Saturday, April 20, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (55)

Those who rule over us pay more attention to the small nuances of our lives than we might think.

Never has this been truer than in the information age, when all kinds of micro-details — true, false and grossly misleading — may be compiled into an executive summary with the click of an icon. That said, it is good practice to assume those who have the authority to call us to account are smarter than they sometimes appear. My own boss is able to find out a surprising amount about my work habits and relationships for the purpose of annual reviews, most of it via word of mouth from other employees.

Here are several proverbs that probably originated in King Solomon’s meditations as he observed the daily habits of the subjects of the kingdom he administered, and reflected on the performance and character of its officials.

Maybe one or two of them even noticed he was doing it.

The “Men of Hezekiah” Proverbs (Proverbs 28:21-28)

The Men Who Make the Wheels Go Round
“To show partiality is not good,
but for a piece of bread a man will do wrong.”
It’s a little bit more than the cost of a slice of bread*, but in 2011, enforcers for one major Mexican drug cartel were reported to be competing for work at a going rate of $35 a hit. If you think that sounds like the cheapest murder-for-hire available, you’d be wrong: in Spain you can get the same work done for as little as 20 euros, or around US$27. The value of human life depends on who you’re talking to. For the debased and desperate, it can be almost nothing.

Not every decision that affects our lives is made in courtrooms. More often it is the petty functionaries of the bureaucratic machine that wield the most power over us. They decide how much tax we pay, where we can and can’t travel, whether our insurance policies pay out on our claims and whether our children’s learning disabilities are or are not covered under the federal assistance plan. They decide whether the single kidney available for transplant goes to you or to the woman down the hall, and whether your surgery is scheduled for next week or the end of next year. Even the strictest legal and procedural guidelines never fully eliminate the broad discretion afforded these unelected, invisible, incredibly powerful decision-makers.

Moreover, for everyone but a sociopath, showing a little discreet partiality is significantly less offensive to the conscience than murder, especially when the bribe offered is not a glaringly obvious cash deal but a simple quid pro quo where one hand washes the other and favors are quietly exchanged with nobody else any the wiser. How easy is it to influence the system in your favor? Turns out it’s only a matter of knowing which wheels to grease.

It seems to me the proverb is a primarily a warning about human nature.
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*  Technically, slightly more than a slice is in view here. The expression is a humble Hebrew way of referring to a full meal.


Who is Chasing Whom?
“A stingy man hastens after wealth
and does not know that poverty will come upon him.”
The Hebrew expression translated “stingy” in my ESV is literally “he whose eye is evil”. The word translated “hastens after” suggests a state of nervous excitement. This man is off to pursue wealth with a focus on getting rich as expeditiously as possible. However, the pursuer does not know that he too is being pursued. His haste has made him incautious and his investments are high-risk. Before long, he will find he is the prey, not the predator.

I wonder about the word “stingy” in my translation. That word denotes excessive caution in spending, but not necessarily a headlong, reckless chase after riches. The Law of Moses speaks of a woman sold into slavery who does not please her master. The expression there is identical: “his eye is evil” toward her. The clear sense there is that he is not happy with her looks or performance and has changed his mind about marrying her. (The law wisely put limits on a man’s options when that happened.)

The expression occurs again when Achish sends away David in order that he not “displease” the lords of the Philistines. In this case, he is trying to avoid others finding fault with David.

Taken together, I suspect a better reading of the expression might be “discontented”. This is a man who is not happy with his lot. He sees his financial station in life as an evil state of affairs, and wants to change it in haste.

His error is in misunderstanding what really constitutes wealth. As Paul puts it to Timothy, “godliness with contentment is great gain”. And contentment is not some passive state to be experienced or not experienced as circumstances dictate. Rather, Paul goes on to say, “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

That’s a choice, and one the “stingy” man would have been better to make.

False Praise and Helpful Correction
“Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor
than he who flatters with his tongue.”
People love to be flattered, but false praise teaches us nothing of value. We remain at our current level of competency, or perhaps even slack off a little under the impression that we are more skilled than we really are. On the other hand, the person who comes along and politely advises us “You’re doing that wrong; let me show you how you need to do it” is generally quite unwelcome. I have found it quite difficult to train older men for this reason. Correcting them bruises their egos, and they often double down on their error rather than thanking you for pointing them in the right direction, at least initially. Women, I have observed, are generally more accepting of correction, at least in places of business. The kitchen is another story.

But all this is our initial reaction to criticism or praise. Time factors into our assessment of a stern rebuke or a glowing review in a big way. Notice that it is “afterward” that the rebuker comes to be favored, not at the time he does his rebuking. When you see that the co-worker beside you has accepted the same piece of corrective advice you blithely ignored, and that he is now doubling your output, you tend to quietly look over his shoulder to see what he’s doing differently than you are. In contrast, the flatterer eventually loses his appeal as a source of praise. His audience comes to realize that any opinion he expresses is essentially valueless because he is only telling us what we want to hear.

One particular Bible story bear this out: Hushai’s advice flattered Absalom, offering him a way to win an impressive-looking victory that might commend his wisdom to the people of Israel. Of course he followed it. It was also deliberately misleading. In hindsight, Ahithophel’s counsel of pursuing a more limited victory to better long-term effect was the right way to go, but by the time this was recognized, Ahithophel was in no position to benefit, having died by his own hand before he could be executed for treason.

You can bet a young Solomon heard and remembered that tale.

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