kitchen table math, the sequel: The Foundation of Ingenuity

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Foundation of Ingenuity

"To Make Ourselves Indifferent"

A colleague once asked Loyola how long he would need to recover if the pope was ever to disband the Jesuits.* Loyola's response surely shocked his questioner, and it quickly found its way into Jesuit lore: "If I recollected myself in prayer for a quarter of an hour, I would be happy, and even happier than before."

Perhaps there was a smidgen of posturing in his answer. Loyola had built what was rapidly becoming the world's most influential and successful religious organization. Could he see it dismantled and then stroll away whistling after a mere fifteen minutes in prayer?

Posturing or not, Loyola was sending an unambiguous message grounded in the lessons of the Exercises. Jesuits achieved what we today would call ingenuity--a mix of adaptability, daring, speed, and good judgment--only by first cultivating the attitude he called "indifference."

Trainees approach indifference by imagining three different men who have each legitimately acquired the fabulous sum of ten thousand ducats, then considering their varying reactions to their newly obtained wealth All three feel more than niggling discomfort with their growing attachment to the fortune. There's more to life than money, . . . but it feels so nice to have it. Suddenly it seems impossible to imagine doing without it. The first two types do little or nothing to rid themselves of the wealth that is leading to such inordinate attachment. What does the third type do about the ten thousand ducats? Here is the punch line of the meditation, the person we are to emulate, so the answer seems obvious: he generously distributes the money to the poor and piously rejoices, right?

Wrong. The role model for Jesuit indifference rids himself of the attachment to the money, "but in such a way that there remains no inclination either to keep the acquired money or to dispose of it." In other words, the money is not the issue. The problem is slavish attachment to money or to anything else. Inordinate attachments fog one's vision. . . . Only by becoming indifferent--free of prejudices and attachments and therefore free to choose any course of action--do [Jesuit] recruits become strategically flexible. The indiferent Jesuit liberates himself to choose strategies driven by one motive only: achieving his long-term goal of serving God by helping souls.

The meditation isn't about the money; it's about the attachment.


This is what Loyola was really after: the internal fears, drives, and attachments that can control decisions and actions.


Indifference is the right stuff of ingenuity. And once early Jesuits attained it, Loyola usually set them loose to lead themselves. "In all, I much desire a complete indifference; then with this obedience and abnegation supposed on the part of the subjects [i.e. individual Jesuits], I am very glad to follow their inclinations."

Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Yaer-Old Company That Changed the World by Chris Lowney

I believe this absolutely.

In fact, I have a fair amount of what I think is indifference myself. Not to be confessional here, but I probably couldn't do my job (writing) or my edu-politicking (more writing) if I were "inordinately attached" to either.

Until I read this passage, though, I hadn't been able to put it into words. With education politics, whenever I have tried to explain to a friend why I'm happy to spend years of my life tilting at edu-windmills, the best I've been able to come up with is, "I don't care if anything I do makes a difference." Same thing with writing a book, or a book proposal. I don't care if it's a success.

That's not right, of course. I do care, or I wouldn't be doing it.

"Indifference" doesn't exactly describe my state of mind, but indifference as freedom to choose any course of action ---- that's it.

I need to do the Exercises.

Actually, I needed to do the exercises starting when I was 20.

* Ed says the Jesuits were kicked out of France altogether at one point.


Anonymous said...

Freedom to choose any course of action.

I don't care if anything I do makes a difference.

Paul B said...

I write mostly for myself. I find that it makes me think more clearly. Writing to an audience forces the most powerful thinking.

It's like the difference between dreaming and doing. I can dream anything I want and nobody knows about it. If I write about something though, It has to stand up to the light of day. No magical transitions or impossible fantasies are allowed.

So for me, I'm not indifferent to the writing. I'm indifferent to its reception. That is to say, I'm going to write it passionately because that is how I feel and if some number of people dislike what I write, I'm OK with it. I expect it. I'll take the feedback into account on the next go round but not as a rebuke, more like just another trip around the circle of learning.

I'm not attached to the idea so much as the expression of it.