Post 180

Prove You're Not a Robot: Reflections on the Balance Between Structure and Whim

Chesterton repeatedly makes the point that God is not like a clock. He’s not like a robot. His timing is perfect, but he’s not mechanically precise. There’s a great deal of seeming repetition in nature but there’s infinite variation. As for the snowflake, it’s used as an example so often that we might be tempted to think it’s the only such case. So I say, go the other way: name an aspect of nature where there is exact repetition, from creature to creature or object to object.

Nay, what you will find is a familial similarity, but not an exact duplication. Even in the simplest objects of nature, you will find notable differences. The quantity of differences that you find will depend on your ability to notice, and the more complex the object, the greater will be the differences.

In a similar way, all of life is filled with tremendous variation. I once heard a comedian point out that when someone enjoys something, they exclaim “Let’s do it again!” He said that the truth is that you cannot do anything really again. He said, you can do something similar, but you cannot do the exact same thing all over again.

That was truth, and that’s why I’ve always enjoyed comedy. The comedians, like the jesters of yore, have free reign to describe idiotic thought and behaviour. We laugh because the comedian really hits the nail on the head — we recognize ourselves in the absurd description presented and it’s funny.

The only problem with comedy is the temptation for some comedians to sink into potty humour and jokes about sex. Although some of those jokes are funny, it is often the case that the audience is laughing out of politeness. They know that not laughing would leave the comedian alone out there on his awkward limb and it’s hard to watch that. Nevertheless, I would say that for the sake of truth, audiences at comedy shows shouldn’t laugh if they don’t find it funny. After all, you are a live audience, not a laugh track. Let the comedian learn by your silence that the joke was not a success. He’ll move on, either to better jokes or to an endeavor more suited for him.

And our natural lives echo the method of nature. In our human endeavors, though we may follow a schedule, we’ll do this only to a point. To ask more is to ask human beings to become robots.

Nobody wants to be a robot (by which I mean, almost nobody wants to be a robot. There are always the odd ones. There are always those outliers who send defamatory emails on the hour using their wave-ceptor watch. Weird. Why not just send it once it’s composed, like normal people do?)

That’s why we so often read the words “prove you’re not a robot” at the bottom of websites. You are asked to recognize some numbers or answer a skill-testing question or whatever. (The one I did yesterday showed me six photos of buildings and so forth and asked me to identify which qualified as store fronts. Personally, I think that’s beginning to go a bit far. What will come next? Soon they’ll be asking me to submit engineering plans for designing a bridge.)

And, in keeping with our non-robotic existence, we rarely do things the same from day to day. Anybody who attempts to do everything always the same stands out as an interesting specimen. The idea of doing things precisely by the clock strikes the average person as curious, rather odd and exceedingly difficult.

No. The average person aims for structure, regularity and predictability to some extent in some things. A mother of a household, for example, might try to prepare supper at roughly 6:00 p.m. every day.

But even this example, which is more laudable than many others (she acts out of love for her clan), shows that this is only a general plan. Consider: will she lose her mind if her three-year old dawdles as he gets distracted coming to the table? A mother who loves her child more than her record of punctuality will attempt to put the priority on the child and not on the clock. And consider, when her husband offers to go pick up something fast and already cooked, doesn’t this mother love the break from her work? Of course.

And the man who goes to work everyday at a quarter to six is not an automaton either. How do I know? Go find him on Saturday. There he is, so grateful for a little more shut-eye. Part of the reason people are so glad for Friday is that they know it is followed by a day called Saturday and another day called Sunday. Ah! The weekend — days with less structure and restriction.

People, for the most part, enjoy that.

On the other hand, you can’t end the story there. Living without structure and routine is difficult. It can be, as a matter of fact, a much greater suffering than being in the army, where so many of your actions are monitored by clock, whistle and bell.

Being ‘on call’ is difficult, for example, because the person never knows when his activity and thought will be redirected. Stop what you’re doing and drive down to the shop! Stop what you’re doing and see this new patient! Stop what you’re doing and come to the office!

Difficult. Few people like it.

In the same way, much of family life is like being perpetually on call. The people who need you ask for things without regard for the schedule you created earlier today. They don’t fit into the schedule so neat and so nice. Does the five-year-old girl say to herself, “My nightmare was scary but I better not scream. It’s 3:05 and so I’d better wait until 4”? Does your teenage son delay breaking his elbow until you’re done checking your mail?

The unpredictability and lack of structure is difficult. Ask anyone with insomnia how it feels to be unable to know when that sacred and needed rest will finally arrive. They look at the clock: “Oh man it’s already a quarter after five!”

My point is that human beings need and want something in between.

That’s good.

And that’s actually more like the pattern of our Maker. He repeats, KIND OF. He has a structure, KIND OF. The structure is there, but so is the aberration and the surprise.

Surprise. Don’t forget that word. It’s important.

Structure is okay, as long as you allow for the surprise.

Following this vein, you’ll soon be able to detect error in the approaches of many. This is where so many opponents of Pope Francis go wrong. They want to nail down everything that moves. They want to know, in advance, every single rule. And you know what? I’ll tell you why. They want this because it is so easier to judge others when you know all of the rules. For people who like to evaluate the goodness or badness of others, external actions are the easiest measure. The problem is, the external actions aren’t usually revealing. As a matter of fact, we are so often entirely wrong about what they actually show.

Christ said that it’s the heart that matters. And here I will say that if I could choose which themes I’d like to be remembered for exploring, then without a doubt, I’d say one of them would be the importance and centrality of human intention.

Christ pointed out that the widow who donated a few coins was worthy of admiration. Anyone else who noticed her offering might have scoffed, but he knew her situation and her intention. He knew her heart.

Christ taught that a man who looks at a woman with lust in his heart is guilty of adultery. By this, he was saying that if you intend to commit a sin, you can be just as guilty as the one who has done it. And of course! Compare two men. One has been given, by God, long eyelashes and a most dashing smile. He whores himself all over town. Another man has been given, by God, monk-like courtesy and a fun sense of humour. He stays at home, but he wishes he could have all the women at the party. He’s dismayed because they barely notice him scoping them from the corner. Are you sure that the first fellow is worse than the second? Does the second man have a right to brag that he’s been entirely faithful to his wife?

Ah, I have so much to say that it’s easy to leave my main topic.

My main topic is that structure is okay, as long as you allow for the surprise. Do not, therefore, evaluate the success of your life according to your ability to follow a schedule. Do not, therefore, evaluate the success of the lives of others according to their ability to follow a schedule.

If you do either of these things, you’ll soon fall into error.

You’ll feel entirely guilty that you’re late, again. You’ll feel like a loser because you cannot manage to make every bed before the beginning of dawn. You’ll kick yourself for not cutting the lawn according to plan. You’ll berate yourself for not loving your home appliances enough. (What? You haven’t changed the filter on your vacuum? You cad! What? You haven’t tested your smoke detector on Smoke Detector Checking Weekend? Loser! Irresponsible human!)

And if you judge others, you’ll similarly err. How do you know that the tardy come-to-church fam is most definitely sinning? How do you know that the girl still asleep isn’t God’s elected and planned first-in-command? You don’t. And the more you evaluate, based on external appearance, the greater your error. You will fail to see the truth. You will, as you gain confidence in your ability to know, know less. As your ego grows, your vision will decrease. Soon, you’ll be utterly blind. And it won’t be long until all of your followers quietly walk away. (I notice that LifeSiteNews struggles to find viewers for its Plea to the Pope video, and I recently noted that its “Credo” had not many more than 4,500 signatories at the time — what a small fraction of the readership previously described!)

I therefore must challenge some erroneous tendencies within Opus Dei. The examination of conscience that I’ve so often heard read asks attendees to reflect on their punctuality. I paraphrase how it was put. It went something like, “Have I failed to be punctual, thereby wasting the time of others?”


You see the problem?

The problem is the rigid linking of cause and effect. The problem is the emphasis on result as opposed to intention.

There is often absolutely no sin in being late.

As a matter of fact, lateness can sometimes be the result of goodness. It can be the greatest mortification to refrain from complaining about a spouse who is dragging her feet instead of heading out the door. It can be suffering indeed to go and fetch object 103 for the little girl who wants to bring every possession she owns. Don’t judge. You don’t know the story; you don’t know the motive.

The motive is key. Was the person trying to be late? Was the person recklessly or willfully blind to the fact that such-and-such action will result in showing up five, ten, fifteen minutes behind? In other words, did the person NOT CARE whether he was on time? That’s what matters.

Therefore, this point in the examination of conscience is flawed. It should be altered. It should say, “Did I fail to care about arriving in time? Did I fail to care about other people’s time?”

And while I am here challenging the modern lapses within Opus Dei, I would say that there can be too great a temptation to model and measure secular behaviour on the pattern of a celibate and childless priest.

While I have the utmost respect for St. Josemaria Escriva, I caution his followers not to take his exact approach to life as the only pattern for sanctity. He set his alarm clock and rose punctually without fail (I hear). (Nevertheless, dear Opus Dei follower: note that the requirement is about your response to the clock — getting out of bed with zero delay — as opposed to in the idea that the time chosen must not vary day after day.)

However, this is a far more difficult matter for a mother of young ones, for example. God does not expect, believe me please, that a mother always rise up without hitting ‘snooze.’ If her baby has slept in, then she could thank God for the grace. Rest. Rest while you can. It’s okay. You’re still good. I’m sure St. Escriva would agree.

It can be a much more awful and displeasing sight to witness a mother grumble and struggle out of bed. Gritting her teeth, she expects of everyone around her to perform the same nearly unattainable feat. Not good.

She does her devotions and pats herself on her back.

Not good.

Far better for her to miss (yet again!) devotion 4 subsection b because she was tending to her spouse (he wanted to tell about his big day at work). Far better for her to miss that evening meeting because her son wanted some help falling asleep.

Far better.

And here, my challenge gets simpler. Why is it that so many Opus Dei meetings happen on weekday evenings? That’s a terrific time for Fr. Dave or Miss I’m Entirely Great, but what about those mothers with families? It is, in so many cases, an abdication of motherly responsibility to flee out the door. I don’t care what the reason is. The end does not justify the means. “Goodbye, son! See you tomorrow!” (He’ll be asleep by the time she gets home.)

The same goes for retreats. It is not true that every woman and man needs a yearly retreat. This is patently false, so don’t quote me the section of the bible where Jesus goes away to pray for hours at a time.

Jesus was celibate. He didn’t have kids.

God does not want us to model our lives on the lives of celibate monks priests and bishops.

It would lead to lunacy.

It is not worthy of praise to announce that you’ve gone to yet Another Retreat.
It is not worthy of praise to announce you’ve gone halfway around the world (without your family) to attend World Youth Day. If you’re a father, you should have stayed home. If you’re married, you should have brought your wife.

Looking back at the situation, I see the stupidity of the entire thing. It is not right for women to hop into cars and drive to other cities as if they were suddenly single. Ah yes, it’s supposed to be good for the soul, but the cost to the family left behind is entirely real. Do a poll. Are those children quite Glad to see mommy disappear, again? Really? You provide me with a story. “Ah yes, my children love it when I go. Daddy lets them stay up late. It’s great.”

Uh, yeah.

And as for the spiritual progress, I don’t doubt you, but are you so entirely convinced that your spiritual development really hinges on your willingness to step away from the spouse and the family he gave?

Seems to me that there’s more than a little piece missing in such computation.

God is good. He will allow you to become the person he wants you to be in the context of your daily, everyday, regular life. I think, as a matter of fact, that’s the entire point of St. Josemarie. That’s the take-home message, so stop twisting your every day life to fit around the demands of an external plan.

No matter how good the plan is, you must respond to the duties of your state. Family comes first. The requirement, if you are a cooperator of Opus Dei, is that you pray for Opus Dei. You have not committed, upon becoming a cooperator, to attend circles, to go to recollections and to go to retreats. So chill. Consider your family and put those needs first. If your intention is to look out for them, God will ensure — trust me — that you will have enough breaks. God is nice. He won’t give you too much. He’ll throw into your day, the tiny surprise. He might leave, for instance, some chocolate there on the counter. Go ahead. I know it’s not part of the schedule or your latest diet, but God knows that it’s your most favoritest kind. You don’t need to always call it temptation. Let’s call it a gift; let’s call it a surprise.

As for those within Opus Dei who call themselves members, I think there is most definitely a danger. From what I have seen, the strain is quite grave. I have heard about the hours of study and pressure involved in meeting the qualifications. I have seen the demands made upon the time of those who are given the title of “MEMBER.” It is not a small thing to require a person to give, to a group of friends and strangers, a speech about Charity or Kindness or Obedience of Whatever. Not everyone is easily able to come up with original material and not everyone is inspired. But my point is that I see that the members are often pushed a little too far. As a matter of fact, I think these activities have a tendency to push the members out of their God-given vocation. Am I wrong? Then why don’t we peer into the homes of the mothers and fathers as they work on their presentations. What happens when little Nathan goes up to daddy when daddy’s drafting a talk? “Daddy, we spilled the milk on the floor and the dog is scratching at the door.” Does daddy get up and assist with a smile?

And since this isn’t a submission to a newspaper or journal (word counts and word limits) I will say that the Opus Dei talks that I have heard have been really quite excellent. When people are pushed, they can often produce very fine stuff.

But still, mothers and fathers shouldn’t be pushed. They should be encouraged, but they shouldn’t be squeezed and made to perform and attend too many things. Not only does it rob them of time that they should be directing towards their families, but it can confuse them. It can give them the message that external actions are the main thing. They can become obsessed with the fulfillment of this and that norm. They measure their own worth according to their compliance and attendance at Opus Dei functions. While talking about the importance of not doing things according to lists, they measure their own importance by their adherence to lists. Dangerous.

My recommendation would be to really encourage the “members” to come from the people who have a vocation to religious life or the single state. The mothers and fathers are already doing enough. Invite them to circles, recollections or meetings and such. Let them attend if they want. But please, make those meetings happen, as much as possible, on the afternoons of the weekends. It’s not hard, on a weekend, for the parent left behind to find a nice activity to occupy a few hours of time. The family is already ready for the unpredictability and the wild ride called ‘a weekend.’ But please, don’t interfere or ask for a change around the bedtime of the wee ones. That’s a sensitive and needful time when you’re young. You want, as a child, to have mommy and daddy all safe in the nest. You want them nearby. It’s instinctive, and it’s good. God put that instinct and preference in the heart of the child. Pay attention. Don’t get dressed up and head out the door. You don’t really need to see that superdupernumerary with blue eyeshadow painted on her wrinkles. You have a family; she doesn’t.

And last, I’ll say a word about leisure activities, because here we have something which is too often scheduled. It is not right to approach your hobbies with rigid precision and robotic expectations (unless that turns you on). Hobbies are for fun. Play football if you must, but do it because you like it. You can even go to the gym if the smell of a body perspiring is really quite inspiring.

Hobbies and side-interests are best approached by whim. In my own case, I blog mainly because it satisfies my desire to write, to communicate and to play with punctuation and rhyme. It satisfies my desire to explore and express all kinds of ideas. I like the idea of helping and encouraging people with what I write. I like the idea of denouncing what’s wrong. I can’t understand or see almost any of the effect of my words, but I like to think that I’m making a difference. For instance, I like to imagine that people have been warned from trusting in LifeSiteNews or its many tentacles (organizations all interconnected). I like to imagine that people are being forewarned about interacting with certain businesses and trusting in certain people. I like to think I’ve opened discussion and stirred up ideas. Let’s talk about things. Let’s talk about everything. Religion, politics, and whether duvet covers are good.

Another hobby I have is gardening. I garden in the same fashion (by whim). If you saw me wandering around in my back yard, you’d see someone who looks really quite undecided. These days I start by gathering cherries from the tree, and then I wander off to snip some overgrown grass that the mower can’t get. Some weeding, some dead-heading and then suddenly I really feel like it’s time to sweep the edge of this garden box here. Really random. I find it fun. Sometimes I just stand there, enjoying how it’s all coming along. Sometimes I just quietly walk around, and sometimes I get mad at the dog for biting off a branch of the white hydrangea I have.

Yesterday I could smell that fall was in the air.

I wonder how God will do autumn this year.

I don’t know, of course, but I know it will be pretty. A person is so happy with summer, so happy with the colours; she doesn’t want it to end. She doesn’t want to think of any other season.

But then, alas, the smell is in the air. Things are changing; they won’t be the same.

Yesterday I removed some flowers. I said in my head, “Goodbye flower; you gave me such happiness.”

Initially, you can’t imagine how things could ever be better when they’re just not the same. But the truth is, God never removes; he just always replaces. Stay tuned, as they say.

In sum, make a plan if you want, but know that your plan is made by a human and is very

Subject to Alteration.

God has the final say, and he’s not a robot.