23 September 2008

The virtue of doing nothing

The recent whining from Comrades Paulson and Bernanke about the necessity of “acting urgently” to bail out irresponsible banks has reminded me of a position that I have come to embrace. I will explain it, and it is controversial, but I don’t think I can be talked out of it.

The position is that there can sometimes be great virtue in doing nothing.

Just because Paulson and Bernanke say something doesn’t really mean that anybody has to do anything.

You see, we could just stand by and “let it crater.” Just because a bunch of folks are screaming, “do something, do something, it’s gonna crater,” doesn’t mean that we have to do anything.

And, “it” might crater, or “it” might not.

But away with Paulson and Bernanke, they merely present a contemporary example of the person who says – “you must act.”

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that often when someone tells me I have to “do something,” they’re wrong. When they tell me, “you have to decide,” or “you’ve got to choose,” it may not be so. It may be the informal fallacy called “false dilemma.” The fallacy taps into our natural bias for action, but it seems that our natural bias for action is often rooted in emotion rather than wisdom, or rational deliberation.

Now, not all options are good options. When I was a boy and my papa told me to do some certain thing – I had options. I could do what he told me, or I could suffer (my hind-end could suffer).

Christians (as did Christ), learn obedience by the things that they suffer (Hebrews 5:8). So, the idea of obeying God’s commands, or the idea of a child obeying his/her parents is really not what I’m talking about here.

What I’m talking about is most other cases.

In the rock band Rush’s philosophical anthem “Freewill,” Geddy Lee screams, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Though I understand his point, another perspective warrants consideration.

Not choosing is “not choosing.” It is refusing to make a choice. Not choosing is choosing to be passive rather than active. Not choosing is deciding to relinquish the prerogative of choice – with the understanding that something not chosen (something unchosen) may happen.

While such a prospect may be a cause of fear for some, I have come to believe that “not choosing” is often a viable and righteous posture for a Christian.

Imagine that a Christian comes under a violent attack. Many would say that s/he must decide immediately how to respond. This is usually taken to mean that s/he must decide whether to offer resistance (to fight), or to be non-resistant (and maybe to die).

But really…does such a choice have to be made. There seems to be no rational requirement that would force a choice in the moment.

The objector might quote Geddy Lee and say, “well, in such a case, not deciding is the same as deciding.” But such a response is certainly not informed by the Christian worldview. Christianity offers a third way.

In such a situation, might not indecision be the occasion to “stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD (2 Chronicles 20:17)?” In such a situation, might it not be virtuous to “do nothing?”

Contrast this with a naturalistic perspective which would suggest that declining to choose one course of action over another is relinquishing of the human will to power, and when one does such s/he deserves whatever happens to him/her.

Naturalism would suggest that due to the perpetual passage of time, not deciding on a certain course of action may result in something coming about which was not actively chosen – something “random.”

But if one rejects the idea of randomness, is this necessarily a bad thing?

Folks say things like, “you have to do this,” or “you have to do that,” but after many years I have come to realize that I really don’t. Just because someone says that I have to “take action” doesn’t mean that I really do (have to take action).

If the truth be told, all that I have to decide in this moment is - do I take my next breath – or do I pass out.

Realizing this – that I don’t really have to do what it is that someone else says (assuming I’m willing to accept the consequences of inaction) - can be extremely “freeing.”

As I mentioned above, when Comrades Paulson and Bernanke whine about the necessity for quick action to bail out irresponsible banks – that doesn’t really mean that anybody has to do anything. This is not to say that there might be consequences from inaction.

I think I can almost hear the rugged American objection from the “man of action.” “We MUST do something,” he says. But, just because there is an objection, just because you are rugged, or just because you are an individualist, or just because you are an American doesn’t mean you have to do anything

Λόγος can rule Πάθος.

The American business magnate Martha Stewart spent five months in an American gulag because she thought she had to “take action.” Mrs. Stewart was found guilty of “making false statements to federal investigators.” In other words, because she acted (and surely she must have felt that she “had” to act), she ended up being persecuted (i.e., prosecuted).

I’ll bet if she had it to do over again, she wouldn’t say a word to a “federal investigator.” Much better to have a “federal investigator” think you a dumb (speechless) idiot, than to give him the very ammunition he will use against you. Martha’s best course of action would have been to “do nothing.”

Surely, it requires wisdom to know when it is best to “do nothing,” but we often don’t even entertain the idea of “doing nothing.” Maybe we’ve forgotten that it’s an option.

The Militant Pacifist advocates “doing nothing” (i.e., not taking action) only when “doing nothing” has been chosen. This may not require active “choice,” but certainly it requires thought.

Theologians bifurcate sins into, “sins of omission,” and “sins of commission.” To really see “doing nothing” as a live option, a Christian must have thought through the possibility that sometimes – to do nothing would be sinful.

Realizing this highlights the truth that it requires wisdom and discernment to decide to act, or to do nothing.

Next time the pressure is on you to take action, realize that you may just be suffering from your own bias to action, and consider that there is at least a possibility that “doing nothing” might be virtuous.

Take a chill pill, and consider.

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