Monday, January 14, 2013

The smart person and the idiot; or, Semper Gumby

It's also phrased "Improvise, Adapt, Overcome".
Over on Scholium is an excerpt from an October 1, 2010 article in Vanity Fair, "Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds" by Michael Lewis.  The blogmaster pulled this excerpt because Lewis, who is an atheist, spent some time with the Orthodox monks at Mt. Athos; the blogmaster is an Eastern Orthodox convert from the Anglican communion.  Now I'm going to do a little further extraction, from Lewis' conversation with Fr. Arsenios, whom he describes as "Mr. Inside, the consummate number two, the C.F.O., the real brains of the operation.  'If they put Arsenios in charge of the government real-estate portfolio,' a prominent Greek real-estate agent said to me, “this country would be Dubai.  Before the crisis.'"

... Like a lot of people who come to Vatopaidi, I suppose, I was less than perfectly sure what I was after.  I wanted to see if it felt like a front for a commercial empire (it doesn’t) and if the monks seemed insincere (hardly).  But I also wondered how a bunch of odd-looking guys who had walked away from the material world had such a knack for getting their way in it: how on earth do monks, of all people, wind up as Greece’s best shot at a Harvard Business School case study?
After about two hours I work up the nerve to ask him.  To my surprise he takes me seriously.  He points to a sign he has tacked up on one of his cabinets, and translates it from the Greek: THE SMART PERSON ACCEPTS. THE IDIOT INSISTS.
He got it, he says, on one of his business trips to the Ministry of Tourism.  “This is the secret of success for anywhere in the world, not just the monastery,” he says, and then goes on to describe pretty much word for word the first rule of improvisational comedy, or for that matter any successful collaborative enterprise.  Take whatever is thrown at you and build upon it.  “Yes … and” rather than “No … but.”  “The idiot is bound by his pride,” he says.  “It always has to be his way.  This is also true of the person who is deceptive or doing things wrong: he always tries to justify himself.  A person who is bright in regard to his spiritual life is humble. He accepts what others tell him — criticism, ideas — and he works with them.”

Catholic Marine "calling in air support"
Although the US Marine Corps' official motto is Semper Fidelis — Always Faithful — there are a couple of unofficial mottoes that speak to this point: "Adapt, Improvise, Overcome" and "Semper Gumby: Always Flexible".  When the enemy occupies a strong position that shuts the door on your advance, you don't waste men in stupid, futile direct assaults — you look for alternate routes, you exploit his weaknesses, and find the key that opens the door to victory.  Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia used this principle to defeat the Union Army of the Potomac in all but two major engagements up to 1864, despite being outnumbered 2:1 or 3:1, and started losing only when the Union found a commander capable of running a war of attrition — U. S. Grant.
But it starts with accepting the fact of the strong position, not pretending that it isn't there or that it's weaker than it really is.  You could also say it starts with not vesting so much in plans that you can't adapt them to fit an ever-changing reality.  As Dwight D. Eisenhower once told biographer Stephen B. Ambrose, "Before the battle, plans are everything.  After the battle begins, plans are useless."
Or we can take this observation by Harriet Beecher Stowe of Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln is a strong man, but his strength is of a peculiar kind; it is not aggressive so much as passive, and among passive things, it is like the strength not so much of a stone buttress as of a wire cable.  It is strength swaying to every influence, yielding on this side and on that to popular needs, yet tenaciously, inflexibly bound to carry its great end; and probably by no other kind of strength could our national ship have been drawn safely thus far during the tossings and tempests which beset her way.

Artist John H. Littlefield, who clerked and studied law under Lincoln, observed that he would concede any point he didn't think he could carry:

... [In] his opening speech before the jury, he would cut all the "dead wood" out of the case.  The client would sometimes become alarmed, thinking that Lincoln had given away so much of the case that he would not have anything left.  After he had shuffled off the unnecessary surplusage he would get down to "hard pan," and state the case so clearly that it would soon be apparent he had enough left to win the case with.  In making such concessions he would so establish his position in fairness and honesty that the lawyer on the opposite side would scarcely have the heart to oppose what he contended for.

It was this knack for stripping a case to its essentials that caused a fellow lawyer and political ally, Leonard Swett, to remark drily, "He was wise as a serpent in the trial of a cause, but I have had too many scares from his blows to certify that he was harmless as a dove. ... Any man who took Lincoln for a simple man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch."

Success in any endeavor comes from keeping the telos, the final cause or purpose, at the center of one's plans and actions rather than lesser secondary or instrumental causes. This is by no means a consequentialist position: good strategy neither dictates nor justifies all successful tactics.  Success isn't found in avoiding all conflict or in engaging in every battle the enemy offers; it means choosing your battles when you can and adapting when you can't, surrendering only when victory is finally impossible, retreat is cut off and death in battle can serve no further purpose.

In Christian life, our telos is neither to avoid physical death, which is impossible, nor to die on our own terms, which is vanity, but rather to die in friendship with God.  Not only is there just one gate (Jn 10:1-3), not all paths lead to it: some actions and behaviors frustrate the achievement of our telos by definition.  Sin alienates us from God, harms and divides the community, and leads to the disintegration  — literally, loss of integrity — of the soul.  The fool insists, denying sin or rationalizing it, reinforcing the damage; the wise man accepts responsibility (adapt), repairs as far as possible the broken relationships (improvise), and strives to amend his life (overcome).

If he's Catholic, he does, or should do, what any Marine does when confronted by the enemy: he uses all the weapons at his disposal (the sacraments, novenas, Eucharistic adoration); he sends for reinforcements (his faith community); and he calls in air support (the Blessed Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mother, all the angels and saints).  No one has to fight the Enemy alone; no one can fight the Enemy alone.  Adapt, improvise, overcome.  Semper Gumby.

As for surrender or death?  "Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven" (Mt 10:33).  Martyr, literally translated from the Greek, means "witness".  Christian life, lived in fullness and truth, is testimony to the truth of Christ: so is Christian death.  Thus Tertullian: "The blood of the martyrs is seed."   To reject the truth on pain of death or suffering is to reject one's telos; having rejected God's friendship and love for the sake of this transient life on this impermanent planet, what claim of justice can such a one have on eternal life in Heaven?  Yet even then, until he dies he has opportunity to repair the friendship (but don't wait too long, because this night your soul may be required of you [cf. Lk 12:20]).

The moral of all this megillah?  Don't insist on trying to get Heaven your way.  Accept responsibility for your sins through confession; use all the tools the Church places at your disposal for your salvation.  Always remember that your final purpose, your telos, is to die in God's embracing grace.

Or, to put it more briefly: Don't be an idiot.