The goal is like the idea for the next Facebook buried in a filing cabinet in a company records room. Someone finds it, and tucks it back away, then goes and cashes out all her stock options, and buys out the company.
This single verse koan requires two essential things.
First, you have to recognize the treasure for what it really is before you can cash in your chips for it. Opportunities come to those who are aware enough to notice what others pass by.
Second, but no less important, you have to have the courage to cash in your chips. And it’s not fear of failure that holds most of us back. Exactly the opposite is the case: we’re more often paralyzed by fear of what will become of us if we succeed.
Certainly, you’ve heard about my past, how in Judaism I hunted down the church and tried to annihilate it. I was so dedicated to my ancestral religion that I excelled way beyond my peers. But, God had marked me before birth. So, when God deigned to grant me a vision of God’s son and called me to tell the heathen about him, I didn’t consult with anyone. I didn’t go ask the Apostles in Jerusalem, even though they were Apostles before I was. Instead, I went immediately to Arabia, and then to Damascus.
After three years I went to Jerusalem to see Cephas. I stayed with him 15 days, but aside from James, Jesus’s brother, I didn’t see any of the others. I swear to God, I’m not lying about any of this!
After that I went to Syria and Cilicia. I’d never met any of the Christians in Judea personally. All they knew was what they heard about the guy who’d been hunting us is now promoting the movement he once tried to wipe out. So on my account they thanked God.
While the book of Acts reports in great detail the famous “three missionary journeys of Paul,” we only find out here that between that “Damascus Road” vision and his actual arrival in Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) there was a three-year missionary journey to Arabia. Then, after that first meeting with Peter in Jerusalem (unreported in Acts) another 14 year tour of Syria and Cilicia (Modern Turkey, around the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea).
On these two missionary journeys, Paul has very little to say, other than that this was the segue from his “former life” and the rest of the New Testament, nothing at all. Probably because these first two unreported missionary journeys were complete failures. There is, for those 17 years in all, nothing to report, except that everyone else is thankful Paul is no longer trying to hunt them down.
That Paul spent 17 years as a failure may at first come to many as a shock. It may be disappointing to realize that someone so greatly remembered had so many years of nothing to show for his efforts. But success always looks inevitable when it finally happens. The vast majority of the time, the real story is that people who are great successes spent years of not being successful. Some die as failures before the world realizes posthumously the significance of their work. It doesn’t take much to find a pretty long list of superstars and millionaires who spent time in homeless shelters.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that even long years of hard work are going to pay off in the end. Not everybody lives happily ever after. Sometimes, as in Paul’s case, it requires finally changing some things about what you’re doing. What is certain is that overnight successes seldom are really overnight. You have to put in the time, push through the resistance. Like the virtuoso who was asked how to get to Carnegie Hall said, “Practice, practice, practice.” There are no shortcuts.
The rock-bottom truth is that if you believe in something as much as Paul did, you’re not really looking for short and easy. If you believe in something the way Paul does, you’re working hard trying to get it right. That’s the only way it will ever really be great.
General commander of the Aramean army, Naaman, was the king’s favorite, because God had won the war for Aram. But, even though he was a great soldier, he was a leper.
As it happened on one of their raids against Israel, the Arameans had captured a girl who had become Naaman’s wife’s slave girl. She said to her mistress, “If my master went to the truth-teller in Samaria, he would cure his leprosy.”
So Naaman went to the king and told him what the girl had said. The king said, “Go, and I’ll send this letter with you for the king of Israel.” So Naaman went, with the letter to Israel’s king and besides that took ten bars of gold, six thousand gold doubloons, and ten changes of clothes. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, who read:
This letter is my order that you must cure my general, Naaman, of his leprosy.
When Israel’s king heard this, he tore his clothes, saying, “He’s trying to start a war with me. How am I supposed to cure this man of leprosy? Who does he think I am? God?”
When news of the king’s exasperation reached Elisha (God’s man), he sent a message to the king, saying, “Why are you so upset? Send him to me. He’ll soon know the truth about Israel.”
So Naaman rode up to Elisha’s house with his motorcade and tanks. Elisha sent a messenger out to tell him, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times and you’ll be fine.”
Enraged, Naaman went away saying, “I was expecting him to come out and save his hand over the spot and say some magic words about God. That would have cured me. I’ve got better rivers back home in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, just to name two. I could have washed in those and been better off than going to that muddy trickle of the Jordan.”
But his advisers said, “Sir, if the truth-teller had asked you to do something difficult, you’d have done it. Why not give washing in the Jordan a try, since it’s so easy.” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan River seven times, and sure enough, his skin was as smooth as a baby’s bottom.
Ockham’s razor is the principle that, all other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones. In other words, if you have a spot, wash it a few times and it will probably come off. More often than not, the simplest way forward is the best. It doesn’t matter how highfalutin you are. Simple wins every time.
That’s a lesson enough in itself.
The point of this story, though, isn’t about simplicity. It’s about humility. In the opening line, Naaman is introduced as being highfalutin and successful, not because he’s so great, but because God had handed him his successes. Elisha’s message to the king was, send him to me and I’ll take him down a peg. Sending a messenger out was about humiliation, and Naaman understood the “I’m not at all impressed with your importance” message clearly.
The time we spend worrying about our reputations is wasted time. Our accomplishments are often not nearly as much ours as we give ourselves credit for. Even the best of us stand on the shoulders of the greats who came before. And just because you worked hard doesn’t mean you deserve your wealth and fame any more than the next person. If it did, there would be no such thing as the working poor.
Not many of us are as rich or famous as Naaman, but we can still remember that what we have and are able to accomplish is owing to something greater than ourselves. Call it Elisha’s razor.