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.