Mike's Sunday Letter

A picture of my "antifragile" self, the best I could find after rejecting snapshots of me colliding with something on the softball field.  

--with personal notes
  • I heard from my parents (in Texas for 6 weeks) and they are doing fine...bought themselves a new computer...not one I know anything about...but nevertheless I was trying to help them unzip a file...over the phone...you can guess how that went...now we don't even want to talk to each other until maybe Easter...
  • Jie and I may try to get up to Chicago on Saturday to visit our grandson...oh...and our daughters and sons-in-laws too.
  • Reading one of my favorite authors, Philip Gulley, whose new novel was published last year, A Lesson in Hope.  Gulley's novels are about a not-so-perfect Quaker pastor who has to navigate the frustrations of a not-so-perfect congregation.  His novels are easy to read and full of a graceful spirit.
  • Also reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book Antifragile:  Things That Gain from Disorder, the book mentioned below.  Also reading Lawrence G. Hrebiniak's book, Making Strategy Work:  Leading Effective Execution and Change.  The last two books are part of my most recent research and writing project: "strategy" in churches.  I am most interested in thinking outside the box on this subject...since most churches flounder when it comes to understanding, developing, and executing strategy.

February 28, 2016
When the Going Gets Tough
Do you ever get to feeling fragile?  I have my moments.  We went to see "God's of Egypt" last night.  And when the god Set gouged out Horus's eyes, Jie screamed and grabbed my hand and started twisting:  the hand that just had major surgery.  By the end of the movie, Horus was feeling much better than me. 
Many things get fragile over time, not just our bodies.  For example, adversity and rough roads will not make your automobile better.  Every part on it will weaken over the miles, and so will your wallet.  

And then there are those things that are fragile to start with.  For example, no houseplant has ever survived my tender horticultural care.  And as for inanimate objects, I recollect breaking glasses, dishes, pottery, telephones, beds, toilet seats, lawn mowers, windows, garbage disposals, chairs, tennis rackets...  Don't laugh:  you try making a list of the things you've broken in your life!
Fragile things make me a bit nervous...and fragile people make me sad.  Old age seems to leave lots of folks in a severely weakened condition.  None of my grandparents aged particularly well.  Of the three that made it past 80, none of them flourished "right up until the end."  They all spent the last several years of their lives physically and mentally diminished. 
In addition to fragile things and fragile people, there are also fragile institutions.  The more change, turmoil, and chaos they encounter, the weaker they become.  In time, some institutions become non-productive, non-responsive, and non-growing.  They simply lose their vitality when the environment and the challenges get too overwhelming.
So...I picked up a book called, Antifragile this week and started reading.  The author contends that some things (and people) grow stronger when they face trouble and chaos.  In fact, they must be roughed up in order to survive and flourish.  He gives the example of bones and muscles.  With some bones, a mended break makes the bone stronger than ever.  And when I go to the gym and lift weights, I create hundreds of tiny rips in my muscles...so they will repair and grow stronger and healthier than before.  And think of the earth itself:  four billion plus years old...and flourishing all the more with each volcano, earthquake, and hurricane. 
Back to people:  the author contends that there are three types of people:  those who are fragile (who grow weaker when life is tough,) those who are robust and resilient (who maintain the status quo during troubles,) and those who are antifragile (who actually get stronger when everything is a mess.)
I am tempted here to veer briefly into the current political situation.  Forgive me.  

Jeb Bush seems like a nice guy.  I've never met him, but I think we might enjoy a nice conversation over coffee.  But sadly for his followers, he is what the book calls "fragile."  During his run for the presidency, the goofier the campaign got, the lower he sunk in the polls.  He did NOT flourish during the current political campaign.  

Then there is Ben Carson.  He would be what my book calls 'resilient' or 'robust.'  I can't see that he's affected at all by what's happening:  same speech, same tone of voice, same demeanor, same omnipresence at every debate.  He's the kind of guy I'd like to have for brain surgeon...if I needed one.  I wouldn't want someone falling apart in the clutch.  But I also wouldn't want someone with so much adrenaline and testosterone that he got ambitious during the surgery so as to try something exciting and experimental on an impulse.

And then there's Trump.  This man fits the book's definition of anti- fragile.  The worse things get, the higher he flies.  In the last three days, we have been treated to arguments over which candidate wears the most make-up, which candidate sweats the most, and which candidate might have wet his pants during the last debate.  And Trump is in the middle of it all...and winning new endorsements by the hour.  

Politics is NOT about rational decision making.  It is about the feel of things.  And when a man projects the Antifragile, people respond. We really are tired of feeling helpless and weak in the face of massive national and world issues.  Hence the appeal of Mr. Trump. He could change every one of his political positions tomorrow and lose very little support...as long as he seem antifragile to the public...the kind of person who gains strength in the face of terrorism, global warming, poverty, economic anxiety, and crime.

Well, at least my new book helps me figure out the Republicans.  I'm still looking for a helpful tome to explain the Democrats.
But enough of modern politics:  how about history?  Not every example of antifragile is a case of narcissism.  Abraham Lincoln was antifragile:  the trials and disasters he encountered simply caused him to grow stronger.  The same seems true of Harriet Tubman, and Harry Truman, and Abigail Adams.  

And then there is Jesus, the ultimate example of antifragile.  They berated him, tortured him, and killed him.  Yet he rose again more powerful than ever. In fact, when talking about the suffering he would face, he insisted that it was necessary to his next victory.
So to conclude:  I fear growing fragile more than I fear death.  Perhaps that is why this book has captivated my interest.  But the book doesn't do a very good job of explaining how to be antifragile.  For that, I'll need a LIVING mentor, an example, a person who invites me to become a whole-hearted follower.  

Let's see...Trump?....or Jesus!  The answer might seem like a no brainer.  But we have enough of "no brain" stuff I fear.  So I'll use my brain on this one:  ah yes.  Jesus!

Lord have mercy...and thanks be to God!   Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801