Pandemic, Fog of War, and Learning Horizons

The “fog of war” is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. Carl von Clausewitz is credited with coining the term although he never actually used it. Once a battle begins, information becomes confusing and even distorted. We can’t see things accurately due to noise, smoke, and confusion in action. Interestingly, while Clausewitz saw the fog of war as an impediment to overcome, Korean-era fighter pilot, Colonel John Boyd, realized it could be used to advantage leveraged correctly.

I stayed away from blogging since the pandemic began. Early on, I wasn’t entirely sure why. But as we begin to see the daylight on the other side of the pandemic, I get it. Pandemic life was and is deeply uncertain for everyone. In my almost 30 years of experience in ministry, I’ve learned to pierce the “fog of war” in many situations of life – personal and community conflict, denominational upheaval, political tensions, racial struggles, natural disasters, etc. But a pandemic is a new one for all of us. So, I did what many of you did and what many pastors did…we moved from foxhole to foxhole tending to the deep trauma in people’s lives. We were learning in real time – trial and error everyday. Everything was stripped away in an instant. We’ve never seen anything like it in our lifetimes, and I hope once we are finished, we will never see it again.

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, wrote, “powerful learning comes from direct experience. We learn eating, crawling, walking, and communicating through direct trial and error – through taking an action and seeing the consequences of that action; then taking a new and different action. But what happens when we can no longer observe the consequences of our actions? What happens if the primary consequences of our actions are in the distant future or in a distant part of a larger system within which we operate? We each have a “learning horizon”, a breadth of vision in time and space within which we assess our effectiveness. When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.” In lay terms…when the learning horizon is too far away, you have no way to tell how you actions affect you, those around you, and the world you live in. You could be doing great harm, but you have no way to know that it is from your action because you can’t see the consequences of you words and behaviors. (Social media is a good example of this.)

I believe this is where we are as a society and as the church in the United States. For some of us, the pandemic caused us to shut down and hide away. Others attempted to penetrate the fog of the pandemic with certainty rooted in our uncertainty. I mean, if we could be certain enough about this thing, we can defeat it, right? Our learning horizon moved far, far away and that led us to behave badly.

What is the solution? Simon Sinek refined something called the “Golden Circle”. Three circles inside each other. The largest circle is your What – your title, what you do, what you offer, issues in society…it is rooted in everyday actions, words, and practices. The second circle is your How – the way you engage in your What…how you speak, how you engage, how you treat others. The third and smallest circle – the bullseye – is your Why – your central purpose, your central belief system.

It feels to me that Christians in America have been spending too much time focusing on the What with little consideration of the How and very little thought given to the Why. American Christians believe we can “win the day” if we win the What. This thinking disconnects us from the Why and the How. Don’t get me wrong…the What is important, but it is not more important than the How and definitely not more important than the Why.

In John 15, Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul wrote, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

And finally, in Mark 1, Jesus said, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

The fog of war will always lead to uncertainty if we make the What of life the most important part of our Christian faith. But like Col. Boyd, if we want to reduce the distance of our learning horizon and use the fog of war to our advantage, we will need to spend much more time on our How and our Why, and far less time on our Whats.