In praise of being unoriginal

Hope.Paul is writing to his apprentice. It’s likely his last letter, his address at Timothy’s commencement. It’s the speech where every instruction matters, every emotion is raw.

Paul’s words are what no self-respecting American commencement speaker would say.

“What you heard from me,” Paul tells Timothy, “keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.” A few sentences later Paul writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

We chafe at the kind of conformity Paul is describing. We are part of a culture that celebrates originality. We want everyone to embrace innovation. We all have endless opportunities to publish everything we can possibly make up. We aspire to live with the same originality as everyone else does.

But we can buy books and take courses that teach us the principles of nonconformity. We can learn how to innovate. At some point, we search out, practice, and share what fits with our values. So when Paul is encouraging his apprentice to work within a framework of teaching, isn’t he doing what human beings do all the time?

Depending, of course, on whether we like the values in the teaching. When we agree with the results of teaching, we celebrate consistency. When we dislike them, we complain about conformity. If a way of life heals people and relationships and the planet, that seems worth learning and passing on.

And agree with Paul or disagree about what he teaches, pay attention to the process of generational transfer. To pass on a way of understanding, we need to learn the framework, make what we teach consistent with that framework, and teach people how to teach people how to teach.