Continuous Personal Change

2 Corinthians 5:17, 18


Boris Goldovsky[i], who died in 2001, used to do the commentary on Saturday afternoon for the radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. But he has recently entered the lexicon of academia, not for his insightful commentary, but for a story that he wrote up that is illustrative of human nature.

He was teaching a piano student one afternoon and he had his student playing a piece by Brahams. He is walking around the room when he hears the student make a mistake and he asks her to play it again. She does and makes the same mistake, so he walks over behind her and looks down at the sheet music and notices that she is playing the notes on the printed page but someone had made a mistake in the printed text.

He calls the publisher and found out that the same mistake was on all of the editions that the publisher had produced. So now he is curious. How is it that the composer, the editor, the proofreader missed it? He calls back and discovers that he is the first person to report it. So how is it that scores of other musicians, among them, the most accomplished professionals in the field of piano, have not noticed this error?

So now he had some of these very famous people play the piece. He told them that he was giving them a piece of music and that the music had a misprint in it someplace. He asked them to play it and to tell him where the misprint was. They could play the piece several times if they wished. No one ever found the error. “Only when Goldovsky told his subjects which bar, or measure, did most of them spot it”. (It is in Brahms’s Opus 76, no. 2, 42 measures from the end).

What they discovered eventually was pianists who sight read music, particularly the really gifted ones, don’t actually read the individual notes. They see the flow and they anticipate how it should go next. By the way, this is also part of the reason that you walk into the room and can’t remember what it was that you came there to begin with. You don’t actually remember nearly as much as you think you do because your mind doesn’t actually organize itself that way. You remember it again when you have the context. We focus on the wider flow, not particular data items.

Goldovsky stumbled on what we will eventually understand better. If you’ve ever wondered why it is that the smartest guys in the room, all have the same data in front of them, listening to a sophisticated Ponzi scheme pitched by a company like Enron… If you’ve ever wondered why they couldn’t see this Crash happening before it happened, this is a large part of the answer why. If you’ve ever wondered, like our Congressmen wondered, how it could be that guys educated at Yale and Wharton Business school missed the obvious signs and ran the banking system straight into the reef, the answer largely is that they don’t see it coming.

Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that the Christian understanding of human nature as universally though not inevitably sinful is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. We are unable to edit our own work effectively. We are not very helpful critics of ourselves. We know about our short-comings but they don’t stand out to us the way that they do to say, our spouse after a couple years of marriage.

I used to naively make some throw away remark after church when I was young like, “Oh I think that sermon went pretty well this morning”. Kate would say, “And it would have been even better if I were a man but since I’m not there wasn’t so much I needed to hear.” Now I only ask for feed-back if I’m really ready to receive feedback.

We just don’t get it exactly. We are too close to the material. It takes the veritable child, someone from outside us, to notice that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. I believe that this is a large part of what we are seeing across the Middle East in the movement called the ‘Arab Spring’. It is the twitter generation all getting together and noticing the mistake in the music score that the Old Regime has been playing past for the previous four decades. Those leaders were aware that they had problems but they were completely clueless at just how great their problems actually were.

We need to acknowledge to God and to ourselves that we don’t see the extent of our own hypocrisy and so we pray in all humility, “Create in me a clean heart”. It is a season for reflection on one thing in our life that needs change, one thing that needs to be addressed.

What is the one thing that you need to do to improve yourself? What is the one thing you would like to see changed in your family? What one thing would you like to introduce to your marriage or your family that would move us towards excellence?

St. Paul tells us that ‘in Christ we are a new creation. Behold everything has become new.’ Our lives are a process of continuing change, hopefully in the direction of excellence. But we change; we need different things in different seasons of our lives; we have different challenges. We invoke the Spirit of God in our lives, and open a new chapter.

Right now, we are living through what one writer has described as “a democratization of choice”. He means that an unprecedented percentage of the human race has an unprecedented range of choices. It is a direct result of the complexity of our civilization, markets global in reach and communication technology that makes them immediate and inter-connected.

How will we make wise choices with it all just out there?

You can simply go with the flow… of course. Oscar Wilde once said that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” He calls to mind St. Augustine’s struggles with discipline. When he was about my age, St. Augustine prayed, “O God, grant me chastity and conscience… but not yet.”

St. Augustine, who so aptly put the human problem, reflecting on his own inconsistency,. He said, “I have become a problem unto myself”.

But we know that self-control in an age of wide-open choice is increasingly important and will continue to be more so. 200 years ago, Edmund Burke observed that “We are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to our disposition to put moral chains on our appetites.” That dictum has proved truer and truer, and it is spreading rapidly across the nations.

If we zoom out for a minute, only in the last few centuries have we evolved from being driven pretty much by an ethic of survival. Today, we raise our children in a world of so much choice that we have to instill in them a new ethic of self-control.[ii]

Christians have long known how important it is to flex the muscles of moral self-control, if only to find out how weak they actually have become. These days, we have studies about its virtue in our children. Of the many, many variables that we have studied to predict how well people will do in college, the only reliable correlation revolves around self-control, far better predictor of your grades in college than say, your score on the SAT.[iii]

Delayed gratification and self-control correlate strongly with self-direction, fewer hours watching TV and other passive entertainment, self-respect, respect for social norms, reconciliation skills, and emotional well-being.

Likewise, poor self-control correlates strongly with crime of every variety, an increased risk of violence, victimization, truancy, cheating, accidents of various kinds, and substance abuse.

The anecdotal evidence at the moment suggests that instilling self-control is getting more complicated, partly because our families are together as a family group  fewer and fewer hours during the week, partly because the breadth of entertainment movies and videos that are designed around aggressive behavior and violence that subtly desensitizes our children to restraint.

So we see it all the time: we have to deal with children that interrupt or blurt out a question, children that are quick to blow up, children that have a hard time waiting their turn (and some of them are 40 years old in Penn Station), children that hit and shove to resolve disputes, children that need a lot of reminding about the boundaries and the rules, children that have a hard time bouncing back from a frustrating situation.

I have good/bad news for us too.  Robert Coles at Harvard has shown what the Greeks knew to be the case 2500 years ago, that the easiest way for our children to develop an internal moral compass is by watching us. Most of us here, in all likelihood do a wonderful job on the base, structural issues of self-control. We are employed, we’ve have provided our children with a safe, clean home and regular food. It is a very solid wider context of self-control.

In a piece that I was just reading on developing self-control in this generation, two things caught my eye, where it gets a little murkier: anger and impulse buying.

We are models of decorum until we aren’t, so it goes. One of my children, modeling the mercurial man that I was at thirty, chose as their first words: shortly after Mama, Dada, Wawa… Just as clear as a bell from Dad, the child said, “Damn traffic”. I was like a skilled like a negotiator in Middle East peace when it came to resolving play ground disputes. But put me in a packed car with 3-4 kids, a dog on the Garden State Parkway sitting still in the summer. I had issues of consistency with my temper. I’ve grown considerably but not before I’d already modeled poor impulse control for the next generation to undo.

It could have been different, as one traveler wrote about recently. “It was a Friday night at the St. Louis airport a few days before Christmas and I was with dozens of other passengers trying to get home. We were experiencing every traveler’s nightmare: flight attendants had called a last-minute strike. Every passenger was somehow affected, everyone was on edge, and tempers were flaring. I stood in a line that seemed endless, slowing working my way up to the counter.

A man had finally made it to the counter and was with an agent trying to get tickets how for himself and his young son standing next to him. The encounter began amicably enough, but as soon as he was told that there were no flights available that night, nor for the next few days, he’d had enough. I thought he might explode: his face turned beet red, and he began taking short shallow breaths. I could imagine what was in that mind and I thought he might act on those thoughts. He clenched his fists and looked like he was ready to deliver a blow. But then he glanced down at his small son. That seemed to stop him momentarily and he told the agent, “Excuse me. I need a minute to myself, before I do something I may regret.”

Several passengers glanced nervously at one another, and the ticket agent turned white- bracing for the worst. All eyes were tensely glued on the man and we saw him turn his back to the agent. He paused, took a few deep breaths, apparently to calm down’ then slowly he turned back to counter calmly. He said, “Okay, I’m back in control. Now let’s work this out so my son can get home in time for Santa.”

Everyone in the line behind him… broke out in applause. Self-control among air passengers these days is a rarity- more common is incivility, vulgarity and rage- so it was quite a moment. But the best was from the man’s son. The little guy had watched the whole episode and was beaming from ear to ear, and he was clapping his hands the loudest.”[iv]

It is said that the single biggest inducement to getting us to do the right thing is the knowledge that people are watching us. Alas, with our own children, we can make them disappear into the deep background. But they are watching us and our actions speak louder than our words.

We have to commit ourselves to making our home the incubator that grows in self-control. Michele Borba suggests that we develop a family motto for self-control, “Think then Act” or “Short temper, longer walk”. Moreover, that we model calming down and introduce those techniques to children like talking slowly, taking some deep breaths, making a couple laps around the house, hitting a pillow. And setting a group rule that when people start getting out of control, they stop talking until they get back in control.

Another creative family gave out a red plate every so often at the dinner table, which entitle the bearer to the ‘royal treatment’, even though there was no material reward. You got the red plate by describing something that you had done during the day that deserves recognition. Children can lift up what they are working hard on and parents can distinguish character traits that are virtuous that don’t get as much recognition as they should. The goal is to help the rising generation learn to motivate themselves. And we can pretty easily prime the pump too. Instead of just saying, “I’m really proud of how hard you worked today”, you can say, “you must be proud of how hard you worked today”. We have to creatively figure out ways that our kids can learn to name their accomplishments, so they can see themselves growing and getting stronger. Self-control is a muscle that we just need to flex so we can build good personal habits and a family flow that encourages thriving.

And, we Christians know that we are going to need self-control, because we know that we do not get to escape this life without experiencing suffering, and ultimately our own death. Without being morbid, during the season of Lent, we look towards the suffering and death of Jesus, and we remember the spiritual challenge that is part and parcel of the second half of life, which is always about loss and limitation, however fulfilling and precious it might also be.

We know that we will need this character strength to get through some difficult days that are out there for all of us.

It is always difficult. A couple years ago, I was down to visit my grandmother in her 99th year. She had an accomplished life but the very last week of her life, we had to put her in a nursing home. My grandmother was the Director of a Cancer clinic in the 50’s and 60’s that became a big hospital. That was as high as a business woman could go in the South back then. I remember her always being in charge when I was a toddler. She was always put together, her hair was always put together, crisply dressed and professional.

Now she was in a wheel chair. The last few months of her life, she let her hair go natural white. I walked into this nursing home to visit her. She didn’t want me to see her like that. I didn’t want to see her like that either.

I tried to make light of it. I said, “Gramma, what does it feel like to be closing in on 100?”

Without a hint of nostalgia, she said, “Charles, I’m afraid I’ve stayed too long at the dance.”

“Yes ma’am. I reckon when you see the sun coming up, you know the party is pretty close to being over, don’t you? Are you ever ready to go really?”

“It’s not quite the same now that almost all of my people are gone.”

“Yes ma’am.” I said. “I want you to know that I’m going to raise my children like you taught me to.”

“Darling, I know you are. Your children bless me.”

I told her a little something about each one. I could see she was in a lot more pain than she let on and that she was way more medicated than I realized but she wanted to hear and she was nothing if not well mannered to the very end. She said, “I need to close my eyes now. You go on see your brother and let this old lady get some rest.”

“One more kiss Grandma?”

“Come here and get some sugar.”

I kissed her on the head, just like she used to kiss me when I was in diapers. In one short moment, I knew I was letting go of the end that whole generation, that whole place in the deep South, that whole era. It has a scary, shaky, sad quality to it.

I don’t know how much you can really prepare for death but with each one of these you get closer to your own. So Christians remember that it is out there, that we don’t get to stay around forever, and eventually all of us have to take the turn towards Jerusalem.

We remember that a big dimension of life is dealing with loss, set back, frustration. We know that this tests the character and that self-control will keep us human and humane in our time of suffering, so we know we simply have to develop it, whether we want to or not. It is just part of the spiritually rounded life.

And we know, from watching the life of Jesus, that death can even become redemptive. We know that even our bleak and absent moments can be taken up in meaning through love. So, we stand together in hope, knowing that we need each other to get on through.

We need each other and we need each other to become sturdy and strong, so we  focus on self-control in ourselves, in our families, in our community. What is that you need to do to become stronger, better rounded, more spiritually whole? For behold, the old is passing away, everything is becoming new. In Christ, my brothers and sisters, we are a new creation. Amen.


[i] This story is practically told verbatim from a piece I read in the New York Times, Op ed pages. See Joseph Hallinan, “The Young and the Perceptive” (Sunday, March 6, 2011).
[ii] I got this idea from Daniel Akst, We have Met the Enemy Self-Control in an Age of Excess (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). The book got a good review in the Wall Street Journal and caught my eye. Akst does a nice job of making use of historical treatments on self-control from the likes of Aristotle and Homer, while immersing himself in the current literature from neurology and psychology that emphasize the importance of self-control in an age of choice.
[iii] Ibid. p.106 and 107. The studies were carried out at the University of Pennsylvania by Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth.
[iv] From Building Moral Intelligence by Michele Borba. It is a good book (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2001), pp. 92, 93.

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