He Who Hesitates Is Smart

John Stackhouse

There is one thing you can count on from motivational speakers.

--Well, okay, you can count on a few things: big smiles, big energy, and big jokes. If you get a good one, you can also get some big ideas.

But here's a big idea such speakers invariably announce as if it's a big surprise: "Plan!" they'll say. "Have a goal, a dream, an objective, a target! If you aim at nothing, you'll be likely to hit it!"

Like most wisdom, we already know this truth. And, yes, it does help to have someone remind us in a fresh way that life needs direction and decision. We must not sleepwalk through our existence, as Kierkegaard warned his nice, middle-class peers in Denmark a century ago. We have to see where things are going, envision where we want to go, and then indeed we have to do something ourselves to get up and go!

And yet. One of the most important lessons of life is the insight that the world is a big, complicated place and we are small and limited beings. Now, this piece of wisdom isn't a big surprise to us, either. But it needs to be borne in mind precisely when we’re in our most optimistic strategizing sessions: We don't know the future and we can't make it happen.

Anyone want to say, "NASDAQ" or "dotcom" along with me at this point? Anyone want to say, "The whole darned stock market"?

Political scientist Glenn Tinder wrote an essay at the end of his career at the University of Massachusetts on The Political Meaning of Christianity. Here is what a hardheaded Poli-Sci professor thinks is one of the most important implications of religion for the real world: hesitation.

We must acknowledge our limitations, says Professor Tinder. We must stare out into the blankness of the future and realize that we really do not have foresight, or "second sight," or anything other way to tell what's ahead except the sophisticated guesswork called "extrapolations" offered by the social scientists and historians. All that these specialists can tell us is that the future will be something like the past, but it won't be just like the past.

In fact, when journalists call me to explain this or that event in contemporary religion and culture in North America, they almost always ask me what I think will happen next. And I always laugh and say, in my most impressive professorial voice, "Well, if present trends continue - and they won't!"

Now the prognostications of the cognoscenti can be helpful—even if they sometimes use pretentious words like 'prognostications' and 'cognoscenti.' They can help us plan for a variety of possibilities and then we can take our best shot. We can hope to hit our targets as we aim into the fog because those targets just might be where our most intelligent guesses predict they'll be.

But that's all we have: good guesses. And that's why we need not just detailed data, expert interpretation, and courageous decision-making, but the wisdom to acknowledge our shortcomings and confusion.

So we need to pay attention to the inconvenient data that might annoy or discourage us - "That's not what I want to see!" It's precisely that unexpected and perhaps unwelcome data that might lead us to a more careful plan. "Hmm: Let me pause for a moment to think of how I can take those findings into account."

We need to listen to advisors who give us unusual and even contrary counsel. They might be the ones saying "Get out of X now and into Y: X's time is almost up!" while everyone else is saying "More X! More X!"

And we especially need to heed those who, like the prophets of old, warn us of our folly if we persist in what we prefer to think is bold leadership but is instead simply pigheaded refusal to admit we might be wrong. Do we have "Yes and No and Maybe" people around us, or just "Yes" people?

Finally, we need to plan also for failure, whether partial or total. Who can guess right all the time? If you can, forget your job: Just go to Vegas and make your pile this weekend at the tables!

No, we must remember, as the Bible says, that, "we are but dust." We are just creatures who cannot transcend our limitations, even as we properly strive toward being our best.

"He who hesitates is lost," says the proverb. Well, sure: sometimes. But another one says, "Haste makes waste."

As you gather together your information, advisors, and fortitude for your next big decision, heed the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures and the contemporary wisdom of Professor Tinder, and recall who and what you are.

And then intelligently, wisely, and boldly hesitate.

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