Wisdom Lives in the Messy Middle

5 Feb

Me at 17. Hair sold separately.

This guy knew next to nothing at this age. But his hair had a mind of its own.

A couple days ago I went back to my alma mater, Duke University, to guest teach a journalism class. I’ve done this a few times before and always want to say the same thing to my late teen/early 20s self as I stand before these bright, confident and, most of all, shockingly young faces:

“I graduated from here 20 years ago, which, I recall from once having been your age, makes me so old that it’s literally impossible for you to fathom. And the fact that I’m also bald doesn’t help. But let me tell you something: You don’t really know a damn thing about anything! And you know what else? There’s not a damn thing I can do about it either!”

That’s the censored version.

I’ve never said this, of course, to a group of kids whose folks are forking out $60,000 a year for their enlightenment. But I’ve said it to old photos of me where I still had lots of hair. And I do look forward to saying it to my own children when they reach the appropriate age and are attending a far less expensive college because their parents just had to be writers.

Anyway, this was a small group of public policy students who are learning how to make a persuasive case for changes to the education, energy, health and government sectors in something other than bone dry policy memos. So I shared a few things I’ve learned over the past five years co-writing a column for a North Carolina newspaper on topics similar to the ones this class cares about.

I’ll let others judge how successful these columns have been, but I do know when I’ve written subpar ones. And those were the times I didn’t fully explore the tensions between two competing poles. Whether you’re writing a column about dropout prevention or civility in politics, you need to tell an engaging story with real people in it; otherwise it’s just a boring hodgepodge of facts and assertions. But, on the other hand, if your column doesn’t also use that story to make a deeper point about a bigger picture, your readers might think they just wasted their time. Likewise, the opposite of passion for a writer is objectivity, the opposite of consistency is freshness and surprise, the opposite of history is the present.

None these poles are more inherently right or valuable than their opposites. Which can cause frustration when you’re looking for easy answers. My favorite columns, I told the class, are the ones where I’ve worked the space between these poles and come up with something that blended both extremes. It’s often an uncomfortable process, but wisdom really does thrive in the messy middle.

Slowly, I’m realizing that prayer might work the same way. In this case, the opposite poles – in my experience, at least – have been the deeply meditative and time-consuming centering prayer method, which I wrote about last week, and rapid-fire micro prayers, which my friend J.B. Wood’s Shrinking the Camel blog has helpfully explored. They constitute the vast majority of my own prayer life.

Commenters on last week’s post affirmed their own belief in the power of micro prayers. But a case was also made for the importance of longer, deeper periods of prayer, which Jesus himself exemplified when he routinely slipped away from the towns and crowds and into the desert or hills to renew himself. The richest prayer life possible probably comes from finding the right balance between the two, and achieving it first requires experimentation and struggle.

Who has time for that?

Still, seeing that there’s probably no other choice, it’s maybe too early to give up centering prayer just yet. The recommended 20 to 30 minute sessions twice a day are unrealistic, but the intent behind it – to give our souls the deeper nourishment and respite they need – seems logical.

What does that look like in practice? I’ll let you know what I find out. Or, better yet, please tell me if you already know.



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