Sunday, November 30. 2008
When I was about thirteen, my grandparents lived with us for a year. My grandfather's health was in serious decline, and my grandmother needed help caring for him. He had not yet slipped into full-scale dementia, though that was not far away.
One day I was walking down our extremely long driveway -- I took lots of long walks back then, daydreaming endlessly as I roamed around the mountain. A car was headed up the drive. I must have been in a solitary mood then, or perhaps I was pretending to be a fugitive from the law, because I vaulted over the barbed wire fence by the drive, and ran as fast as I could through the fields and into the woods on the far side.
Later, when I returned to the house, my grandfather was sitting on the front porch. He liked the porch, mostly because my mother wouldn't let him smoke in the house. My only memories of him are him sitting on porch with a cigarette in one hand, or him sitting at the dining room table, with a flyswatter in one hand and a yellowed paperback in front of him on the table, which by that time he had probably forgotten how to read.
As I came on the porch he did something he rarely did: he addressed me directly. "I saw you jump over that fence, and run across that field," he said, with a conspiratorial smile, and touch of wistfulness. "Boy, that was something . . ."
This was a man with severe emphesema, who could barely get up the stairs without a fifteen minute rest. He would never jump or run again. But he didn't say it with any bitterness, like one deprived. It was more like . . . wonder. As if he had just remembered a time, seven decades earlier, long before he became the person he is now, when he might have done the same thing.
Had I been paying attention, I might have caught the timelessness of the moment: the young kid witnessing the ravages of age, the old man reminded of his youth. The incomprehensible realization that he and I were not so different. But . . . I was thirteen, and thirteen-year-olds do not pay attention. I had no understanding of diminishment.
I think of that scene now, mostly because I've been sick for the last three days, which always makes me feel like an old man. I totter around like an old man, avoid impacts, grimacing as I sit in chairs, gripping armrests. I doze like an old man, thankful for the unexpected odd moments when pain ceases and consciousness slips blissfully away. In the middle of the day, when I'm feeling at my peak and coffee and Advil are at full strength, I briefly remember what it's like to want to be alive, to have plans and ambitions. But then I subside back into the cloud of pain, and re-enact the memories of enjoying food, and enjoying company, and wanting things other than rest, and relief.
My kids have the same cold, I think. They are outpacing me considerably on snot production, but somehow they seem untouched by the fatigue and achiness. You can tell they feel basically healthy, because they fight all the time. As I hear them alternate between bickering and laughing, I keep thinking, "You have no idea…"
Saturday, November 29. 2008
As a book about the roots of success, you can be sure Malcolm Gladwell Outliers would have something to say about education. He concludes that the well-documented "achievement gap" between the most affluent and the poorest students can be almost entirely attributed to summer vacations. Standardized test scores of Baltimore public school students at the beginning and the end of the school year suggest that poorer students keep up with their richer peers during the school year, but fall behind during the summers. Presumably the richer students have more intellectually stimulating summers – parents that talk with them, books to read, special summer camps and programs – while the poorer students just watch TV for three months. Gladwell gives an enormous shout-out to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, whose fundamental philosophy is to fill up the students' lives with non-stop academics – class from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm, and homework until 10:30 pm or 11:00 pm every night, and class on Saturdays and through most of the summer as well.
I don't doubt that the KIPP schools work . . . depending, of course, on your definition of "work." Gladwell's analysis is far too pat, too "presto," to be the whole truth of the matter. Yes, the Asians have a reputation for being good at math, and perhaps the only reason they are is because of the sheer volume of work they do. Then again, they also have a reputation for being uptight hacks with high teen suicide rates. They might have the high IQ scores, but they might have sacrificed some creativity in the process of their non-stop "cultivation." Gladwell himself pointed out in earlier chapters that high IQ did not necessarily correlate with creativity, or practical intelligence, or social savvy. It surprises me, then, that Gladwell immediately accepts that work is the magic ingredient in the KIPP schools. Aren't there other explanations that could work equally well here? Lots of questions come to mind:
I'm not saying that Gladwell is wrong, exactly. But he's a long, long way from having proven his case.
Friday, November 28. 2008
In Malcolm Galdwell's Outliers, he makes a bold assertion that math skill is directly and primarily correlated with persistence – how long are you willing to try to solve a problem? He's looking for an explanation for why Asians are, statistically speaking, better at math than most of the rest of the world. He finds that Asians are measurably more persistent in problem-solving, and their persistence directly correlates with their math scores, relative to other countries. Which leads to the next question: what makes Asians so persistent? He believes it ultimately comes from a culture of rice farmers, which is a form of agriculture that demands vastly more attention and work than other forms of agriculture more common in Europe. Their culture values work, because the rice paddies reward work. That cultural norm has persisted far beyond the rice paddies into their industrial economy.
I'm not used to thinking of other cultures as valuing work more than mine. After all, the Europeans are constantly slighting the Americans for working all the time, and never taking time to enjoy their families and the simple pleasures of life. The Americans, in turn, look down on the Europeans for their stagnant economy and their socialist sense of entitlement. We are the hard workers of the world, right?
I might have thought that, until I started working with a Chinese programmer. He works eight hours a day, seven days a week, every week. Moreover, as far as I can tell, he does not consider himself to be a particularly hard worker. That is in line with the Gladwell's estimates that the average traditional rice farmer works 3,000 hours a year.
I take great hope in such findings. Mathematics is a field we often associate with high IQ and raw intellectual talent . . . and once again, Gladwell is showing that talent is not nearly as important as work and persistence. Maybe, after hearing this, people will be more inclined to believe that work and persistence is the determining factor in spiritual endeavors as well. Teachers have been saying it for eons. "Earnest is all," says Sri Nisargadatta. "Pray without ceasing," says St. Paul. Holiness is not the domain of specially gifted people; it belongs to anyone who keeps after it.
Thursday, November 27. 2008
A recurring theme in Outliers, probably the recurring theme, is the importance of context. "Successful people don't do it alone," Gladwell declares. "Where they come from matters. They're products of particular places and environments." Every story that Gladwell tells is one of accumulated advantage – people who succeed because of, not just one lucky break, but a whole long series of lucky breaks that add up.
Normally, when someone talks about the importance of context and the advantages conferred by it, you can smell a tinge of envy, or perhaps a bit of "white" guilt. "The successful didn't earn these riches," is the subtext; "It was handed to them on a silver platter." Such lines of reasoning usually go on to propose socialist theories of redistributing wealth – if success is merely the result of being in the right place at the right time, then it's only fair that we spread the fruits of that success around to everyone.
Gladwell avoids that trap. He is constantly emphasizing the hard-work aspect of the success stories, along with the golden-opportunity aspect. Yes, certain people had unique advantages – but they took advantage of those opportunities, they worked to convert those opportunities into realities. So, for the first time, I feel like we're getting an even-handed assessment of success, without the need of either giving the individual all the credit, or taking it all away.
While it hasn't explicitly been stated, the tone of Gladwell's chronicles of success is one of gratitude. He has witnessed the significance of both the arbitrary advantages of where and when we are born, and the deliberately cultivated advantages of our ancestors, our parents, our culture, our heritage, our society. He understands whose shoulders he is standing on… and he is grateful. Which is a mighty good thing to do on Thanksgiving.
Wednesday, November 26. 2008
Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is supposed to question the fundamental assumptions we have about success. So, naturally, I started to ask myself, "What unquestioned assumptions is Gladwell making about success?" Maybe there are still some stones to turn over.
One assumption implicit in the book is the primacy of specialization. Success is defined as "doing really, really well at one particular thing." That is the subject of his book: the outliers are the people who are extraordinarily good at one thing, be it programming, law, music, or athletics. And, of course, the path to success boils down to finding your niche, and then working really, really hard in that niche.
If being really good at one particular thing is your goal, then Gladwell's advice is perfectly valid. In a modern society and modern economy, specialization is a very successful strategy. The abundance of our economy is based on division of labor – everyone gets really good at one thing, and then we all share the benefits of each other's specialization. We reserve the highest economic and social rewards for the super-specialists – the people who are the very best in their particular fields. So, isn't it sensible to equate "success" with "high achievement in a particular field"?
Sure . . . if the conditions of our society and economy remain the same. A generally healthy, stable economy can support a whole lot of specialization. But what happens if things become unstable, if the economy and the society fall apart? Most of us find apocalyptic scenarios to be disturbing, because we know that our chances of survival in that world are slim. If the electric grid fails, if social order falls apart, then people like me who have become really good at programming computers will probably be really dead. Then the new champions of the world will be subsistence farmers, survivalists, outdoorsmen and hunters. Specialization (except for a very few skills) will be a hindrance, and generalization – the ability to do whatever needs to be done -- will have renewed valued.
You don't have to foresee a collapse in society for such considerations to still be worthy of consideration. I recently read a financial column in the New Yorker that discussed some recent failures in the world's food economy. Shifts in the global economy had suddenly left many countries with not enough food, and facing starvation. The reason for the failures was that the World Bank and various governments had focused on making the food economy more efficient, to raise everyone's standard of living, but in so doing had made it less reliable. Because the food economy was more interdependent and specialized, disruptions in the system could suddenly leave millions of people starving, because countries had done away with their inefficient national food reserves. It was grim reminder that achieving peak performance when things are going well could result in disaster when things don't go well.
Also consider the opposite scenario – what if things go amazingly well? The "new economy" brought in by revolutions in communication and computer technology is opening up huge, undreamt-of opportunities. It also promises to make things very, very different, in ways we can't possibly anticipate. Our education systems generally assumed that the economy would be relatively stable, and that you could study to work in a single field, and then work in that field your entire life. That was the world our parents grew up in. But younger generations are facing a very different world, one in which no one keeps the same job more than a few years, and in which nearly everyone changes entire careers several times. Rather than gearing up students for specialization, education is facing the opposite problem: how do we make students adaptable enough to adjust to changing times? If you look at the mission statements of schools these days, you will see phrases like "life-long learning", "creativity", "problem-solving", "flexibility", "team-oriented." We already sense that the future might not belong to the specialized, but rather to the adaptable.
I see another peril in super-specialization, which is harder to define. While we admire people who passionately pursue excellence in a single endeavor, there is also something slightly . . . dehumanizing about it. I recently read a Wall Street Journal article about a growing number of families pushing their children into particular sports ("Under Pressure", October 4, 2008). "I just want them to be great at something," says a father who tracked his sons into being champion golfers at 6 years of age. When specialization is the result of self-directed passion, it is an expression of freedom. But when kids are forced to specialize, and sacrifice everything for the field of their parents' choosing, it feels like slavery. Loss of self-determination is too high a price to pay for greatness.
Tuesday, November 25. 2008
I just started reading Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell's latest book. In it, he examines all our assumptions about what it is that makes people successful – and finds that many of our assumptions are wrong. Most people in Western society describe the path to success in terms of the "American dream" – that with talent, hard work, and little bit of luck (in that order) you can make your way in the world. Gladwell doesn't disagree with that formula, but he reverses the proportions: success depends mostly upon opportunity (being in the right place in the right time), and then hard work (a lot more than you might think), and only finally on talent (and even then, you don't need a lot, just enough.)
I'm especially interested in the "hard work" part of the formula, since that may be the only part we can control. It also appeals to the Puritanical work ethic burned into me since youth. I have always considered life to be a matter of work. I thought of myself as smart, but I also couldn't help but notice that I was never the smartest. There were always people smarter than me – the math wiz who wins competitions, the guy who wrote short stories in his free time, the girl who always seemed to finish her assignments early and then read novels in class. I got into the advanced sections, the gifted programs, the honors classes – but I always felt like I was in the back of the pack. I was jealous; I could do what they did, but not so effortlessly. I never had speed – to this day I read more slowly than my peers, write more slowly, even program more slowly. I always compensated with work – I just put in more time than everyone else. I lived in perpetual anxiety, an intellectual who suspected he didn't have as much raw firepower as everyone thought he did. I graduated from a top-rate high school with a perfect GPA, fair-to-middling SAT scores, and almost no social skills.
So, Gladwell is singin' my song when he emphasizes work. He has even put a number on it: in any field of endeavor, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice for someone to achieve mastery and work at the highest levels. Software superstars like Bill Gates or Bill Joy had put in about 10,000 hours of programming time before they even hit their mid-twenties. For conservatory students, the only distinguishing factor between the future concert soloists and the future high-school band teachers is practice hours – the best ones have put in their 10,000 hours, and the mediocre have put in maybe a fourth as much.
Of course I start doing the math. I've been writing serious for about two and half years, maybe two and a half hours a day. That's somewhere around 2,200 hours. At that rate, it'll take a decade of blogging to hit 10,000 hours. With my current work situation, I could maybe double my pace, and hit it in about four years. And then again, it depends on what you count as "practicing." If my craft is defined as "communicating about spiritual topics," well then I've logged a lot of time over the last twenty years. I have been participating in or leading two to three discussion groups a week for about 15 years. That adds up to about 4,500 hours (2.5 meetings per week x 40 weeks a year x 3 hours per meeting x 15 years). And if you count all the hours I spent producing publicity, organizing events, hanging out with spiritual cohorts, meditating, and reading spiritual books I would be waaaay past 10,000 hours by now.
There is no magic formula; 10,000 hours is a guess, a benchmark, a guess. It's just one factor in success. But it may be the critical one. When discussing how he succeeded in his career as a professional fighter in the Asia, Jeff Tenant always said, "It's really very simple. You get up in the morning, you look in the mirror, you ask yourself, 'Am I willing to pay the price?' And then you just go and pay it." While circumstance, opportunity, and talent play a role, the limiting factor may only be just how many people are willing to pay the price.
Monday, November 24. 2008
One of the themes that Tom Robbins develops in Skinny Legs and All is the general condemnation of religion. Any book that examines the Middle East (or any religious conflict) is almost bound to walk away seeing religion as the root of all evil, or at least the root of all organized atrocity. It's such an easy, natural argument to make: "So much killing and oppression, all in the name of God. Religion sucks!" Recent outspoken atheists like Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are pretty blunt about it: religion is an evil that needs to be eliminated. They seem to believe that if we removed religion, all this violence would be avoided.
Tom Robbins position is somewhat more nuanced. A belief in the divine is not the problem – it's the patriarchal, literate, overly-intellectual religion that's the problem. Religion that attempts to constrain the divine, shrink it down to a manageable size, codify it in a set of rules. Religion that suppresses the feminine, that cuts us off from the earth, that denies everything natural in an attempt to glorify the super-natural – that's the Big Bad. According to this narrative, religion is the vehicle used by men to repress women, to repress people different from themselves, and in fact attempt to control everything. Religion equals totalitarianism. Oh, if only we could return to the earth, and get in touch with the natural, we would once again discover magic and vitality and love and sing kum-bay-yah.
Such an argument has gained a lot of ground in the 18 years since Skinny Legs and All was first published. With environmentalism on the rise, loving Mother Earth has a new chic. Materialism, consumerism, capitalism – these are the threats to our world and our harmony. If only we could cast off global capitalism and the rampant consumption of natural resources, there would be plenty for everyone and no more war!
Ok. Fine. Some good points here. Definitely worthy of consideration. But before the super-green-anti-religion-For-the-People brigades mobilize, just consider this: almost exactly the same rhetoric was used by the Khymer Rouge, the Communist regime in Cambodia that directly killed half a million people, and killed as many more though starvation and disease. What were the central ideas of their rule?
It is not my intention to imply that all liberal-leaning, religion-despising people are equivalent to a brutal dictatorship. I just want to make it clear that religion has not cornered on the market on war, oppression, and brutality. You can have a perfectly good genocide without religion being involved (like, say, in Rwanda, or Darfur). You can embrace all the popular non-religious themes of our time – nature, simplicity, anti-consumerism – and still wind up with a totalitarian hell. The point is that war, oppression, and brutality are not about religion. It's about power. Religion makes a great pretext for seizing and abusing power; but if we took it away, people would find some other equally erroneous pretext for seizing and subsequently power. They already have. Anything sufficient broad and poorly defined will do. "It's the will of God" worked well for centuries; "for the good of the People" worked equally well in the last 100 hundred years. What comes next? "For the good of the environment"?
Sunday, November 23. 2008
The book club selection this time around is Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins. Overall, a good pick.
I was turned on to Tom Robbins in high school. High school and college is probably the perfect time to read him; the mix of zany characters, surreal plots, delving philosophy, and (last but not least) racy sex is irresistible to young people trying to figure out what life is all about. Lots of people use his books as a litmus test for prospective boyfriends or girlfriends – "If he likes this, then I know we're compatible." At least, that's how I was initiated into Robbins fandom. His books (Jitterbug Perfume, Another Roadside Attraction) affected me, giving me a vision of life in which people could live boldly, unafraid, full of intensity and liberated from religious dogma. I was affected, but not entirely convinced; I was enough of a prude then (and even now) to be suspicious of his glorification of sex, and still too early in my spiritual development to accept his blanket denunciations of religion.
Tom Robbins affects people in much the same way as Kurt Vonnegut, although with an entirely different flavor. Both create fantastical characters in ludicrous situations, and somehow make it all seem appropriate. Both us humor to grease the wheels of their philosophies. Vonnegut seasons his dishes with tragedy and unvarnished truth, which oddly enough makes him both funnier and more compelling. Robbins seasons heavily with sex and a prose style that does death-defying tricks (kids, don't try this at home). Both authors manage to change people's opinions about life. Both inspire writers to mimic their style. With both, I recommend that people read their books, but limit yourself to one per year at most. Like potato chips, the taste is wonderful, but you can easily overwhelm your palate with too much.
I could tell you the plot of Skinny Legs and All, but that wouldn't really be telling you much. The books are about the characters and their thoughts, and the language. I had read that Robbins writes one sentence at a time, polishing each to a high shine and then abandoning it for the next one, and often with no idea of where he's heading. It figures. Each of Robbins sentences contains its own literary, artistic, philosophic, and humorous payload; you rarely get bored, because you don't have to wait long for the payoff. Like this description of New York on an early spring evening:
The unfinished and unfinishable symphony to which they move is composed of salsa, rap, and funk from boom boxes, strains of Vivaldi sifting out in silvery drizzle from fine restaurants and limousines, the sophisticated rhythms produced by Cole Porter's phantom cigarette holder tapping upon the vertebrae of tourists and businessmen in hotel lobbies throughout midtown, fey techno-rock in SoHo bars and art lofts, drum solos banged out on plastic pails and refrigerator trays by brilliant buskers, androgynous anchorpersons announcing the "news," a loud screeching of truck and bus wheels, an interminable red bawling of sirens, the tooting of taxis, an occasional gunshot or scream, girlish laughter, boyish boasts, barking dogs, the whine of aggressive beggars, the yowls of the unsheltered insane, and on many a street corner, the greased-lung exhortations of evangelists, ordained or self-proclaimed, warning all who pass that this could be the last April that God will ever grant, as if April were a kitten and God an angry farmer with a sack.
But the premise, for what's worth: an aspiring artist from the South and her welder husband move to New York, where they become haphazard participants in plots to save (or destroy) Jerusalem. The plot includes greasy evangelists, a Jewish-Arab team of restauranteurs, inanimate objects brought to life by ancient Phoenician artifacts, and young belly-dancer who calls herself Salome. As many a back-cover blurb might say, it's "a fun ride."
The book has its philosophic points to make – the perils of religious dogma, the purpose of art, the meaning of life – and I suppose Robbins does a good job with them, though towards the end he pulls a deus ex machina plot twist to excuse an extended philosophic brain dump. By exploring the history of Jerusalem, he puts a spin on the Middle East that I had never read before. He shows the pagan roots that preceded both Judaism and Islam, in an attempt to do the impossible: get Arabs and Jews to lighten up, already. I have my own beefs with Robbins philosophy, which I'll come back to, but on the most important things he gets it right. Here's a keeper, one for the SKS Quote of the Week archives:
Was there a more difficult lesson for a human being to learn, a paradox harder to accept? Even though the great emotions, the great truths, were universal; even though the mind of humanity was ultimately one mind, still, each and every single individual had to establish his or her own special , personal, particular, unique, direct, one-on-one, hands-on relationship with reality, with the universe, with the Divine. It might be complicated, it might be a pain in the ass, it might be, most of all, lonely -- but it was the bottom line. It was as different for everybody as it was the same, so everybody had to take control of their own life, define their own death, and construct their own salvation. And when you finished, you didn't call the Messiah. He'd call you.
Saturday, November 22. 2008
When I renewed my commitment to writing every day, I also re-upped for a regular routine of sleep and exercise. To all this I added something new: a daily goal of reading. I had sometimes penciled in reading time on my notorious Schedule, but I never really carried through with it. Reading is such a pleasure for me that it's (almost) impossible for me to think of it as a necessary daily chore, like doing pushups or brushing your teeth.
The problem, though, is that once I categorize something as a "pleasure to be enjoyed in free time," I never do it. Something else always seems more important, more compelling and demanding of attention. And because reading can be done at any time, there is hardly ever any urgency behind getting it done. Even something as mundane as raking the leaves can compel my attention, because I know I have to rake them now, before it rains, before they kill the grass we tried so hard to get to grow. Reading rarely has such a claim. So for most of the last year my reading has been limited to small servings of newspapers and New Yorker articles over breakfast. I sometimes tried reading at the end of the day, after I was too tired to work anymore, which usually meant I'd be nodding off after two pages. Were it not for the audiobooks that accompany my runs, I would have read no books at all.
But reading is oxygen for the writer. A writer must constantly consume writing, just as a chef has to constantly taste things, to provide feedback and context for his work. Reading gives you things to think about, angles to pursue, techniques to emulate (or avoid). When I'm not reading, my work gets repetitive and abstract, and I get bored.
A few weeks ago the book club announced another pick, and I was determined to not miss out this time. The book was rather sizable --Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins, weighing in at 422 pages – and I needed to read it in two weeks time. Maybe 30 pages a day, I thought. No way could I make that, unless I committed to reading every day. And so I did.
I found that I was a much happier human being when I read every day. Even though I was getting more pressure from work lately, I felt surprisingly tranquil. Daily dosing with writing, reading, and running was making me a happy animal, perhaps even more comfortable than I had a right to be. How could I have forgotten that reading was one of life's greatest pleasures, the thing I would do if I had no other obligations? So much anxiety disappears, once you know you're moving in the right direction. Not only was I having fun, I had the minor thrill of knowing I was consciously deciding to live more of the life I really wanted.
I decided to start keeping a reading log, just to make me pay attention to what I'm reading, and make sure I'm getting enough of the right nutrients. Maybe someday I'll start posting it online.
Friday, November 21. 2008
My son came home this afternoon, with a fresh supply of yarn to supply him for the holidays. Aidan is a high-energy, emotionally volatile kid, and handcrafts (one of the fortes of Waldorf Education) help him settle himself. He churns out knitting projects of his own design and devising at a furious pace. What starts as a wad of loose knits is, a few days later, a stuffed lion. Then he churns out a sweater for the lion. And booties.
This afternoon, however, he is far from settled. He is sobbing hysterically. He started trying to undo one of the skeins of yarn so he could wind it into a ball, but has wound up with an amorphous mop, a glob of fuzzy spaghetti in a colander. "I'll . . . I'll . . . never get untangled."
"It's not so bad," I say. "Look . . ." and I start to wind up the ball, turning over the yarn blob occasionally and fluffing it out to keep the loops from tangling too tightly. "Just keep doing this, and eventually you'll get it all . . ."
"NOOOooo. I'll never get it. It will take forever."
"Well, it might take a little longer than usual. But really, it's not so bad."
"NooooooooOOOOooooo. It could take WEEKS, and I don't have WEEKs . . ."
"Aidan, really. Honest. It's going to be all right."
We went on like that for a while, until eventually Aidan went off to his room to mope, and I just kept compulsively untangling yarn.
This feels like the human condition. One person looks at a problem, and sees an insolvable tragedy. Another looks at it, and sees a little extra work. You could argue that the difference is experience – I've learned certain techniques for successfully untangling string. But what's even more critical is a meta-experience I have and he doesn't (yet) have – knowledge that problems are generally solvable, that patience and persistence work better than weeping and gnashing of teeth. Because I've been through so many problems, even when I'm lost, I don't feel lost. I have a certain kind of faith that sustains me through confusion.
This seems especially pertinent after reading Kenny Felder's essay, "Humility and the Nature of God, or, The Parable of the Dog." The point of Kenny's essay is that we need to acknowledge how dreadfully limited and insufficient our models are in understanding the universe: we can no more understand the full nature of God than our dogs can understand what we do at work all day. The take-home message is intended to be one of humility – "Don't pretend to think you know what's really going on here." But I think you can also turn the parable over and find Hope. No matter how insolvable, intractable, impossible a problem may seem . . . there is probably a way to understand it. Maybe it will take God-like understanding to comprehend it . . . but then again, maybe understanding is not be nearly as far away as you think. At work, we have even codified this principle into Harry's Law: "If you're doing something, and it seems to be really hard, you're probably not doing it right." Once you realize that your current understanding can be transcended by a higher level of understanding, you aren't quite so scared by confusion. You merely pass through it, like walking down a dark hallway from one brightly lit room to another.
Aidan eventually came back downstairs, and seeing how much Malcolm and I had untangled together, got inspired. I showed him the tricks, and he finished unraveling the last of it on his own. "I guess I learned my lesson," he said. (No, really, he really said those exact words.) I was tempted to ask him, "What lesson is that?" just to see what he would say, but it wouldn't matter. It's the experience that matters, the repeated movement from darkness to light, which will ultimately give him Faith.
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