A little philosophy is a good thing for this week, I think! There was a Franciscan Friar who lived in Occam in England around 1347, and his writing lead people to name his theory “Occam’s razor.” In a nutshell, the razor is used to cut away excess complications. In other words, if there’s a choice between a simple explanation and a complicated one, choose the simple one.
Here are some examples of trying to use this principle. We had a couple seminarians in the parish a couple of summers ago. Good guys! I thought it would be a help to them if they did some work. I like to see how people work, and then I can help them start thinking about what they’re doing. This project was to build and paint a few picnic tables (the ones in front of the church now!). Remember, the goal here wasn’t to get free labor. It would have been easier to build the tables myself, or hire someone to build them. The goal was to teach the guys.
So, I rented a truck and we headed out to a Lowes’ to get the tables. They came not assembled, and the first thing to do was put them together. They did ok at figuring out how to put them together… although I think there was a mistake that I had to help them figure out. Anyway, the tables were together. Now it was time to paint them.
I got the guys some rollers and primer and paint, and a couple of drop cloths. Then they went to work. I watched them painting, and had to stop myself from laughing. They were crawling around under the tables with the paint and rollers. They were painting, but they hadn’t taken the time to look at the job and figure it out. Finally, when they got to the last table, I went over and said something like, “look at this, guys,” and stood the last table on end so you could paint the bottom standing up. They were amazed! That made the job much easier.
I just talked to one of them who may be entering the seminary again. I told him that in a parish, you’ll never have the resources you need to actually do the mission of the church. That much hasn’t changed over the past 2000 years. If you think back on the early disciples, they began the whole operation with nothing at all! A few books, and no money and no buildings or anything at all. I think Jesus picked his disciples because they were problem solvers. When you’re a problem solver, you look for things to make better. You have a mission to accomplish, and you get going.
Remember the apostles in the early church? In Acts, there was a complaint from the Greek Jews that their widows weren’t getting any food, while the Hebraic widows were getting food. The 12 decided to hand the job over to some assistants and keep preaching the word. It was the spirit moving them to achieve a goal (feed the widows) and at the same time talk about Jesus. They asked for help (a key to being a problem solver) and got the job done! Read Acts 6.
Can you learn to be a problem solver? Yes, you can! That’s what I was trying to teach the seminarians. How do you become a problem solver? By solving problems. It seems kind of simple, and it is. There are some implications for this in everyday life.
For example, if you are raising children, do you want to solve their problems for them, or do you want them to solve their own problems? What’s the end goal you want? Do you want a child who is resilient and curious, or do you want one who is nervous and afraid to try new things? Pretty clearly, you want the kind of child who grows into an adult who can make their way in the world. It’s always a delicate balance when you’re raising kids, I think. But, a lot of people I see give their children too much. Maybe they don’t want the kids to suffer… but if they don’t suffer how can they grow?
Another example of putting this principle to work… do you want to always do what you’ve always done, or do you want to try something new? Clearly, once you have arrived at a way of doing something (washing the laundry, making your coffee, brushing your teeth) you can repeat it easily. It becomes a habit and doesn’t require a lot of effort. Learning to use Occam’s razor requires you to stop for a minute and look at what you’re doing. And asking yourself the question, “Is this the best way to do this? Is this the easiest way to get to the goal I have? Can I find a simpler answer to this problem? Can I get some help?”
So, how to become a better problem solver? Give yourself a problem to solve. Make it a hard one! Then go at it. Think about it, and ask for help. Prepare to fail. And go for it. In the parish, we want everyone to be problem solvers. After all, we’re here to change the world!