Reproof

Qui diligit disciplinam diligit scientiam; qui autem odit increpationes insipiens est.
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.
-Proverbs 12:1

There is a great humor as we gain days, if we are lucky enough to laugh at our constant inability to predict what the next moment may bring. It seems to me the bare option before us is to either grow embittered at our stunning incapacity to guess how things will next unfold, or instead, to give praise that we are ever being reproved by the world before us, which continually grants us the opportunity to be children once more.

Case in point: like many folks I suppose, I retroactively realize that I put far too much thought into the silly little tokens I post on social media for the world to see. Sure, I try to act like it is something blithe, off-the-cuff, a cool toss of an idea, nothing more. But secretly, I know I wonder what exactly it is that will make people read this post, or like this picture and not that one, or what all this is saying about me to others. The petty lengths we go to groom our “broadcasted selves” knows no bounds.

 So it was somewhat a surprise when I started posting sections of the book of Proverbs, and that of all things was the post getting “likes.” I came to the rereading Proverbs like many books of Scripture seem to come into my life—I think it would be a “good idea” for 5-7 years to do so, and then some random mention in an off-hand conversation with someone else turns this amoebous idea into a burning necessity. I expected for the experience to be penetrating—God always seems to know how to bring readings into our lives at certain times—but I did not think it would be, well, popular. And once more, like the great teacher it is, Scripture once again proved me wrong.

There are several sterling passages that I have read and that have been burning in my heart from the great work of wisdom, especially in this time when wisdom seems in such short supply! However it is this one verse quoted above that has struck a chord with me, and evidently with others as well. It is certainly not the bluntness by which the stupid are called out—Solomon does not mince words in his Proverbs. For myself, it is the word “reproof” that I keep coming back to, keep seeing evidence of time and again.

The etymology of the word has everything to do with the teaching methods of the shame-based cultures from whence it arose. What Southern child is unfamiliar with the “you are better than that” line of parental declarations? The re- prefix has multiple applications in its long history of Latin-influenced languages, but the sense here is that one is being against or being the opposite of a thing or state one should be. Your behavior is the opposite of being worthy, of being approved, of being honorable. You can do better.

However, the re- prefix has another obvious application, the sense of “again,” or “anew,” or “once more.” So to relax is to loosen (laxare) something back to its original density. Recreation and remember take on entirely new depth of meaning when seen in this light. And so although many an etymology nerd will be angry with me for doing so, I cannot help but see the word reproof with this secondary, neologistic meaning in mind, that reproof is not only the shame-based definition (which I am all for!) mentioned above, but has another angle as well. A reproof then is also reality (or truth, or nature, or God, or whomever), bringing us back one more time to a proof, making a proof anew, letting us see the proof of something, one more time.

This does not have to be as deep as it sounds. Indeed, it is happening all the time around us. It was very warm here in my hometown yesterday, but as I drove into work, it became clear hardly anyone checked the weather. The 40 degree temperature drop had taken most folks by surprise, as their choice in clothing clearly attested. Autumn had reproved their miscalculation of the surprises the season has in store.

Or take, for instance, an episode in your life where your memory shows you something anew about yourself. I am always making jokes about being from Oklahoma, and the idea that I grew up in a slightly more wild-and-wooly, perhaps backwards place than most folks my age. I say all this with utter affection, but I do sometimes fret that I am nothing but a poser, pretending that my upbringing belonged to a culture that it never did, a city boy pretending to be a Mark Twain character for effect. Then I remember that one time I got in trouble with a buddy at a dirt track in Enid, Oklahoma, for spitting at people off the back of the grandstand, and would have been in big trouble too, but my friend’s parents were too buzzed off racetrack booze and their son winning one of the races to remember reporting the episode to my folks. I then become well aware once more that not everyone my age even knows dirt tracks exist.

But of course, it is the hardship and sufferings, of ourselves and others, which begins to drive this point home. A friend or acquaintance has a miscarriage, or loses a child, and reality reproves the lessons I learned the hard way when my wife and I experienced a lost pregnancy. The political classes chatter back and forth at one another, seemingly unaware of the frightening future they are painting for my children and students. This din of news reporting and talking heads reproves once more that we cannot put our trust in Princes. Children are sick or picked on at school or cannot seem to understand a lesson or have trouble making friends, and the control we feel as parents is once more called out as a feeble fiction. Once more, our weakness before those who need us is reproved. 

What are we to do about these, the hard lessons? Well as the verse says, we can learn to hate them, but alas, it would be stupid to do so. At the very least for Stoic reasons it would be so, for who can avoid the pitfalls of life, who can gain one hair on their head through worry? But there is more to it. Just like a muscle cannot grow unless it is broken down through the trial of strain and then given the chance to rebuild, we would be left atrophied and languid if we did not have the chance to be broken down, reproved, by life itself. From Plato’s ancient Apology, to Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile from a few years back, the most perceptive among us have made similar points. Life will come with suffering and pain, but what else can we do but grow from it, what else can we do but take the brute cruelty of life, and force it to be in some measure a benefit to us, as painful and heart-wrenching as that may be?

This may not be the image of the gentle, therapeutic, reaffirming God many of us seek today. But if we have learned anything of the God who tested Abraham, or Job, or Jesus Christ Himself, this comports more with His ways, and the way of suffering we all must face in this life. It is therefore stupid to hate reproof because it is coming whether you like it or not. But more profoundly, for those who choose to love this pedagogy, there is nothing in this life that cannot be the occasion of salvation.

How terrifying. How beautiful.