Wisdom, knowledge and wicked situations

Many years ago I had to interview a woman for a job, an important part of which was getting often disparate potential partners onside and working together effectively so our project could develop. She happened to possess an ‘A Level’ in Latin, and I rather cheekily asked her what relevance this had regarding the job for which she applied. She gave one of the best interview responses I have ever come across – the key to grasping Latin was being able to establish connections and that was an important element of the job she was applying for. She got the job and did exactly what she identified as needing to happen – extremely well. But fast forwarding …

In recent months, I have been increasingly aware of different groups trying to help the homeless. As I have often pointed out in my blogs, the need is great and the key is working smartly to meet the needs and doing what my friend did and making connections. As I survey the wanting to help the homeless scene in Southend (and I have no doubt we are not unique in this) I see a number of groups playing a part, but sometimes for all sorts of reasons, some savory and some less so, these do not pull together as best they should and I find myself wishing I could re-hire my friend to work her magic touch.

Which brings me to my title, which on the face of it brings together ideas that are unrelated. Again going back some years, my wife was studying for a degree related to her work as a nurse and one of the subjects studied was that of evidence based and critical practice. It was at that time I came across the term “wicked situations”, which in popular parlance could be distilled to “dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t”. Medicine and caring for patients is not my field of expertise but I can imagine (and in fact know) having to deal with wicked situations is a regular occurrence. The key to doing so is preparedness and simply getting stuck in doing what is needed, in order to arrive at solutions that best meet the needs at the time.

The easy way out is to not get involved in the first place and sadly many, maybe most, go down this route, and they thus avoid having to deal with wicked situations. Some do help but sometimes not always appropriately, especially if unduly antagonizing others who could help. While heart is important so also is head – we need both. Arguably, part of our humanity and also the great commandment (to love our neighbor) is to want to help people in need and often where solutions are by no means as straight forward as we would want. As I get more involved with rough sleepers, often with deep and complex needs, on top of not having suitable accommodation, I find myself often stumped knowing what best to do. Going the extra mile is a noble thing but history shows it leaves many burnt out who do so; providing the wrong type of help can be counter productive as is doing something out of sync with others who may be helping.

This brings me to one of my favorite subjects, that of wisdom and knowledge, to which I aspire. A cursory glance at online definitions shows up a number of synonyms to wisdom: “sagacity, sageness, intelligence, understanding, insight, perception, perceptiveness, percipience, penetration, perspicuity, acuity, discernment, sense, good sense, common sense, shrewdness, astuteness, acumen, smartness, judiciousness, judgement, foresight, clear-sightedness, prudence, circumspection; logic, rationale, rationality, soundness, saneness, advisability”. As for knowledge: “facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject” will do for starters. Wisdom and knowledge are related but, as history shows, it is possible to have wisdom without knowledge and knowledge without wisdom.

In recent days, I have been thinking about this subject in the light of wicked situations. I was rather taken with some pertinent quotes on the subject: “knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit and wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad” and “knowledge is knowing what to say and wisdom is knowing when to say it”. I am pretty sure one could add to this and as a preacher and a student of the Bible it is tempting to expound on what the Bible does say on the subject, and it says a lot. Suffice to say, wisdom and knowledge (and especially wisdom) is incredibly important and the pursuit of which is an occupation we do well to be engaged in for, while it may be costly to do so, the rewards will far outweigh any costs.

Regarding rough sleepers, as I have said often, the end we should work toward is to get such folk into a better place, knowing full well everything is not as it seems, the process can be long and painful and there will be obstacles to overcome on the way, as well as disappointments and unforeseen set-backs and despite wanting to be spontaneous it is impossible to avoid having processes in place, including safeguarding and accountability, if we are to succeed in what we set out to do. But going back to the job spec with which I began, a key element is getting disparate parties working together toward this end, so at least in this respect I know I have my work cut out. Several times in my community activist career, I have come across the “Serenity Prayer”: “O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other”. It strikes me that this is a good place to begin.


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