Wisdom through Suffering: A Powerful Law of Leadership
Recently in the biographical mini-series Genius: Aretha on National Geographic Television, the drama included real footage of Robert F. Kennedy’s speech on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, in which he presents his favorite quote from the ancient Greek dramaturge Aeschylus, saying
"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God."
The phrase “awful grace of God” shocks the ear and brings curiosity about the original reading of the passage. The original Attic dialect of Greek represented in the play Agamemnon presents a hard challenge indeed. One translation reads:
“God puts mortals on
The journey of comprehension.
And made this the powerful law:
We learn by suffering.
Pain-recalling trouble trickles
Through the heart in sleep—
And wisdom comes just so
To the unwilling.
The gods seated on their sacred thrones
Bestow a hard grace.”
The word Kennedy cited as “awful,” and another translator renders as “hard” is βίαιος—from the same word group Jesus uses in saying “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” The ancient pagan passage thus suggests that in teaching humans wisdom through suffering, the gods deliver a violent, harsh, hard—yea awful—form of grace. As the poet wrote, “wisdom comes just so to the unwilling.”
Leaders in the Time of Covid-19 have certainly experienced unwilling lessons through suffering, enduring its constant threat of sickness, death, and disruption that has hit every person differently. Some have lived in fear and dread, while others have still never taken the threat of COVID-19 personally. Yet even the most cocksure among us have paid the price of discipline, the physical distancing of the six-foot rule and the social distancing of demurely wearing a mask while boldly looking into others’ eyes like never before. All in all, I believe everyone has suffered the pandemic differently, and none so much as those who have lost a loved one through its ravages.
In the end, the learning we gain through suffering is worth whatever price we may have to pay to get it. In one of the proverbs collected by King Solomon in the Bible, Wisdom personified calls out to us,
“Choose my instruction instead of silver,
knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her."
This past year we have desired anything but COVID-19 and masks and separation, but in our endurance, we have gained knowledge and wisdom. We have learned that we can triumph in adversity. As country singer Zane Williams sings in the song “Texas Like That” we have found that we have “the fire in our bellies that says we’re gonna make it” and that when “the hard times get worse, you find the worst ain’t so bad. Cause you’ve got friends like us.”
Perhaps it was a harsh, violent, or even awful grace, but we have gone through hard times with good and faithful friends and, in the process, have gained knowledge and wisdom. What have you learned this year? I have learned a lot of things so far, and expect to discover more:
- I have learned that, short of catastrophe, things never turn out as badly as feared. The voice of fear always imagines the worst scenario and typically ends up delivering a false prophecy.
- People will rise to the challenge to achieve what they want, spend time with those they love, learn what they need to know, and rise to a challenge well laid.
- People deserve leaders who respect their tenacity and believe in their perseverance.
- Northwest University students love this community and will endure hardship to preserve it. People belong to your organization because they have chosen it, and they will not abandon it easily.
- While some universities moved to all-remote instruction because they thought in-person classes would be dangerous, they were wrong to think that college students would cower in their bedrooms. Colleges that provided a disciplined environment of in-person learning suffered less COVID-19 infection than those who moved instruction to remote delivery and tempted students to run wild outside the university setting.
- Young people are, for the most part, fearless. Give them a challenge under normal circumstances and they will outperform your expectations. Being respected enough to be given a hard challenge inspires loyalty and confidence. Believe the best of them.
- People will overcome fear to preserve their livelihood and even more if they perceive their work as a sacred calling. The people of Northwest University exceeded my hopes and rewarded my expectations.
- When you have led an organization through hard times, your appreciation and respect for its survivors rises more than when they have achieved victory in easier times.
Take time to write down the things you learned, even if unwillingly, during the Time of Covid-19—this winter of our discontent—and press on to the end of it with determination not only to lead your organization through this time, but out of it and into a new springtime of organizational productivity and success.