Vestry Devotion: Listening for People’s Potential

Carl Algermissen.JPG

Each month, Good Shepherd’s Vestry meetings begin with a devotion offered by a Vestry member, and, for the past year, we have been including these devotions in the Sheepskin. This month’s Vestry devotion is submitted by Carl Algermissen. Carl is completing his third year on the Vestry and serves as a member of the Music with a Mission Board. He has blessed our congregation many times with his beautiful playing during worship services.  Carl works at Oppenheimer Funds as Vice President and Senior Counsel.

God gave each of us a brain that is a connection machine – our thoughts, memories, skills, and attributes are vast sets of connections, or “maps,” joined together via complex chemical and physical pathways.  When we process any new idea we create a map of that idea in our mind, and then compare it subconsciously in a fraction of a second to our existing maps. If we can find solid enough links between the new idea and our current maps, if we can find the connections, we create a new map that becomes a part of the layout of our brain; and this new map literally becomes part of who we are.  Maps help us predict the outcome of situations more easily.  When we are processing complex ideas we tap into our visual center: we see ideas as flashes in our mind’s eye. 

We’ve all had that feeling of that sudden “aha” moment.  It’s a moment when various ideas that were not linked before come together to form a new idea.  It feels like we’ve seen something new. This is the moment of creation, the moment we feel motivated to do something. 

As scientists have begun to understand the mechanics of the brain they have discovered a world of almost unimaginable complexity.  I read recently that the brain has around 100 billion neurons.  There are practically unlimited different ways that brains can store information, unlimited options for how experience, learning, and information might be encoded.

So while your brain may look physically similar to mine, the way we store, organize, manage and retrieve information is very different.  However, it is a rare person indeed who, while trying to help another human being, doesn’t do so with a subconscious assumption that their brains are basically the same!   Each of our mental maps are remarkably different – so why do we often live as if that’s not the case?

When we learn, the universe – our universe – changes. The connections between our neurons reconfigure, and the world is a tiny bit different as a result.  It is sometimes said that we see the world as we are, not as the world is.  Any piece of information that comes along is compared to our existing mental maps, to see where the connections are.  We try to fit the data into our existing frameworks.  This is done through guesswork that’s based on past experience.  If we think the world is a dangerous place, we look around for evidence of this and find it.  Whatever filter we hold in mind, the brain frequently looks for evidence to confirm this filter, and it does so extremely efficiently, second to second, without our conscious mind being aware of what we are doing.

So both changing the way in which we perceive the world, AND influencing how others perceive it – is a tough challenge of leadership, as we can each have the occasional tendency to fight hard to hold on to our particular view of the world.

Everyone has to make their own connections, according to their own wiring.  The good news is that we can make the space for this to happen, and encourage it, but then we need to take a step back and allow the process to unfold. Any group of people will see the same situation from substantially different perspectives.  Rather than fighting this, bringing together a balanced team of people who think in different ways can be tremendously beneficial.  When this happens, recognizing it for the blessing that it is can be liberating, particularly if we give ourselves the space and freedom to let go of mental frames that may be holding us back from performing at our peak. 

But letting go of negative mental frames can be challenging – just as it can be challenging to stop a bad habit.   Yet maybe if we surrender this habit that we wish to change and hand it to God, we can devote our energy to creating a whole new habit.  We need to trust that God gave us a brain that has a remarkable ability to repair itself when things go wrong.  The key may be to find new ways to approach situations that leaves our existing wiring where it is, and allows for the development, and ultimately the hard-wiring, of new habits. A less technical way of saying this is that we need to focus on solutions instead of problems.  We need to give up our desire to find behaviors to fix, and allow ourselves to become fascinated with identifying and growing people’s strengths, which is an entirely different discipline.

Focusing on and defining solutions allows us to better concentrate on what we are trying to achieve, why we are trying to achieve it, how to get there, and – perhaps most importantly – it prepares us to listen to others.  That listening part trips us up frequently, though.  How often do we only hear what we are listening for, paying special attention to what we are expecting to hear?  Most people, if honest, would admit that while they purport to be listening, they are only hearing a small percentage of the time, with the rest of their attention being put to judging, assessing, trying to sound smart, listening to distractions, trying to size other people up, or being self-conscious – to the point that they are only, in fact, listening to themselves.  I think God wants us to listen for other people’s potential, rather than measuring or monitoring, and without falling into the trap of constantly focusing on problems. 

Thank God people are placed in our lives who speak truth, love, and words of wisdom.  The trick is that we need not only to listen, but to hear, which is why we pray for discernment to know when God is using someone to speak instruction into our hearts, and for the strength and courage to follow through with that advice, even when it may be difficult.  Fortunately, it is worth remembering that, when surrendering to Grace, we do so with a prayer that we might be filled with peace in knowing that, even if we take a wrong turn, God’s purpose will prevail.