others live, from what they think, and from their experience may mean more than anything we’ll learn in a formal classroom. It may not be ‘teaching’ but it’s certainly ‘learning’.

I’ve been immensely privileged with opportunities to study. I would never minimise the benefit of that. But formal learning is not everything. Whether it’s for career, for marriage, for parenting, for being a good citizen, there are qualities and attributes that matter deeply but have to be learned in other ways. In the end those ‘soft skills’ may be the most significant for living a life that fulfils us and serves others.