Message 119, “Uncommon New Year’s Resolutions, Staying Teachable”, 1-20-13teachable1

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved

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For many of us who love and appreciate dogs, recent research has looked into how and why they learn.  The American Kennel Club conducted research into ways dogs are teachable, the characteristics that make them so, and the breeds that are best at learning new skills or tricks.  While most dog owners will assert that their Fifi or Fido is the smartest, most loyal, and best looking, this research shows that teachability is not a function of canine intelligence.  Many dogs and breeds are very intelligent but they are not suited for being teachable in the sense that they want to learn and are quick to do so.  Some dogs are patient, gentle and quiet – ones best suited for guarding livestock or for being a household pet that is a loyal companion or a long suffering playmate to young children.  Even so, according to this research, all dogs, at any age, are capable of learning new skills or so-called tricks.

Highly teachable dogs, however, are best suited for herding livestock, for pointing and retrieving, for serving as seeing eye or aid dogs, or for more contemporary skills used in police and military work.  These dogs and breeds are known for having distinctive qualities that make them teachable.  They are energetic, eager, alert, and active with a strong work ethic and very curious minds.  In measuring teachability, dogs that learn well are able to regularly and correctly perform specific skills after only 5 or fewer command and training repetitions.  These dogs, however, are NOT always the best household pets or companions as they get bored easily and they need continual challenges and physical activity to keep them engaged.  As reported by the American Kennel Club in their research, the ten most teachable dog breeds  – but not necessarily the most intelligent  – are the American Border Collie, the Poodle, the German Shepherd,  the Doberman Pinscher, the Golden Retriever, the Sheltie,  the Labrador Retriever, the Papillon, the Rottweiler and last, but not least, the Australian Cattle dog.  If your dog is not on that list, please send your letters of protest to the AKC – and not to me!  And, if you are a cat owner and completely disgusted with my opening remarks, well…we all know that cats are far more intelligent than dogs!

At any rate, what is fascinating to me in doing the research for this message is that the qualities that make a dog highly teachable are the same for humans.  And, as with dogs, every person, no matter how old or young, is capable of learning new things and new skills.  Some people are more disposed to learn quickly but everyone CAN be taught and everyone benefits from lifelong learning and an attitude of teachability.

Phillip B. Crosby, a well known author and business quality management expert, asserted in one of his books that, “There is a theory of human behaviour that says people subconsciously retard their own growth. They come to rely on cliches and habits. Once they reach the age of their own personal comfort with the world, they stop learning and their minds run on idle for the rest of their days. They may progress organisationally, they may be ambitious and eager, and they may even work night and day, but they learn no more.”

This statement sadly describes too many people and can even describe how some of us approach life.  After some years of education and life experience, we settle into subconsciously believing that we know all we need to know.  Our values, our knowledge and our thoughts about any number of subjects, including politics and faith, begin to solidify and soon become rigid and inflexible.  Without knowing it, we can become close minded to anything new or different.  As Phillip Crosby pointed out, we might adopt a few new practices, work hard and even accept some new situations, but we don’t really learn new sets of facts or new skills or new thoughts that take us mentally and physically beyond what we knew and thought when we became too rigid.

As the third and final of my uncommon New Year’s resolutions that we’ve considered in this month of January, I believe that staying teachable is a crucial and foundational attitude for all of us.  Indeed, if we believe we have already arrived at all of the knowledge, opinions and values that we need in life, why should we attend church, why should we read new books, magazines and newspapers and why should we listen to new speakers or attend seminars and classes?  Certainly, many of us continue to do these things all our lives, but to what degree are we truly and honestly open minded?  How much of our reading, listening and so-called learning is derived from books, speakers or shows that confirm and support what we already know and believe?  How willing are we to consider totally new thoughts, skills, ways of life, opinions or values?  How capable are we to accept and adopt significant change in our lives – in where and how we live, work, attend church or find relaxation and entertainment?

While I don’t advocate thoughtless and trivial changing of our deepest convictions at the drop of a hat, I do question whether we are even minimally open to the possibility that we could learn something totally new such that we would dramatically alter our lives and beliefs.  Are we open to the  possibility that we could evolve in our thinking such that over time and after acquiring new knowledge and new insights we would find ourselves changed?

Being teachable, in my mind, is not just having an intelligent mind that is able to assimilate a few new facts.  It involves an attitude and an openness to different ways of life, thoughts and opinions.  It means being willing, no matter how painful, to consider other viewpoints and other approaches to living that are different from our own – and then honestly considering the wisdom and validity of them.  Ultimately, we may not change, but the larger question remains: have we already made up our minds to reject the new and different or, are we truly open to possible change?  Much like highly teachable dogs, do we wag our figurative tails in eager anticipation to hear and learn something new – even if it contradicts what we already think we know?

The Biblical book of Proverbs says that “The discerning heart seeks knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.”  Buddhism confirms this wisdom by asking us to grow through our minds.  Indeed, the goal in life, according to Buddhism, is to reach a state of full enlightenment about all truth.  For Jews, Muslims and Christians, enlightenment is what a person gains in eternal life – thus shaping how he or she lives and what he or she believes.  Paul, writing to the people in ancient Rome, encouraged them not to be conformed to everyday worldly patterns of thinking but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.  He asked them to be open to radically new ways of spiritual thinking – ones that embodied Jesus ethics of love, compassion, forgiveness, humility, gentleness and generosity.  Instead of living by Roman values of savage, brutal and self-focused thinking, Paul taught a new of way of life that was totally  different.  Significantly, almost all world religions advocate that their particular path to Divine truth is the better way. But, such assertions are premised on a person being open minded and willing to change.  Conversions to any faith cannot happen unless a person is teachable.

What that means for any of us is not that we automatically change our current faith or spirituality.  Instead, what it means for me is that we are called to be teachable, curious and open minded about all things, including the most fundamental faith questions humans ask.  Why are we here?  What purpose do we serve?  Is there eternal life and, if so, what will it look like?  We’re called to learn and consider the elements of ALL faiths, to ask questions, to be spiritually curious and to continually seek after things and matters that are universally and eternally true, right and good.   Spirituality, is not about arriving at hard and fast ideas and beliefs – no matter our faith.  Spirituality involves opening our minds, hearts and souls to what the Divine continually reveals to us and to all humanity.  We are spiritually inquisitive people, therefore, in order to improve ourselves and to then go out and help build a kinder, just and more joy filled world.

Being and staying teachable throughout our lives is about applying several characteristics into how we think and act.  Ultimately, as it is with dogs, teachability is not about innate intelligence.  We all know people who are quite smart but who seem to lack intuitive common sense or basic wisdom.  John Maxwell, the well known contemporary author on business and management skills says, Teachability is not so much about competence and mental capacity as it is about attitude. It is the desire to listen, learn, and apply. It is the hunger to discover and grow. It is the willingness to learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  For Maxwell and almost any human resource manager or boss in any company or business, teachability is an essential quality desired in an employee.  It is a quality necessary for success in any line of work and, for our purposes, in any life endeavor.

Maxwell outlines several characteristics a teachable person has.  First and perhaps most important, a teachable person listens!   He or she listens with the express intent to understand what the other is saying.  So often we can appear to listen but we are mentally working ahead and thinking about what we want to say, either to agree, disagree or talk about ourselves.  Instead, the point of active listening is to not only hear the words spoken but to actively assimilate them and process them so that we fully understand the point the other is making.  We don’t have to agree or disagree.  Our goal, instead, is to comprehend in such a way that we can  repeat, using our own words, what the other has just said.

Second, teachable persons ask lots of questions.  They are eager and willing to gather more information and gain new insight.  They are like the very eager dog who almost can’t wait to be shown a new skill.  I don’t consider myself perfect in this, but I am often accused of being like a therapist when I talk to folks.  I like to ask lots of questions.  I want to know about people’s lives and their thoughts because they interest me and I learn so much from them.

Third, a teachable person is always looking for teachable moments – those unique times when one can really learn something new and different.  That might come after one makes a mistake or when someone else describes mistakes he or she made and the lessons they learned as a result.  Teachable moments are also occasions to hear new speakers, read new books or watch new movies or shows.  For me, this involves forcibly extending myself beyond what I already believe and think.

When reading facebook updates or my news page, I often struggle with reading posts from friends and others that express ideas and thoughts very different from my own.  I have the impulse to unfriend the person, reply in anger or simply hide their posts.  The same is true with commentators or TV opinion shows I come across.  I try and force myself to read and watch what others have to say not just to hear the arguments of others but to deeply understand them.  I still struggle with the impulse to immediately reject differing thoughts and move on to people and things with whom I agree.  But, as long as what people say is not hateful or mean spirited towards others, I’ll listen.  (I offer the quick aside that I strongly believe we should always be respectful in our language and never speak or write hateful or insulting words to or about anyone.)

When listening to or reading opposing opinions, I try my best to think about what the other is saying and to honestly consider the merits of their point of view.  I still struggle doing this and I may not change my opinion but I hope I am at least open to that possibility.  And, I hope that on occasion I DO change my opinion based on what I read or hear.  I am not anywhere close to perfect in being broadly open minded to opposing ideas but it is an attitude I want to increasingly adopt.  I honestly want to be a teachable person.

Fourth, Maxwell says that a teachable person clearly understands the process of learning.  We learn by regularly examining our lives – our speech and actions.  We determine how well we have performed or how effective our speech has been in any situation.  This is done through honest self-reflection and by asking for the sincere opinion of others.  After doing that, a teachable person then assesses how he or she could have done better.  That is a crucial step in learning when we accept our past mistakes and think about possible future corrections.  We have truly learned, however, when we change our behavior or speech.  Almost anything we do or communicate can be improved and altered if we are teachable and willing to learn.

Last but not least in qualities a teachable person has is the ability and willingness to honestly and deeply ask oneself how willing am I to change?  How truly teachable am I?  Am I too defensive in resisting new thoughts or actions?  Am I too arrogant by insisting my opinions or my way of doing things is absolutely right, no questions asked!?!   Am I too fearful of change and of upsetting the status quo?  Am I too afraid of failure?  Am I too lazy to do the work necessary to change?  We all know that changing our thoughts, actions or beliefs involves a process of learning that takes time and effort.  We have to work!  Am I too complacent and comfortable in my current situation or way of thinking?  Once again, we all know that change involves altering, for a time, our comfort levels and our equilibrium.  Our lives, our world view, our work and even our friends might be upset and disturbed for a time.  Am I willing to endure such hardship in order to realize a greater good?  In determining whether or not we are really teachable, we should ask ourselves these important questions and honestly answer them.  If we then realize we are not fully teachable, we should ask ourselves, do we want to be teachable and do we want to change in order to improve?  Hopefully, we all want to be better and more effective in everything and anything we do.

When I arrived at the three uncommon New Year’s resolutions I’ve used in this January message series, I saw them as three separate and unique resolutions.  As I said two weeks ago, they resonate with me.  Going through the process of researching and writing these messages, I see the three resolutions are related to each other in ways that I had not earlier seen.

I said last week that a primary goal in our lives is to live at peace with ourselves and with others.  Toward that end, one personal resolution we can undertake is to accept others as they are and to stop being judgemental.  Related to what we are discussing today, we can only change ourselves.  We cannot change others.  They must do so themselves.  Our task is to encourage people and not judge them.  Our call is to respect, honor and love all people no matter how different they are from us.

In order to accept others as they are, we will need to find ways to control and properly express our anger.  Yes, others hurt us.  Yes, others express opinions and act in ways that are not only different from our own but seem to confront who and what we are.  Such differences can easily excite feelings of anger or resentment in us.  But, as we discussed last week, anger expressed with violent speech or violent actions are selfish and egocentric.  So too is passive aggressive anger where we hide our feelings while acting out in subtle but destructive ways.  We control angry feelings by remaining calm, by not suppressing the feelings and by actively seeking solutions to issues through gentle dialog and negotiation.

In accepting the differences in others and by finding ways to control our anger, we can build peace in the world and in our lives by being teachable and willing to change – as we have discussed today.  Usually, that means we are humble enough to accept that others have valid opinions of their own.  We will also accept the very real possibility that we are wrong in at least some of our most sincere thoughts, beliefs or practices.  We are all imperfect people full of issues and flaws.  The beauty in us is revealed by our humility, love and ability to change for the better.   The wise, the good and the strong are those who can accept others as they are, who learn to control and appropriately express their anger and who then are willing and able to be taught and to change.

My dear friends, life is so hard for each and every one of us.  No matter who we are, we each struggle with ways to live peacefully, happily and healthily.  We each want what every living soul wants – to live with  purpose, to find basic security and to have opportunities to be happy.

On this eve of celebrating one of the great prophets of history, Martin Luther King, Jr., let us live true to his legacy of nonviolent change.  To bring about peace in our time, we must bring about peace in our souls.  Embracing humanity in all its wide diversity, let us act and speak not in anger but in love.  And then, let us work for positive change in ourselves and in our world.

I wish us all great success in our New Year’s resolutions as I wish you each, here and listening online, much peace, joy and love.