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Issue 137 - Incompetence - April 2016

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"Although humility frequently is equated with a sense of unworthiness and low self-regard, ... true humility ... entails an accurate assessment of one's characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a forgetting of the self."

- I. P. Tangney, "Humility," Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19 (2000):70-82


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Past Issues


2-Creating Sacred Space

3-Leaving Footprints


5-Ordered Life

76-Vanier Visit

87-Wondrous Fear, Holy Awe

91-Crater Lake


101-On Reflections 

102-Morning Moments

108-NBA Championship

110-On Freedom 

112 Robin Williams 


116-Kentucky Epiphany 

119-Christmas Mystery  


121-Radical Amazement 

122-St.John's Bible 

124-Botanical Garden 

126-Call of the King 

127-Living Our Stories 

128-Pope Francis 

129-Saint Francis 


131-The Way of Peace  

132-Danube Reflections  

133-Want Happiness? 

134-Our Uncertain Certainties 

135-Corita Kent  


Link to all past issues     


Pockets of Incompetence
As my family could tell you, I am not much of a handyman. Oh, I can hang a picture, even replace a light switch. Beyond that, however, things get a bit sketchy.
Sadly, it took me a long time to recognize my limitations. "How hard can it be," I ask myself, "to fix a dripping faucet?" I then proceed to demonstrate just how hard it can be! After a string of (luckily small) dripping faucet disasters, I have finally come to recognize that when it comes to plumbing, the chances of me making the problem worse may well be higher than the chances of a successful repair.
An objective observer might rate that as definitely higher. I recently learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect. First documented by Cornell psychologist David Dunning and one of his graduate students, Justin Kruger, "The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is." Consistently, people who score lowest on a test of a wide range of skills have rated their skills as above-average. As Dunning puts it, "If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent.... [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is."
     We have all experienced the blowhard know-it-all who, in fact, has no clue about what they are talking about. Sadly, at one time or another, that person is us. As Dunning says, "We all have our specific pockets of incompetence." Witness me and plumbing. As he puts it elsewhere, "The problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all."
     The need for self-knowledge is a deep part of every wisdom tradition, religious or not. Even so, most of us will have limitations we are not aware of. Thus, we all have need of humility.
     And we all have need of grace. Thanks be to God that, in the words of Kathleen Norris, "It is through our failings and weaknesses, our 'ways of imperfection,' that we find God, and God finds us."

                                                                  - Bill

Sources: We first learned of the Dunning-Kruger effect from a recent broadcast of This American Life, Other sources cited are Wikipedia, Dunning's article, " We Are All Confident Idiots," and Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk.

        In the Dunning-Kruger lab, the question resting on the fulcrum is: "Do they know they are incompetent?" Well, yes. I know I cannot sing.
       As a little girl, probably before I learned to read, I wanted to sing. I wanted to learn music. I wanted to play the piano. But my mother sent me, instead,  to dancing school, put me in a tutu, and shoved me to the front of the stage. I loved dance, always did: tap, ballet, modern jazz, boot-scooting - any kind of movement to music.
       Even though I was in a majorette in middle school and sang in a sextet in high school, I never learned to read music. In a Theology of Liturgy class a few years ago, our blind professor walked by my desk while we were singing the psalms, he stopped, and he said, "You are atonal, aren't you?!"
       So yes, I know I am musically incompetent. But when I sing for the Lord, my voice is freed and melodious. (Not like Susan Boyle or Jackie Evancho - I'd never make it on America's Got Talent.) Nonetheless, perhaps in my next life I will be in the Chorus of Witnesses or the Choir of Angels and I won't even need to audition. I am practicing, though, in my heart, making music and singing spiritual songs.
       Truth be known, Dunning and Kruger would probably certify just how incompetent I really am. Probably the angels would agree. 
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Sincerely,  Bill Howden & Jan Davis
Soul Windows Ministries