Saturday, December 01, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (35)

I’m writing at the office today, so it’s time for an office-themed post.

Our Bible’s Solomonic proverbs are roughly 3,000 years old. The ones the king of Israel preserved from other sources are even older. Still, many remain surprisingly useful and informative — even when we attempt to apply them to the goings-on in a modern commercial office building.

Here are three that still work. Mostly.

Assorted Proverbs (Proverbs 20:1-30)

Refusing to Be Drawn In
“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife,
but every fool will be quarreling.”
Some people will dispute absolutely anything. I know; I’ve worked with a bunch of them.

You probably recognize the type: the guy to whom you say “Good morning” who has to stop and explain why, for one reason or another, it really isn’t good at all. Ad infinitum. Either it’s starting to snow, or the subway isn’t running on time, or the inconsiderate repainters of the underground parking garage forced him to leave his car on the street where it will surely be broken into by noon. If you say the sky is blue, he replies that it’s actually aquamarine shot through with cerulean. If you tell a roomful of people you need something from them by nine, he’s the one to give you ten reasons why your request is completely unreasonable, can’t possibly happen and epitomizes management’s chronic failure to set realistic deadlines and its total lack of consideration for the troops. In a meeting about how to most efficiently roll out the new software, he’s the one who is convinced the most valuable use of management’s time is listening to him carp about how the dishwasher in the employee kitchen needs replacing.

People of this personality type are often transparently selfish in their outlook, faulty in their comprehension of the facts, or weak in their arguments. Even when they are technically correct, it is in the most petulant, trivial and obnoxious way possible. It can be tempting to try to put them in their place. But anyone with experience knows this sort of person cannot be placated, distracted or shut down with a sentence or two. In fact, this is precisely what they’re looking for: someone to push back at them and thereby confirm the veracity of all their complaints while giving them an excuse to amp up the rhetoric.

Aloofness is not something we normally think of as a Christian virtue, but this is not a snotty, distant arrogance Solomon is recommending. The Hebrew word here is shebeth, which means literally to do nothing. In 36-point bright red flashing capital letters, DO NOT ENGAGE.

I wish I could cure other well-intentioned members of our staff of trying to correct these rare, terminally cantankerous fellow employees. The “winner” in such engagements is never the man or woman who responds with a more logical argument or has a better possession of the facts. Rather, it is the guy who smiles, says “Have a great day!” and walks the other way.

As fast as he possibly can.

Winnowing the Wicked
“A wise king winnows the wicked
  and drives the wheel over them.”
In primitive rural societies, the threshing wheel was a mechanism used to loosen the husks of picked grain by applying pressure. The wheel was rolled over grain spread out on a flat surface. In modern times, spreading the grain on a country road to be threshed by the wheels of passing vehicles serves the same purpose.

Winnowing is simply the process of separating the good part of the grain from the useless part once it has been threshed. It can be accomplished by throwing the grain into the air with a shovel, fork or fan so the lighter chaff will blow away and the heavier grain will fall to the ground.

Threshing human beings with a wheel sounds painful and nasty even metaphorically, but we must remember that we are talking about the wicked: not just people whose personalities we don’t like, but individuals who are bent, obdurate and calculatingly immoral. Haman in the book of Esther would be a fine example. In his desire to crush his perceived enemies, exalt himself and curry the favor of the king, he was willing to do absolutely anything, including initiate genocide.

Most corrupt modern corporocrats can’t hold a candle to Haman. Nevertheless, it remains the job of those in authority to keep wicked people out of positions of responsibility. If this is not done, the product is ruined, the process is corrupted and the people performing the work become discouraged and unproductive.

In days of old, this was often accomplished mercilessly. Today, provided we build a case carefully, we can simply call someone into Human Resources and let them know their services are no longer required. Either way, if you are not prepared to manage evil when you find it, there is no point in managing anything at all. Wisdom demands the occasional winnowing.

There is, of course, a relevant application for churches here too.

No Country for Old Men
“The glory of young men is their strength,
  but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.”
Not many older men in my office sport gray hair. In fact, a few of our fifty-somethings look like they’ve been worked over with a stray bottle of boot polish. Nobody’s buying it, but you have to give them points for effort.

For almost fifty years now, looking one’s age has been increasingly out of style, even for men. The message you send when you fail to keep your youthful color is that you’re past your best-before date and need to be not-so-gently nudged out to pasture. Since there are always young bucks on the way up to do it, and they’re happy to take half what you make to do your job, older men do whatever they can to maintain a phony impression of youth and vitality.

This was not always such a struggle, as Proverbs indicates. Once upon a time, gray hair told the world you were either exceptionally smart or exceptionally rich. This was because most countries were perpetually at war, internally and externally. It was men who did the fighting and men who died in the blush of youth in large numbers.

For example, Solomon’s father David fought nine separate major campaigns against the Philistines (1 Samuel 17, 19 and 27; 2 Samuel 5, 8 and 21). He also warred with the Amalekites (1 Samuel 30), the Ammonites (2 Samuel 10) and the city of Jebus (1 Chronicles 11). Add to this multiple internecine conflicts, the skirmishes required to unite the kingdom in the first place, and the violence involved in putting down Absalom’s rebellion, and you have a veritable lifetime of war. The opportunities to die young were endless. David did not fight in every one of these battles, of course, but numerous others did — at least until such time as they became a step too slow to evade that final, fatal arrow, spear, slashing sword or stampeding horse.

Oh, and the occasional upper millstone to the head, though I’m going back to Judges for that one, which probably isn’t fair.

To get old enough to go gray, you had to be rich enough to pay others to fight your battles for you, or wily enough to fight multiple campaigns and come out in one piece. Not so today; aging men are comparatively plentiful. The respect and attention they receive? Not so much.

Abruptly reversing a bit of social etiquette that has lasted thousands of years does not flatter our society.

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