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My wife likes to say I play a doctor on TV. I don’t of course, but for a long time now I have had a serious hobby interest in medicine. I did pay attention to the details on TV shows like E.R. and Saint Elsewhere. When I worked as a Mental Health Worker at Pine Rest Christian Hospital during my seminary years, I would use overnight shifts or slow periods to page through the Physicians Desk Reference and boned up on things like the different parts of an EKG wave. And when as a pastor I visited people in the hospital, I paid attention to what doctors said. Indeed, one of the best moments in my life came when the Medical Examiner who attended my first church let me observe a stem-to-stern autopsy. For the squeamish I will spare you the details but suffice to say, I held a lot of very interesting things in my gloved hands that day.
Some years ago when my mother-in-law suffered an unfortunate (and ruinous) injury to her kidneys due to back-to-back CT scans with contrast, I also read up on urological topics and got pretty good at throwing around lab values for creatinine, BUN, eGFR, and so on.
One time when I was initially the only person available to take my mother-in-law to the E.R. with tachycardia (uncontrolled rapid heartbeat) I conversed with the E.R. physician, noting with him that despite her having forgotten it, she had had this before but it was resolved at that time with IV Cardizem but this time, according to the doctor, a cardioversion was going to be necessary to get her heart back into rhythm. The doctor let me stay for the very interesting procedure. Later after the procedure was successful—and to my delight after my wife arrived at the E.R.—the doctor asked me if I had a background in medicine since I seemed to know a lot. Since then I have often wryly noted to my R.N. wife and R.N. sister-in-law that I have a BIM degree: Background In Medicine.
But it’s not true. I don’t really understand medicine and if I can talk like a doctor and understand some things doctors say, it does not make me a doctor. Not by a long shot.
I have been thinking about this as I have been reading a book my wife gave me for Fathers Day, Adam Grant’s new volume Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. The basic premise of the book is that the true hallmark of being an informed person is less the sum total of your intellectual knowledge (the book learning we usually associate with intelligence) and much more your ability to re-think, to adapt, to question your own beliefs the way scientists are constantly trying to disprove their own theories.
Grant’s key example early in the book was the genius founder of BlackBerry Mike Lazaridis, No one doubts the genius-grade intelligence of Mr. Lazaridis. He created a solar panel for an 8th grade science project, got an award in high school for having read every science book in the public library, and very early in his career won both an Oscar and an Emmy for inventing a key device for the film industry. Eventually he hit on the idea of a mobile device with which to send and receive emails on the go.
It was, of course, a breakthrough product that dominated the market for years. But when Apple finally convinced Steve Jobs to re-think his own bias against getting into the cellphone / smartphone business (Jobs had previously rejected the idea again and again until he re-thought his assumptions and green-lighted the first iPhone), some at BlackBerry began to worry. But Lazaridis refused to believe people would give up that cool BlackBerry physical keyboard that you typed on with your thumbs. He refused to believe people wanted also a browser on their phones or that people would prefer touch screens to physical buttons or that “apps” would ever be a thing.
Steve Jobs did a serious re-think and doubted his own assumptions and Apple went on to stratospheric success with the iPhone. Mike Lazaridis did not do so and BlackBerry began to fade away in the marketplace.
The main focus of Grant’s book, however, is not these kinds of huge business decisions but the myriad of decisions we all make day to day and week to week. Are we willing to have the humility to doubt ourselves? Are we willing to listen to others to rethink what we have assumed or believed in the past?
Parenthetically, since the Christian tradition has long identified humility as the core Christ-like virtue in the Christian life of discipleship, it is interesting to see Grant elevate humility to the highest place in this book.
Of course, Grant writes what he does against the backdrop of an American culture in which many of us are far more likely to re-trench in our opinions than be willing to consider we could be wrong. Social media is rarely a place to witness some serious backtracking or rethinking or reconsideration of this or that position. Instead we seek out sources of information that prop up our existing biases and shut out (or call fake news) anything that might challenge us to ponder if we could just possibly be incorrect.
As with my playful tinkering with medical jargon as part of my BIM degree, so many of us in a less playful way consider ourselves experts in areas where we actually know very little. Think of some of the more popular memes that circulated during the pandemic with pictures of Forrest Gump and the words “And just like that everyone became an epidemiologist.” Or we could swap out “constitutional law expert” or “public health official” or whatever for the word “epidemiologist” in that meme.
Humility means, however, that we acknowledge what we do not know. Wisdom means being open to learn from people who do know more than we do in a given area of knowledge or insight and apprenticing ourselves to such people. Humility is not just the willingness to say “I was wrong” but also the openness to rethink, reconsider.
Were such a mindset to spread widely in society, it may or may not succeed in making our currently uncivil national discourse more civil. But it would be a start. And since for Christians this ought to be the major component of being Christ-like, it is a start we need all to consider making.