You Are Not the Exception that You Think
By Charles Rush
October 26, 2008
Philippians 1: 21
(mp3, 6.4Mb) ]
ere was a social cartoon this week, a reflection of the continuing turmoil and bad news that we get from the stock market. It features a Dad, opening the door to his house. Outside are his twenty-something children. The kids say, “Mind if we move back home?” The Dad says, “Too late we’re moving in with our parents.”
I hope it hasn’t gotten that bad for
you yet. But if you came here today, carrying a bag load of secret worries and
anxieties that you can’t get out of your head, this sermon is for you.
This is a question mainly for the men
in the congregation because for some cultural reason it seems to be a question
that men ask more often than anyone else. Do you ever wonder why the line that
you are in at the grocery store seems to move the slowest? Do you ever hold
your head in your hands as the toll line that you just committed to has a car
break down in front of you?
I’m not asking for a show of
hands…but if our wives weren’t in the room, I’d see a lot of heads turning at
In fact, this is an ancient question
that has been raised over matters small and profound. Every fourth psalm has a
line in it, written by a member of our fraternity some 3000 years ago. “Oh
God”, begins the psalmist, “why doth a conspiracy of evil men lie in wait
seeking me harm?” “Why do they prosper when I seem to have nothing?” “Do you
not see the virtue of your servant?” “Why do you not come to my aid in my hour
of need?” “Will you let this cabal of deceit bring me to an unjust ruin?”
“Where art Thou, O God, that you would let thy servant so suffer?”
Late in the week, I arise as my bride
is leaving for work, with pain on the increase. I reach for the phone but it is
not in the cradle. I get out of bed, limp to the kitchen, get the phone but
there is no phone book. I limp back to the bed with the laptop to look up my
number and I have no connection in this part of the house. I limp into the
shower, determined to accomplish something, and I remember that my girls have
been home recently, as I reach for my razor, which is gone. This is the final
straw for most Father’s.
It is not the big stuff like world
economic conditions that are hammering us, no it is the ‘empty roll’ with the
‘missing razor’ and the phone that is continually in the most remote region of
And if you get carried away with
these intersecting annoyances, you can start to believe that a world-wide
conspiracy could not do a better job of lining up dead-end after dead-end to
send you to the edge. This is too good to be mere happen-stance. It has to be
directed by a divine being that is testing me at the core for their own wicked
amusement. No other explanation could suffice to explain the coterie of
evidence you have just presented yourself!
Does this sound familiar? Such is the human psyche at work.
I still can’t help you sort out the
big problems as to how you are going to finance your life in the next few
years, but I can dispense with this one issue this morning, of why you remember
these events the way that you do and what it says for all of us.
And the largest part of this answer
is probably not what you want to hear. It is not about you.
As it turns out, we humans come
pre-programmed with an inner-subjectivity that defines our perspective from
before the time that we can think and stays with us until the very last breath.
We can only experience the world from our perspective. And because our
perspective is the norm, it starts to recede into the background of our
consciousness and we stop thinking about it, even if it is always there. We
cannot view the world differently from the way that we view it. And we cannot
assign value and meaning to the world except as we see it from our perspective.
This is so obviously the case that we don’t actually think about it, nor the
implications that follow from it. Let’s come back to this in a minute.
The second reason that we remember
these things has to do with the way that our memory function works. We don’t
actually lay down series after series after series of tapes in our memory like
you might imagine that we do. Somewhat like our computers, this would take way
too much memory space. So we actually remember things by association and we
tend to cluster a number of similar events together, and this is the way that
we retrieve them from memory. We don’t remember nearly as exactly as we think
we do, as anybody who has ever served on jury duty has experienced.
I’ll give you a little test as an
example. I want you to listen carefully to the following list of words. I’m
going to ask you a question about them afterward:
Bed, Rest, Awake, Tired, Dream, Wake,
Snooze, Blanket, Doze, Slumber, Snore, Nap, Peace, Yawn, Drowsy.
Now, which of the following words was
not on the list: Bed, Doze, Sleep, or Gasoline? More work than you bargained
for right. Gasoline is correct. But also correct was the word ‘sleep’. You
don’t notice it because it is so closely related to the other words that you
thought you heard it.
Here is what is worse. The vast
majority of people who take this test, not only don’t notice that they didn’t
hear the word ‘sleep’, they will vehemently insist that they did.[i]
One of the corollaries of the way
that we remember and retrieve things is that things that are most memorable are
things that happen to us only infrequently and things that are unusual.[ii]
We don’t tend to remember the number
of days on end when we can actually find everything and our morning goes along
just fine. They are all stored back there in a blur of normality. Nobody can
remember what they were doing on September 8th or September 10th, 2001. But every one of us can tell us what we
were doing on September 11th of that year.
We just don’t notice the way things
go along okay all of the time, so when things go poorly… When the lady in front
of you at the check-out line starts reviewing each and every coupon in her huge
purse, you not only notice it, if you reflect on it, you tend to exaggerate
it’s actual place in your life because you are unaware of the rather small
percentage of times that this inconvenience takes place. You really think it is
happening more than it actually is.
And the conspiracy part is the
magnification of the way that we remember combined with our inescapable
inner-subjectivity- the fact that this is happening to me and I am experiencing
it in terms of its personal meaning for me… And we simply cannot escape this…
Another curious fact is that we
routinely believe ourselves to be exceptional- not in the sense that we are
more gifted than other people, but in the sense that we deviate from the norm.[iii]
This is because we only experience
our own subjectivity all the days of our lives. We are the only ones who walk
around during the day with our funky inner thoughts… our ‘to do’ lists, our
fantasies, our crazy hopes and dreams. We experience ourselves and only
ourselves so that our experience presents itself to us as rather self-evident.
We can look out at other people and watch them behave in these very
statistically predictable ways but we retain this sense that even those
statistically predictable ways of behaving do also apply to us, they also
don’t. We think we are different because no one has the experience quite that I
More than that we enjoy being
special. We want to fit in but not too much. We enjoy having a little panache. Nothing
is quite as deflating as showing up at a party with a fresh bow tie on, only to
discover that Jay Calhoun is already sporting it across the room, and all the
ladies are dazzled.
Thirdly, we tend to overestimate
everyone’s uniqueness. A large part of this is due to the way that we remember
things. We just don’t notice the myriad sameness… it is there but we don’t pay
attention to it. Mentally, “we spend so much time search for, attending to,
thinking about, and remembering these differences, we tend to overestimate
their magnitude and frequency, and thus end up thinking of people as more
varied than they actually are.”[iv]
This tendency to overvalue our own
experience and our uniqueness means that we also overvalue our own imagination.
We presume that we are the best judge of what we will need and who we will be
in the future.
Unfortunately, we are actually very
poor predictors of what we will need in the future and what will make us happy
for the very similar reason. We tend to imagine ourselves in the future as
basically who we are in the present, only older, and hopefully a little richer.
We have a hard time escaping our own inner subjectivity as it relates to the
future, quite like we have as it relates to the past.
We presume that in the future we will
be more like we are now than we will actually become. We underestimate the
degree to which we will change and genuinely become different people with
That is why I now think that having a
renewal of vows for your marriage is not a bad idea every so often. There is a
saying among marital counselors that all relationships experience a 7 year
itch. About every 7 years, you find yourselves consciously or unconsciously get
to a point where you mutually agree to stay in the relationship as a couple or
At any rate, there comes a point in
every relationship where you can look at each other and say, ‘you have changed
so much and I have changed so much that the people that married each other are
so different from who we are now- and I need so many different things from you
and you need so many different things from me in this next chapter- that it
almost feels like you could say those vows again, with very different meaning
this time round.
So what does this have to do with
Church? With God?
Psychologists have a term for helping
us to overcome this tendency to over-value our uniqueness, our subjectivity. It
is called ‘surrogation’. In plain English, it means that the best way to
understand what it is like to be 73 years old without a spouse is to ask a 73
year old widow and find out.
You may be able to imagine that at 40
but it is not likely to be very accurate because you really don’t have any
better idea of what you will feel like at 73, than you did of what you would
feel like at 40 when you were 18. And you may be able to imagine what it is
like to live as a widow but what you don’t know far outweighs what you can
imagine. Ask other people.
St. Paul used to sum up the meaning
of the Church by saying that we are held together in ‘koinonia’. We are to be a
‘community’, ‘a fellowship’. He thought that when the Spirit of God moved among
us, we would share our lives with each other profoundly.
We would be a compassionate presence
to each other. We could ask each other what it is like to be who we are, to have
lived the lives that we have lived, that we could learn from each other.
And the Key thing about the Church as
Paul wrote about it and the early disciples lived it. The Church brings
together people that are genuinely different from each other. The early church
was just like a congregation in Manhattan, literally with people from every
ethnic group, from all over the Roman Empire.
We had people from every class and
station in life and this was probably the only place in Roman society that
Slaves and Citizens made a space to interact with each other outside their very
narrowly prescribed social roles in Rome. It was one of the very few places
where women and men could interact and share leadership with each other outside
of the very narrowly prescribed social roles for men and women in Rome.
St. Paul used to say that when the
Spirit of God is really moving in our midst, people extend compassion and
understanding towards each other. They go out of their way to talk to people
that would not otherwise know, that they might not otherwise come into contact
with. And mutually, they open themselves to supporting each other and sharing
themselves for the edification of all.
I think that this remains the great
promise of the Church. You want to know what it is like, you want to know what
it is really like, we can connect you. Admittedly, the institution of the
Church has never been that great at this. Even today, too many people I know
complain that they just go to Mass, stand next to people they don’t know, don’t
get involved, go home, and do it again next month.
But as you gather on a Sunday for
communion, or turning around when you greet people at the passing of the peace,
we are surrounded by a wealth of variety in age, in culture, in interests and
You could use more of these people in
your life than you probably realize. We have wonderful inter-generational
assets around us that I am sure we have not begun to tap.
We need you to make this go. We need
you to share yourself and to jump into the Christian experiment of the Church
and be willing to get to know some people that you would not have gotten to
know otherwise. Open yourself to others on a more profound level and facilitate
some growth all around.
And share, especially this fall with
all that we are going through. You need to get free of the demon of loneliness
that you are going through this upheaval all by yourself, experiencing it more
deeply or fearfully than people sitting around you. Find your peeps, reach out
to them. Reach out to your spiritual family and share what you are going
through. We can find our balance, we can regain a healthy perspective, when we
are sharing with people around us that want us to be healed and to be holistic,
and live out of our higher selves.
We are not promised an easy ride
through life. We are not even promised a tragedy-free life. We are only
promised the presence of God through the community around us and that somehow,
someway, it will be enough.
Share. Heal. Be healed. Amen.
[i] This is
from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Vintage, 2006)
pp. 88ff. The original study was J. Deese, “On the Predicted Occurrence of
Particular Verbal Intrusions in Immediate Recall,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 58:17-29 (1959). And H.L.
Roediger and K.B. McDermott, “Creating False Memories: Remembering Words Not
Presented in Lists” Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21: 803-814,
Gilbert, pp. 219 ff.
p. 253, 254.
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