Hanging Towels on Hooks
Language is often abstract, but life is not abstract.1
Reflecting on the staying power of Aesop’s ideas, shared through short, pointed stories that have had universal application for a couple and a half millennia, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath observe that “what the world needs is a lot more fables.” (Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, p. 99)
Aesop’s secret to success was “encoding” his message with concrete images that would be widely understood and grasped. Except in Sweden, where they refer to the “rowanberries,” the meaning of “sour grapes” is known the world over because of the concrete images of a fox unable to jump quite high enough to reach ripening grapes.
But not to worry. The grapes were no good anyway.
Because we’re sometimes too smart for our own good, we often strip our message of all that is concrete — images folks can get their arms around — and then backfill it with abstract language and concepts.
And we wonder why people just don’t get it.
There’s nothing wrong with them. We’ve just encoded the message all wrong.
It’s All About the Hooks
Heath and Heath suggest that understanding memory as storing ideas “away in our cerebral filing cabinets” falls slightly short because our minds are really full of multiple cabinets for different types of memories, each packed with its own set of files.
But if we think of our memory more like Velcro, we might discover just what it is that makes an idea or a story or a memory more, well, memorable.
It’s all about the hooks.
If you look at the two sides of Velcro material, you’ll see that one is covered with thousands of tiny hooks and the other is covered with thousands of tiny loops. When you press the two sides together, a huge number of hooks gets snagged inside the loops, and that’s what causes Velcro to seal.
Your brain hosts a truly staggering number of loops. The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory. Your childhood home has a gazillion hooks in your brain. A new credit card number has one, if its lucky. (pp. 110-111)
Forming those hooks, say the authors, means finding ways to take our abstract concepts and make them concrete: sealing the two sides with concrete images onto which our minds can grab hold and not let go.
Hanging a Towel on a Hook
As we discuss Made to Stick over at High Calling Blogs these weeks, I’m looking at some of Jesus’ sticky messages through the filter of Heath and Heath’s model for stickiness. As I read this week’s chapter on Concrete as an essential component of messages with that hold on, I couldn’t help but think of the night Jesus used a towel and a basin of water to teach those closest to Him a defining Kingdom concept.
Whether it was because their mother (the very first helicopter parent?) asked, or because the James and John asked Jesus themselves, the disciples bickered about which of them would be greater, who would sit at Jesus’ right hand, and who would sit at His left.
The accounts vary slightly, but in Luke’s gospel the dispute peaked during the last meal the disciples shared together with Jesus.
24Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27, emphasis added)
The greatest would be the least.
John was one who instigated all the jockeying around the table, but sheepishly leaves that part out of his story. Considering the story he did tell, it’s likely he was humbled enough without it.
Jesus got up from the meal, took off His outer garments and wrapped a towel around His middle. On His knees, He crawled along the floor between them. And one by one, He untied dusty sandals and swabbed tired, dirty feet with His cloth.
When He was done, He dressed and returned to His seat.
Descending into Greatness
Do you get it now?, He asked?
Do you understand?
The greatest will be the least. Jesus’ phrase was catchy. It was simple, and it was unexpected. But it didn’t really mean much to them yet. They still wanted to sit at Jesus’ left and right, even if it meant drinking a cup He didn’t think they were quite ready to drink.
But that night He made the abstract idea of true greatness as tangible as the cool water He poured over their calloused feet. As He dried their feet, they understood.
And two thousand years later, the image of God as man washing dirt with holy hands, it still means something.
More than our own call to servanthood, we know it was the prelude.
He did drink from that cup. He made Himself a servant there in that upper room and descended even lower into greatness2 when He stretched Himself across rough-hewn timbers and poured out all.
As Claiborne and Haw tell us, “If they wanted to rule in His kingdom, they’d better get ready to wash feet and clean toilets. This King rules with a towel, not a sword.”2
The discussion of Made to Stick goes on over at High Calling Blogs. Stop by and read Laura’s post, Concrete, and stop by to see the posts from other participants. For previous posts in this series, read here.
Photo: Thistle by SP Veres
1Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, p. 99
2Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw, p. 123