A retired pastor gave me this advice: Don’t try to be clever, you can make things worse and people won’t hear what you are saying. This post is part confessional. When you’re involved in teaching, communication and writing you crave being unique. Given our culture, cleverness seems more a vice than a helpful tactic. I’m not saying cleverness is wrong. I am saying the tactic is overplayed. What I’m writing is easier said than done.
Delivery vs substance: Democracy in America (Published 1835-1840)
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America about his observations and predictions of America. One key prediction as I read is book was this: Soon the appearance or things will be more important than the quality of things. This prediction has very much come true. The vice of cleverness is the appearance vs substance. In the end substance endures. Cleverness, once figured out, carries potential to be dismissed.
Action vs silence: The Pensées (Published 1600’s)
Blaise Pascal wrote The Pensees near the end of his life and did not complete it. We often think of his wager, but the central focus of his apologetic was silence from distraction. Pascal endeavored to bring people to the point of silence where they would be forced to listen to their soul and deal with aspects of life that one would rather avoid. We fear solitary confinement for this reason, he states. In America, our greatest fear is being bored, for in boredom we are forced to think and listen. Our thirst from cleverness comes from this.
Complexity vs simplicity: The Scewtape Letters (Published 1942)
C. S. Lewis described in The Screwtape Letters that distraction and complexity is one of the best tools and tactics against people. My wife brought this up to me as we discussed the protection from leaving and acting with simplicity. This theme is prevalent throughout church history and too often is ignored. Business is the vaccine against intimacy. Cleverness often takes what can be simple and makes it overtly complex.
Captivating vs seriousness: First Corinthians (Published 1st century)
Saint Paul in First Corinthians juxtaposed man’s wisdom vs God’s. Paul’s focus was to speak the Gospel with clarity. He was not defending being uneducated. Things of a serious nature are best spoken with absolute clarity, leaving as little room for misinterpretation. Clarity sometimes is quite complex, as in the book of Romans, or simple an in the letter to Philemon. Cleverness distracts one to the speaker instead of engaging one in the message.
Fleeting vs steadfast: A friend (Still being written)
Harold H. Comings delights me with his wit. Is wit a form of cleverness? Yes. What surprises me about my friend and others who have wit-ability, is they mastered the art of substance, silence, simplicity and seriousness. The foundation of these things lend itself to being witty, and the discernment on how to engage in proper discourse. The question of discernment is this: How can I say something in a way that it will withstand the test of time? Cleverness often focuses on the now at the cost of life down the road.
The bottom line:
Focus on substance, silence, simplicity, seriousness and steadfastness. These will carry you to the finish-line. You do not need to be a salesmen or a showman to be an excellent communicator. Enduring works and messages contain most of these elements. If God graced you with the abilities of cleverness, humor, charm or the ability to be poetic- use it to glorify God. But, don’t try to be these things and let us not make them the standard of good vs bad discourse. Perhaps conflict in public discourse would be more civil if we ceased trying to be clever. This would allow us to listen to and hear each other.
One thought on “Don’t try to be clever…”
I’ve been accused of “wit” before. I’m glad to hear there may have been some improvement. Thanks for the encouraging word and much needed warning. My guess is most people with what you call a lasting wit developed it by writing a lot of stuff which should have found (and maybe did find) its way to a trash bin.