Have you ever been caught up in your own struggles? Have you ever gotten confused and lost in your own ideas of what you should do – of what you have to do – of what you think is right? When the light finally dawned on you, did you realize how wrong and clueless you were?
This has happened to all of us. It’s happened to me. (I’m thinking of a couple of incidents where I tried to fix my family’s car by myself.) It’s still happening in parts of my life.
At its worst this kind of confusion is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger are psychology professors at Cornell University. They did some experiments – on their long-suffering college students – that proved this: people who lack competence in a field of human endeavor often …
- Underestimate the skill level of genuinely competent people,
- Overestimate their own level of skill, and
- Underestimate their own inadequacy.
We’ve all seen this in others. I’ve survived Dunning Kruger disease myself a few times (even if the car didn’t come through so well). Maybe you have too. I think you know the symptoms: a sneaking suspicion that somebody we work for is an idiot? A “don’t bother me with these details” kind of frustration? Maybe we even get the feeling Moses had in our first reading:
If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once–if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery.
The good news is that Dunning Kruger disease is curable: when we get some training and work with good mentors, we quickly figure out where we stand. Our self-deception goes away. We quickly start to appreciate the depth of competence and mastery we can aspire to.
But the cure isn’t easy. It takes laying aside the “kill me now” drama and getting to work. Who among us who knows a student has not said, “Stop griping about your teacher and your textbook already. Just try to do your homework, please?” Who among us has never griped about a teacher or mentor or boss?
We know it’s hard to lay aside the drama. Even Moses had a hard time doing it. The Lord had to personally change the subject to get him to move on. The same can happen for us. When we can move on, the steps our paths take to gain mastery are clear.
Practice, wonder, humility.
1. Gaining mastery takes practice: write the essay, do the problem set, memorize the vocabulary, practice your scales.
2. It takes opening up your heart to awe and wonder: That’s amazing! How did Herman Melville ever dream up Captain Ahab? How did Johann Bach make that cantata sound so wonderful? How did Albert Einstein ever realize that the whole relativity deal was as elegant as E = mc2? How did Jesus of Nazareth manage to summarize the whole teaching of the Law and the prophets as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself?” Wow! Wow.
3. Gaining mastery takes opening your soul to humility and willingness to struggle: When will I be able to speak Spanish well enough that people don’t pat me on the head like a child? Will I ever be able to play that Miles Davis riff on my trumpet? Maybe if I practice everyday!
In my case it also means going to Gary the car mechanic to say “help!” when I need to. It involves recognizing the mastery of others and asking for help.
Step by step: Practice, wonder, humility, practice, wonder, humility. It’s a lifelong journey.
After enough of those steps we start to gain competence and experience, and our natural arrogance starts to fade. Mastery means knowing our stuff, and knowing our limitations. That’s good.
But there’s another side to all this practice, wonder and humility. There’s something positive about the innocence of inexperience. Overconfidence is sometimes necessary and vital. In the organized creative professions like design, moviemaking and engineering, the people with lots of experience sometimes say to each other: “Let’s hire somebody fresh out of school: they’re too dumb to know this job is impossible so they’ll just do it.”
I wonder if that’s why the Lord called Moses? He wasn’t completely naïve when the Lord called him. He already had some experience in confronting the Egyptian bullies. He’d killed a slave driver, and was hiding out in the wilderness.
But we know he struggled with the leadership work the Lord had called him to do. The only way the Lord got him to cooperate at all at the burning bush was by promising him that his brother Aaron and sister Miryam would do all the talking. But the Lord needed him, Moses, and not someone else. The Lord, and the Lord’s people, needed everything that Moses was as a person: passionate, tough, fearless, and just clueless enough to agree to the impossible task of leadership required of him.
So out he went, full of the arrogance of inexperience, to confront Pharaoh and rescue God’s people. And, not surprisingly, when they got hungry they lost faith in his ability to rescue them. In his cluelessness he thought he should personally be taking care of everything they needed. But he could rely on God to help him when he needed it. In our reading he needed help with the most important part of leadership – sharing the work and sharing the power. And God provided that help.
Jesus’s disciples were inexperienced, too. They knew all about fishing, and about working hard. But Jesus didn’t choose them for their sophistication or skill in working with people. If they’d truly understood what he wanted from them when he said “follow me and I’ll make you fish for people,” they might not have followed. They were, like the fresh-out-of-school design engineer, just dumb enough to take on the job. They were the ones Jesus needed, and not someone else.
They did follow, with their arrogance of cluelessness. And here in Chapter 9 of Mark, on the way to Jerusalem, we hear them struggling with their cluelessness. Last week we heard about them arguing about which one of them was the greatest. This week we hear them, in their insecurity, wondering why somebody else was horning into the job they thought was exclusively theirs: John said,
Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.
So, in today’s reading we hear the disciples talking past Jesus and Jesus trying to get their attention.
I have to say, this is a hard gospel reading.
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
It makes the life of following Jesus sound quite dangerous. It always makes me fear that I’m not pious and pure enough. I fear, if justice were served, I’d be hopping on one foot with an eye missing. I fear I’m not, so I’m getting away with something. It’s a doubly hard reading because it’s true: we’re all getting away with something. Jesus is telling us that we’re personally accountable for how we take care of each other – especially the little ones, the powerless ones. He’s right. It’s a big responsibility, and not one that we can live up to by ourselves. Most of us have accidentally or intentionally tripped up somebody with less power than us and made them stumble. Guilty as charged, Lord. Have mercy!
Jesus isn’t just talking to you and me, though. He’s also talking to those disciples. He’s talking to the ones he called to follow him because of their courage, not their mastery. They obviously have Dunning Kruger disease: they’re incompetent and clueless. Jesus is holding a child in his lap as a sign of the mission of mercy and healing they share. But they have the same problem of leadership that Moses had. They’re trying to take the whole burden on themselves. They don’t understand that they are
Both vital to God’s mission of lovingkindness, healing, and mercy
And by themselves not nearly up to it. John is complaining to Jesus that some stranger is infringing their monopoly. Remember, they’re clueless: it’s not really their monopoly. It’s not about them, it’s about the people who need healing. Jesus needs to get their attention. So he reminds them that their ministry is pointless if it’s centered on them: they may as well sink in deep water.
With the child in his arms and the hard words he’s calling them back to the discipline of practice, wonder, humility, practice, wonder, and humility. That’s the discipline that overcomes their foolishness – the same foolishness that led them to follow him in the first place.
It’s the same necessary foolishness that you and I share. With cynical wisdom you and I can easily say, “forget it, there’s no way God’s realm of justice and mercy can come true in this world.” But, like those twelve, God needs us and not somebody else. Like them, we’re naïve enough to keep trying anyway. And here Jesus, who first called us to try, is now calling us – with unmistakable words – to the continual discipline of practice, wonder, and humility, and it’s for the sake of the life of the world.
In Jesus’s+ name, Amen.