“Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

An introduction

5 Aug 2018; revised 28 Sep 2021

by John Stephens

In our very first conversation, Tom Fox made a commitment to me that would change my life.

Tom Fox (Wikipedia)

In March of 2001, I began working as a human resources administrator at Whole Foods Market. I was responsible for managing payroll, benefits, training, workplace safety, and dozens of other duties for a grocery store with over 200 employees.

And I wasn’t very good at it. I was terribly disorganized, and I was constantly overwhelmed by a never-ending fire hose of paperwork and requests.

In the summer of that year, a new team leader transferred from another store. He held meetings with all the department leaders who would be reporting to him, to talk about their expectations and goals. He didn’t schedule a meeting with me.

My new boss was a serious and taciturn man, tall and thin, with neatly-cropped hair circling a bald crown. He had frost-green eyes and an aquiline profile. I could easily see him in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. I felt uneasy showing him any weakness, but I was afraid that he would see my failings and assume that I was incompetent or careless.

So one day, I gritted my teeth and nervously went to the door of his office. I told him I was having trouble and feeling overwhelmed. I told him I was a afraid I didn’t have the skills to swing it. But I also wanted him to know I cared about my work and I wanted to improve.

Tom listened quietly and took my concern seriously. He said there was training available, and the company would pay for it. I just had to wait until the next year’s training budget kicked in. He made a note in his Franklin Planner to follow up.

In April, Tom sent me to a FranklinCovey training seminar led by Homero Bayarena. That seminar had an immediate and drastic impact on my work.

The teaching was simple and unexpected: I wasn’t surprised that it covered basic skills in organization, time management, and leadership. What surprised me was the focus.

Instead of making it about cranking out more work units for The Company, Bayarena asked us to focus on what matters most, and to direct all our efforts and energy to that. The Franklin Planner he gave me included pages for daily appointments and tasks, but it also included pages for working out the values and vision that would provide decisive guidance in the goals I would set and the priorities I would plan for.

The motivation to put this training into practice might have ebbed were it not for Tom’s persistent example. Week in and week out, he examined his commitments in light of Something Greater. He ruthlessly cut the clutter from his life, so that he would be free to respond to human needs and put life-giving service and relationships first.

I got to see this firsthand in the aftermath of 9/11. Our store was just 13 miles from the Pentagon’s smoldering rubble on the Potomac River, and our workforce included many Muslims from all around the world. We were all scared: In addition to the general menace we all felt in those weeks, our Muslim colleagues faced threats and harassment. Tom quietly committed himself to nurturing among us fellowship, trust, and work toward goals that united us.

A year later, our store was in the uncertain circle of a battlefield created by the Beltway sniper attacks. Again, Tom’s quiet leadership gave priority to service, relationships, and human needs throughout our store—employees, vendors, customers, and neighbors.

Most of the time, though, Tom’s planning practice was just practical. It wasn’t an exercise in command and control or pretending to know the unknowable; just a simple way of keeping what really matters in focus, in the midst of whatever chaos each day brings. It was an unhurried discipline of making his schedule both the expression and measure of his purpose and values.

And when Tom retired in 2003, this habit led him into the service of a humanitarian aid group called Christian Peacemaker Teams. But that is another story.

Having Tom’s guidance and example helped me to find my own calling and my own ways of expressing purpose and vision in my work. Through the same discipline of reflection and planning, I found clarity in focusing my work on service and relationships in my workplace.

By prioritizing people and solving problems for others over administrivia, I never stopped the fire hose of unfinished work. But investing my limited time and attention in service and relationships helped me discover and sidestep countless problems before they formed, and helped us develop a more resilient culture to endure those problems we could not avoid. The anxiety of unfinished busy-work was displaced by the peace of knowing my time was not wasted.

Sharpening my leadings into decisive action through daily planning eventually guided me into new forms of service, learning, teaching, and work. Sometimes, I get bogged down in a day-to-day chaos and lose focus; but all these years later, I keep coming back to this habit that grew out of my friendship with Tom.

Invitation to Reflection

Tom once summarized his focusing method as follows. Having worked with Tom and seen his method in action, these words seem dry in comparison, but they are his words:

1. Estimate how long you can expect to live given your health, frame of mind, lifestyle, and family/support system. Try to arrive at a realistic date “you can live with.”

2. Think of up to five things (values, goals, relationships) that are most important to your life.

3. For each one, consider how much time you need to spend on it.

a. Percent of time now

b. Total, in your remaining lifetime

4. Think of at least one action you can take today that will help you advance the things you listed in #2 as most important.

5. Think of at least one action you can take to simplify your life now, to free up time and resources for the most important things.

It might take 10 or 15 minutes, when your mind is calm. I invite you to try it.

Then imagine how your answers might change over time. Death has a way of putting everything into perspective. If we wait, we may find this perspective too late when we are faced with our own deaths or the deaths of those around us.

But we don’t have to wait. We can look at our lives from that perspective today.

Where does this perspective come from? For Tom, it wasn’t a product of going through a mechanical, step-by-step process. As a Quaker, he found it by quiet and patient listening, for motions from the Divine center.

“Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

The Franklin Planner was inspired by the “little book” Benjamin Franklin used in a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection”.

In his autobiography, Franklin said he used the book to list 12 virtues that he wanted to guide his actions, including entries for Silence, Resolution, and Justice. He mapped each virtue to a “precept”, to clarify its practical scope.

Frankin’s Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin

After laying out these virtues, he took up one virtue every week and made a focused effort in practicing it. He used his “little book” to order his schedule and track his progress.

When he shared this scheme with an unnamed Quaker friend, the Quaker pointed out a weak point in Franklin’s method: His own pride.

…but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances,—I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

To guide his practice in Humility, Franklin wrote simply, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”.

✣ ✣ ✣

Jesus and Socrates have more than humility in common. They are also teachers who each embody a unique ethic and a unique way of knowing. That is, they each model a different epistemology. If we look to Jesus and Socrates for their epistemologies, their ways of knowing, how might that change the way we shape knowledge and trust in our own lives?

My reason for exploring this is, we are in the throes of a perilous struggle rooted in our relationship to knowledge and our ways of knowing. My words from the 2018 draft of this essay seem frivolously trite now:

We don’t have to be “intellectuals” to care about our ways of knowing. Our ways of knowing have a profound impact on our relationships and well-being.

Maybe you’ve noticed the quality of conversation plummet among otherwise “good-hearted” people. Maybe you’ve noticed conflict in your family or community spurred by clashing ways of knowing. Maybe you’ve noticed deep fault lines and seismic upheaval in our society based on different ways of knowing.

Maybe you’ve noticed that many of the most pivotal issues we are facing are shrouded in confusion, misinformation, and mendacity.

I have.

Maybe? Who was I kidding?!

Even then it seemed clear that this epistemic crisis might be the defining issue of our time. Since then, crisis has become calamity. Calamity upon calamity. Calamity shaped by confusion, mistrust, and desperate, insecure certainties.

Looking back at the values, goals, and relationships you listed, I wonder if any of them are untouched by the calamities we have faced? If you’re like me, the upheaval of our time sometimes goads you to triage them like patients in an emergency room.

Everywhere we look, we are faced with uncomfortable conversations. Are you tempted to dismiss these conversations with contempt? It is comforting to think our own way of knowing is so Right that we don’t even have to listen to contrasting views. It is comforting to disregard divergent ideas—and the people who hold them—as groundless, misguided, or even dangerous.

But Jesus and Socrates invite us into uncomfortable conversations. They challenge us to examine our own judgments. And their ways of knowing reveal patterns for inquiry, conversation, and reflection that allow us to encounter Truth as fellow learners.

The epistemology of Socrates is reflected in reason. For this work, I’m focused most of all on Socratic skepticism, Socratic questioning, and Socratic method. Socrates helps us think clearly about the underpinnings of our knowledge, question our certainties, and recognize the gaps in our knowing.

With Jesus, I’m focused most of all on an epistemology that took root in contemplative Christianity—from the early Desert Christians to contemporary Quaker practice. Silence, sustained attention to present reality and the Truth in our midst, observation, reflection, and intentionality. This contemplative epistemology helps us see ourselves and our knowing in a delicate web of relationship and meaninging.

My thesis is, reason and love go together. Together, they can improve our conversations and provide ways to discover common ground for mutual learning and trust.

I’m not sanguine about reversing the widespread culture of epistemic confusion. But maybe we don’t have to reverse it to create some islands where clear thinking and compassionate conversation can survive.

Two books that got me started in this work were _To Know As We Are Known_ by Parker Palmer, and _The Habit of Thought_ by Michael Strong. But it took a lot more than those two to really set out, and my apprenticeship continues. Beyond reading, my thinking about this was nurtured by a spiritual formation group at my Quaker meeting, along with thousands of conversations with friends who love reason.

Reason and love. I want to write more about these ways of knowing, but it’s going to take some work. Would you be willing to explore this theme with me?

This post was originially published on Minutes in 2018, but I've moved it here to work on some of the ideas.

“Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” (2018), HTML