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.