Wise Expenditure of Energy

“A fool expends all his [sic] energy,                                                                                                               but a wise person keeps it in reserve” (Prov 29:11, my trans.)

In January a few years ago, a colleague and I attended a conference in the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida.  We had made our flight arrangements separately, but ended up booked for the same return flight. I reached the airport first and went to the kiosk to print out my boarding pass. The kiosk computer informed me that I needed to consult a ticket agent at the gate. Already, forty or more people were in line at the desk where I counted two staff.

This event transpired just before the advent of the “smart phone,” but I did have my simple cell phone, so I called my wife.  On a hunch, I asked her to check the internet for any news related to the Atlanta airport. (As everyone who lives in the southeast knows, you cannot fly anywhere without first flying to Atlanta. To compound things, I was booked on Delta.)  As it turned out, Atlanta was, at that very moment, experiencing a freak ice storm and the Atlanta airport was closed – entirely and completely.

My knees give me some trouble and airport floors are hard. I reasoned that I could sit on a bench nearby and watch the line of those futilely trying to rebook flights without flying through Atlanta shrink.  I observed that in each case so far, after some period of consultation with the ticket agents, sometimes involving raised voices and gesticulation, my fellow travelers left the counter with documents in hand. I learned by asking one of them who passed by my bench that they were tickets for the same flight tomorrow and vouchers for a discounted stay in the airport hotel that night. The last person in the line, I reasoned, would hear the same news that the irate couple then at the front of the line was hearing. I decided to be the last person in the line and spare my knees.  Besides, I had a set of papers to grade in my briefcase.

In a very few moments, my younger colleague arrived at the kiosk, got the message, and then saw me sitting to the side on the bench grading papers. She came over and made inquiries. I explained what I knew. She told me that she had promised her son to be home in time for a school function, so she was going to join the line to see whether the ticket agent could reroute her so that she could fulfill her promise. I expressed doubt about her prospects for success, promised that I would save her a seat on the shuttle to the airport hotel, and asked whether she would be interested in joining me for dinner – an opportunity for colleagues who usually pass each other in the hallway to get to know one another better. From lemons, one can produce lemonade.

Readers can surmise the outcome with little difficulty. We had a decent meal and a cordial conversation.  While sitting on the bench, watching the line diminish and my colleague’s inevitable receipt of a new ticket and a voucher, I suddenly thought of the contrast between my attitude in that moment and how I would have behaved as a younger person under similar conditions.  The younger me would have insisted that the airline get me home by or near the appointed time; he would have jockeyed to the front of the line; he would have sought alternative transportation; he might even have opted to rent a car and drive home (as some in line seemed to have done). In any case, he would have been agitated, annoyed, and even angry. Instead, I sat on a bench docilely watching all this unfold before me and quietly grading papers.  Had I matured, I wondered, to the point where I could accept such of life’s vicissitudes with an even temperament?  Could I claim now to be wise enough to pray with Reinhold Niebuhr “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”?  Maybe, I thought, but it could also simply be that I had reached the point in life where I was too tired, with aching knees, to stand in line for over an hour.  Maybe, I concluded tentatively, one reason that human societies often associate wisdom with advanced age involves just that relationship between old age and wasted energy. Experience teaches the aging and aged that some expenditures of energy simply do not merit the cost. It is better to keep energy in reserve for spending when it counts. Wise, old, and tired may not be synonyms, I decided, but they certainly belong in the same semantic field.

The proverb cited above does not make the connection between old age and wisdom, but it does state the wisdom of reserve. My somewhat idiosyncratic translation requires comment: “A fool expends [יוֹצִיא, yotsiy – lit. “to send forth”] all his [sic] energy [כָּל־רוּחוֹ, kol-rucho – lit. “all his breath/spirit”], but a wise person keeps it [יְשַׁבְּחֶֽנָּה, yesabchenah – lit. “stills it, soothes it”] in reserve [בְּאָחוֹר, be‘achor – lit. “in back, behind”].”  Many translations (RSV, NRSV, ASV, NAB, NIV, cf. NAS, TNIV, TNK) render the phrase referring to the breath/spirit with “anger,” while KJV and JPS have “spirit” and KJV offers “mind.”  Those who opt for “anger” probably have in mind approximately a dozen passages in which the context suggests agitated breathing as a sign of anger (for example Job 4:9; 2 Sam 22:16 = Psa 18:16; Prov 16:32).  Indeed, while the proverbs in the broader context of Prov 29:11 refer to hatred and argument, the immediate setting remains somewhat ambiguous. My translation depends on the well-attested biblical association between “breath/spirit” and “life/life-force.”

I certainly noted wasted and misdirected anger at the ticket desk in Florida on the afternoon in question. The ticket agents had no control whatsoever over the weather in Atlanta or over Delta’s flight schedules, for that matter. My understanding of Prov 29:11 subsumes such untargeted venting as an example of “wasting one’s breath/energy/effort.”

Why does this episode come to my mind today? I see evidence of the necessity of wisdom: in order to know how to target anger wisely, yes, but also in order to know how to reserve energy to expend lavishly in the effort to make real, worthy change – but not before.