Monthly Archives: February 2016

Success Story: John Woolman Confronts His Brethren



February 6, 2016

What is the eternal and ultimate problem of a free society?

It is the problem of the individual who thinks that one man [or woman] cannot possibility make a difference in the destiny of that society.

Norman Cousins

John Woolman’s Story (1720-1772)

Radio Announcer:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our weekly program, “Voices from The Past.”  I am your host, J. C. Bentley, and tonight it is my honor to welcome to our radio microphone Mr. John Woolman.  Mr. Woolman, thank you for coming.

John Woolman:

Thee are welcome.  It is my pleasure.

Radio Announcer:

First of all, tell us a little about yourself.  I understand you were born in 1720.

John Woolman:

Yes, that is correct.  I was born in 1720 in colonial New Jersey, long before there was any “United States.”  I was raised in New Jersey when I was young, but spent the last twenty years of my life traveling throughout the American colonies, visiting those places where there were members of the Society.  I died in 1772, having reached my 52nd birthday.

Radio Announcer:

You say you visited the members of the Society.  What do you mean?

John Woolman:

I was a member of the Society of Friends.  I believe that thee refers to us as Quakers.

Radio Announcer:

How did you make your living?

John Woolman:

I was a tailor by trade, but the last half of my life I did no tailoring.  I was busy doing my real work.

Radio Announcer:

And what was this “real work?”

John Woolman:

One day, with no warning, I gained the knowledge that slavery was an abomination with God, and that members of our faith who held slaves should free them at once.

Radio Announcer:

Gained knowledge?  What do you mean when you say you “gained knowledge?”

John Woolman:

God spoke to me and told me.

Radio Announcer:

God spoke to you?

John Woolman:

Yes, that is what I said.

Radio Announcer:

Alright…So God spoke to you.  Then what did you do?

John Woolman:

I knew at once what I should do.  I would tell the Brethren what God told me, that they must free their slaves.  I put a few things in a bag and left home, and only returned twenty years later to die.

Radio Announcer:

How did that go for you? Did they accept your message?

John Woolman:

I must explain something to you.  As members of the Society, our most important belief is “God is in every person,” and therefore all persons are children of God.  We forgot what we believed, and we were treating Negro slaves not as people but as beasts of burden.  It was wrong and, as God told me, an abomination in His Eyes.  And no, they did not listen to me.

Radio Announcer:

Did many of the Quakers own slaves?

John Woolman:

Oh yes, I would say most, if not all.

Radio Announcer:

This is surprising.  I would have thought that religious people like yourselves, who believed so strongly in equality before God, would never have owned slaves.

John Woolman:

Thee would have thought wrong.  Like many others, we said one thing and did another.  We came to this land seeking religious liberty, and soon we fell into the trap of materialism and greed.  We used slave labor to enrich ourselves.

Radio Announcer:

When you told your brethren that they had to free their slaves, what did they say?

John Woolman:

Some laughted, some shouted, some sent their dogs after me, and some threw me off their property.  They did not like hearing what I told them.

Radio Announcer:

And by the end of your life had any slaves been freed?

John Woolman:

No.  I never heard of any slaves being freed by Quakers while I was alive.

Radio Personality:

And so, would you say that your life was wasted?

John Woolman:

So it would seem.

Radio Announcer:

In preparation for this interview our research department has been busy tracking down what happened after your passing.  We have discovered that within ten years of your death in 1772, your community reached a consensus that no one should hold men and women in bondage, and all their slaves were freed.  In 1783 the Quaker community petitioned the Congress of the United States to correct the “complicated evils” and “unrighteous commerce” created by the enslavement of human beings.  Starting in 1827 and onward it was the Quakers who played a key role in founding and operating the Underground Railroad, moving thousands of slaves from the south to freedom in Canada.   Your words did have an impact on your Brethren, it just took a while for your words to move people to action.

John Woolman:

For twenty years I told the Brethren what they did not want to hear, that they were wrong and needed to change.  At the time they were not ready to hear what God wanted them to hear and they paid me no heed. (Pause) With what I have learned tonight it has become clear that the seeds I planted in each heart began to sprout and produce fruit.  Now I see that I was able to make a difference.  My life was not wasted after all.

Radio Announcer:

Thank you Mr. Woolman.

John Woolman:

Thee are welcome.

 Two Remarkable Women Add Their Voices

We can do
no great things;
We can only do small things
with great love.

Mother Teresa

How wonderful it is that
Nobody need wait a single
Moment before starting to
Improve the world.

Anne Frank

Do What You Can Do

Once John Woolman knew that slavery was an abomination in the Eyes of God,  he decided he would spend the rest of his life confronting this evil.  But then he came face to face with a truly wicked problem: individuals who choose to attack an institution head-on are, as was Don Quixote,  doomed either to irrelevance, abject failure, or the risk of being committed to a mental institution or put in jail.

Woolman’s first step was to consider the basic question:  What can I do that may make a difference?  His answer?  ”Since there are many Brethren who hold slaves, I can visit them one at a time and persuade them to free their slaves.”   He choose to do what was doable, what he could do,  and what held the promise of making a difference.

What Woolman did has a name: it is what I have referred earlier to as “extracting a problem from the mess.”  Problems are not apples on trees to be picked.  They do not exist independently of human awareness and understanding.  Potential problems exist by the dozens in the middle of “messes.”  But they only become “problems-to-be-attacked” when they are created by people who care enough about the situation or issue to get down into the swamp of the “mess,” who  want to see changes made, and make persistent efforts to bring a problem into existence.  And then, and only then, can they begin to make productive efforts.

This is what Woolman did.  He cared deeply about the evils of slavery,  but he also sensed that he could not attack it successfully.  So he ignored the larger institution and defined a problem he could attack: Brethren who own slaves.  Then his action plan came into focus:  ”I will visit my slave-holding Brethren and persuade them to free their slaves.”

When we find ourselves in the middle of a “mess,” we have, as did Woolman, several questions  to address:

  • What manageable part of this chaotic and confusing situation do I really care about?
  • Can I define it in a way that I can bring to it what I have to offer?

Answers to these questions can lead us to a problem definition that, as we struggle with it, offers us a real hope of making a difference.




The Quintessential Wicked Problem(s)


January 30, 2016


Even before the time Plato,  the work of philosophers has been to ask the Great Questions:  What is Truth?  Who should rule?  What is Justice?  Do we have free will? What is the meaning of life? How should we organize society so that everyone benefits? And though all agree that there is no one correct answer to any of these questions, few hold back from giving us their best version.  And since new answers are always emerging, all of them are seen as tentative and temporary.

In The Art of Life, philosopher John Kekes is brave enough to insist that he knows which of the Great Questions is the most important and why. It is “What is a Good Life?”  And after this bold statement, he moves on to describe the part of a good life that is the most important:  ”Living it,”  he insists. His argument is straightforward:    ”Living a good life is the most important of all human activities,” he writes, “because the importance of everything else derives from it.”  Thus, unless we know what a good life is, and unless we are successful in living it, everything else loses importance and value.

Finding and living a good life is a universal quest insists Kekes:   “Everyone is trying – or wishes to be in a position of trying – to live a good life.”  Yet many are unsuccessful.  ”Many lives are bad,”  Kekes believes, and for two reasons:  Because “the activity is difficult and there are formidable obstacles to doing it well.”

Why  do many people fail at living “the most important of all human activities?”  They are not willing to put in the effort that is required, and they are unable to manage successfully the “formidable obstacles” that stand in their way.  They lack motivation or skill or both.

Keyes identifies several of these “formidable” obstacles that make success in living a good life such a challenge:

“The art of life is making a good life for oneself,” he writes, “…is an art because it requires individuals to make a lifelong creative effort that no one else can make for them, and for which no blueprint exists.  For a good life must be constructed out of one’s character, circumstances, experiences, and ideals.”

The Quintessential Wicked Problem

Although Kekes is probably unaware of the the term “wicked problems,” his definition of a good life and his discussion of the challenges of living it make clear that he is talking about wicked problems.   Here are some of the wicked elements that are part of his discussion of the art of living a good life:

- A good life doesn’t exist apart from the individuals who seek it.  It must be “constructed.”

- It is constructed out of each individual’s “character, circumstances, experiences, and ideals.”  In other words , everyone’s “constructed” life will be different. Keyes understands this: “It [ a good life] will vary with individuals, societies, times, and places.”

- No one can make a good life for another.  Each person is required to be architect, builder, and designer and eventually resident of the structure that is one’s “good life.”

-  While there are experts, gurus, or consultants who offer fully-functioning  models of the good life, their version, while it may make sense for them, carries no greater claim to truth than one’s own, and may even be worse.

- It is an artistic endeavor. Creating and living a good life requires creativity.

- No blueprint exists,  no instruction book is available.

- And finally, it must be a lifelong process.

While there are more definitional elements that make living a good life a wicked problem, this list will do.  It is a prototype for all wicked problems.

Adding More “Wickedness”

Since the struggle of defining what is a good life, and then with living it is a universal one, it becomes an irresistible opportunity to those who want to earn either glory or money or both by telling other people how to do it.  Almost always their advice only adds little but more “wickedness” to what is already a wicked problem.  Here are several examples:

E. F. Schumacher

In  A Guide for the Perplexed,  E. F Schumacher’s makes this recommendation:

The art of living is always to make a good thing out of a bad thing.

From this several complications  follow:

How is one to know what a “bad thing” is?

While there are some things that almost all of us see as “bad,” for the most part whether something is good or bad is a judgment call. What I think is bad, you think is good, and vice versa.

 If there’s more than one person?

An individual may be able to define what is bad and then set about making out of it something good.  But what about two people – partners, parents, a couple?  And what about a team of people?  An organization, or a nation?  When numbers of people are added into the endeavor,  reaching agreement on what is bad and how to make something good out of it becomes an even greater problem to be grappled with.

Establishing priorities?

Generally, one can assume that there is not just one bad thing in the world that needs to be changed, but many.  Priorities  have to be established.  The “worst” bad thing needs to occupy the number one place on the list.  Making that happen is in itself a difficult problem.

Making Something Good?

Agreement on the “good” thing to be created from the bad  involves the same problems as trying to define the bad.  The more people are involved, the more complications will arise.

And then there is the transformation problem.   Who has acquired the appropriate knowledge and mastered the  skills required to make a good thing out of this bad thing ?

Thomas Huxley

In the 19th century, Thomas Huxley, scientist and philosopher, gave this advice about living a good life:

Learn what is true in order to do what is right.

From this more complications follow:

Learn What is  True

It’s a safe bet that no advice has been proffered as often as  ”Learn the truth.”  Yet there is wide disagreement on what is the truth just as there is on how to go about learning it.  There are hundreds of versions of “the truth” about any important issue.  Which version is the “true” one  and how to go about finding and eventually learning it are questions that few of us are able to manage.

Do What is Right

It is a  mistake to assume that once a person knows the truth (whatever that is),  then he or she will do it.  Among the most important of  the Gaps that we all contend with is the Knowing – Doing Gap:  We  know more things that we should be doing than we actually do.

 Frederick Buechner

Theologian Frederick Buchner’s offers his recommendation as to how we are to find and then live a good life :

To find your mission is life is to discover the intersection between your heart’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger.

And here is one more big complication:

The World’s Deep Hunger

It may be possible for an individual to discover what is his or her “heart’s deep gladness,” but uncovering  the “world’s deep hunger” seems impossible.  There must be hundreds, or even thousands of “deep hungers” in the world.  How does one go about finding one that is not only available but also feasible?   And even if one could find it, how is one to make an intersection between the two?  Wicked problems all.

Advice Makes Things Worse

Trying to discover what is a good life, and then living it is hard enough.  It is only made more difficult when other people give advice about how to do it. 

Giving advice is without question the most frequent way one person tries to help another.  And without question it is one of the least helpful things one person can do for another.  Advice always adds another layer of “wickedness” to an already difficult problem. The one who gives the advice feels confident that he or she knows what is best, something that is almost never true.  The one who hears the advice has no idea how to take the words and  translate them into action (“Learn what is true in order to do what is right,” for example).  If he or she tries to “take it,” and makes an effort to incorporate the advice into their lives, there is little chance that anything good will come of it.  But something bad may.  And then there is someone to blame:  the person who gave the advice!

After having stated unequivocally that giving advice is a bad idea, here is my advice.  When someone is struggling with wicked problems, don’t give advice. Be present, listen, give support, and if possible, join the struggle.

Living the Questions

While novelists, philosophers and theologians, among others, are in the business of asking the Big Questions, most of the rest of us are much more concerned with living them.  Living the Big Questions is  what we do when we come face to face with them; they often turn into problems, dilemmas and crises.

The philosopher’s game of  raising the Big Questions and then and debating them is completely different from trying to live them.  Once they are out on the table, what usually follows are spirited discussions, heated debates and argumentative arguments. All of the players bring to the debate different perspectives, experiences, and rationalizations, and while some insist that they have found an answer, no one is universally acknowledged as having discovered it.

Most of the time in this game things go no further than the debates and the discussions. Yet if someone goes beyond the debating and discussing and describes someone who is actually trying to live one of the Big Questions (a novelist), or tells someone how to do it (a philosopher),  or even tries to live it himself or herself, then a door opens into the world of wicked problems.

Grappling with the wicked problems that arise when trying to live the Big Questions requires a different approach than just talking about them.  It starts with ignoring most of the advice from those who insist that they know.  It means moving directly into the problem without any clear idea of where to go or what to do.  Earlier I described this as “getting down into the swamp!”   Moving from High Ground to Swamp means getting down into the mess and muck of the problem.  It means getting clear about where you are starting from and where you want to end up.  It means pushing hard to move forward, then dealing with each obstacle as it appears.  It means making sure that you are learning from your inevitable mistakes and predictable failures.  It means inviting other people to travel with you and taking advantage of their suggestions and feedback.

This advice – get down and dirty, move, try everything, learn, involve others, keep going –  is the exception that proves the rule to my earlier categorical statement that advice is almost always bad.  No one has put these ideas into words as eloquently and as powerfully as the poet Rainer Marie Rilke.  In  Letters to a Young Poet he wrote:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to live the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.