April 29 – The perils of blind zeal

“Blind zeal is soon put to a shameful retreat, while holy resolution, built on fast principles, lifts up its head like a rock in the midst of the waves. (William Gurnall)

The words that most speak to me in this quote are the first two… “blind zeal”. To me those words speak to being uninformed and unaware. Proceeding blindly into a situation with full force of your zeal is a recipe for disaster.

Too often I come across people who are zealots and who appear to me to be woefully misinformed or underinformed. They have a basic, surface knowledge about something, and then they go at it full bore, knocking over everything in their path. These people are usually very well-intentioned, but don’t have the depth of understanding for their zeal to really be justified.

I myself have fallen into that trap a time or two. I have taken up the mantle of a crusade about which I had little or no depth of knowledge or understanding. Embarrassment usually ensues as I learn the hard way that I was charging down a path of ruin.

On the other hand, there are few things more powerful than a person who has built up their resolve based on hard principles, and then applies those principles and that resolve with great zeal. That energetic approach can move mountains.

When I was a Dale Carnegie instructor, we called that the idea of having reserve power. The notion was that if you knew 40 times as much about a subject than was needed on the surface, then you would have earned the right to speak and act forcefully about it. This reserve power can be gained from diligent study, lived experience or a combination of both. But, to truly be able to act with that kind of zeal required that you had earned the right.

I find myself often referring to the notion of earning the right to speak about something. It is, to me, a measure of credibility. Having someone speak to me about a subject for which they have little reserve power causes me to call into question whether anything they say is valid. A person who lectures people in business about how to conduct themselves, but has never been in a corporate environment carries very little weight with me. The person who counsels people on how to overcome difficulties, but cannot witness to their own struggles, or demonstrate their knowledge with evidence of their extensive study, offers little in the way of credible help.

It can be very tempting to follow along with a zealot. Frequently their energy becomes like a siren call luring people in. But they often have a hard time with probing questions. When asked why they believe something, or what is the basis of their understanding, they frequently fall apart.

I recall on the evening of the 2008 US Presidential Election when it was evident that Barack Obama was going to become the next president. I had occasion to be on Facebook, and there was a person with whom I casually worked who was rallying people up to go celebrate at the bar for the victory. I had supported the other guy, but I honestly wanted to know what this person was so excited about. I asked her, in chat, why she was so excited. She said that she was excited that there would be a “change”. I pointed out that either candidate would be a change from the previous person, and asked her to tell me what she thought would be really different. I repeatedly asked her to convince me to be excited, and I was truly open to it. Sadly, all she could do was tell me again and again that things would change and be different. She repeated the rhetoric of the campaign posters, but had no substance to her argument. I did not go out to the bar that night.

I am not looking to get into a political discussion here. I think things have changed in the past 5 years, some good and others not so good. That isn’t the point. The point is that I was open and ready to the possibilities of being excited with her, but she had no reserve power to persuade me. Perhaps if I had talked to someone else, my results would have been different. But in that moment I was dealing with a person who had blind zeal and not much else.

Yesterday I wrote about the idea that I needed to be more optimistic in my life, that I needed to get away from cynicism and only seeing the downside of things. Today’s thoughts don’t fly in the face of that inner pledge. My resolution yesterday was to see solutions and how to overcome difficulties; to accentuate the positive and expect the best and to choose to smile. But all of that was also to be done with eyes open to the problems and difficulties. Blindly following a zealous path is taking the Pollyanna approach to optimism. It is saying that “all is well if we just forge ahead”, when that clearly isn’t the case.

I think that these two quotes presented back-to-back serve to show a better path. Namely that one should be aware of the difficulties in life, but then to build their reserve power and push forward on a path of holy resolution, built on fast principles. When I can do that, my head will surely poke up like a rock in the midst of waves.

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