I have a plaque in my office with a quote from John Galsworthy. I’ve had it for a long time. Galsworthy was an English writer of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932, the year before his death.
The plaque’s inscription is proving to be timeless. It simply reads, “Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.” This is a good summation of one of the themes of his novels and plays which often focused on the differences and conflicts between the social classes of his day. But I have found it to be sage wisdom, sound counsel, and a fair weight on the balance of response to ill-considered ideas and odd questions.
It may come as a surprise to you, but I, on occasion, have offered up unsolicited counsel on any number of problems with what—most charitably—could be characterized as ill-considered ideas. And we do receive some unusual questions. Most recently we pondered what possible source could have given rise to an inquiry regarding the basis of pension trust asset appreciation. A dear and well-meaning caller indicated she was following up on a report she’d heard that the P&B Trust had been boosted by lottery winnings. It may have been the timing, as we received the inquiry in the week prior to the $656 million Mega Millions drawing. But the question did raise some eyebrows among our staff. From the distance of the perspective of her world, what seemed to us to be an odd inquiry no doubt seemed possible.
Over the years I’ve discovered a phrase that tends to be a leading indicator that I am about to receive an observation or advice that was rooted and flourished in the fertile soil of idealistic distance. There are four little words, framing the beginning of a question, which put me on the alert. They are, “Why don’t you just….” Now, to be fair, in this work of pension and benefit administration it is possible to err on the side of being too careful, cautious, and thorough. But more often than not, the simplistic answer isn’t the best solution. There are just too many moving parts.
Over the last several months of grappling with the pension trust funding challenges, a lot of good people have offered ideas. Unfortunately, the simple suggestions tend to address a long-term problem with short-term solutions. Their distance from the problem make a simple solution seem plausible. The better the problem was understood, the less simplistic the solutions offered. Our current course, following wise counsel and timely consideration by several boards and committees, of finding more funding for the trust was not simple or easy, but it is right. I wish I could say it will be a short-term solution. And, depending on one’s point of view, it may or may not be. From the perspective of economies and pension funding, this solution may be short. But remember, in that perspective, it still could take a few years to “solve” the problem.
I’ve also learned that sage advice works in both directions. On occasion I hear or read of some problem in the church, government, or school, and I’m sure I have the solution. I doubt you’ve ever been tempted this way, but I’m inclined to opine on the issue, and find myself uttering, “Why don’t they just….”
The first clue that I was about to impart less-than-gifted insight was several years ago when we were still raising teenagers. I happen to have two daughters, two years apart in age. Those four words often evoked exasperated sighs, even before I shared my wisdom. If you want a teenage girl to look at you like you have a third eye, try offering fashion or relationship advice with “Why don’t you just…” as your lead in. Somehow, I think there is hard coding in the DNA of young ladies which automatically triggers the rolling of eyeballs.
As I write, it happens to be Monday of Holy Week. If ever there were an example of someone getting intimately acquainted with a problem, it would have to be the incarnation and death of God’s Son. How easy it would have been for the Father to simply address our problem of sin by saying, “Why don’t they just do what they’re told?” I’m glad that instead He chose to bridge the distance—the entire distance—to live and die among us that we might embrace salvation. And if ever there was an example of what it takes to understand the problems we face, it is seen in the life of Jesus.
In this world of sound bite politics and quick and easy answers, any response to a problem that can’t be formulated and espoused in two or three sentences is discounted as too complex. No matter how challenging the dynamic of a particular situation, we want quick, cheap, simple answers. And we know from experience that such answers are more than likely to fail, creating even greater complications.
So, here’s my bit of counsel. Take the words of Mr. Galsworthy to heart. Take seriously the example of the incarnation. Temper the idealism of your wisdom regarding the difficulties of others by your distance from the problem. And, simply smile and nod at the naïve, well-meaning advice of those who have little or no knowledge of the situations about which they offer guidance.
Don Walter is the director of Pensions and Benefits USA for the Church of the Nazarene.