Posts Tagged ‘circumstances’

VI. 4. Robin Gets His Faith Fixed

 

The goal represents an anticipatory, desired and oncoming act. It always generates circumstances from among the facts we are (or will be) surrounded by. No matter how long it’ll take us – a second or a lifetime, its fulfillment requires acting upon each and every one of those circumstances.

Our goal resembles the mysterious lady of the medieval troubadour ballads, who stares down at us from her high inaccessible balcony. We can only hope and pray for the time when we will be allowed to kneel in front of her and kiss the tips of her fingers. But first she has to be persuaded to drop the rope-ladder – our only way up. In order to achieve that we have to pledge complete and unconditional devotion – otherwise she will remain another distant, intangible object of our fantasies. Then, once she graces us with her trust and the ladder falls clattering nearby, he have to start our shaky ascent, careful not to miss any of the narrow, crooked, unevenly placed steps. Overlooking just one of them, or not putting our foot precisely where it will hold will make us lose our balance and send us tumbling down. Yet if we are cautious and persistent, our efforts could be rewarded: at one point we might be able to leap across the rail and recite our oath for eternal love, winning over the lady’s heart for times to come.

If by comparison the lady on the balcony is our goal, the narrow, squinting and slippery steps are the lesser, simpler goals, the conquest of which would gradually lead us to the fulfillment of the big one. Whenever we set a goal for ourselves, a goal that is not achievable by a one-time physical action, we come up with a plan; this plan is an aggregation of other, smaller goals, or sub-goals (chapter VI.3.). Arranged in a sequence they clarify our effort and organize it in time and space.

If my goal is to surprise my wife with a nice Sunday breakfast, my plan would include at least a dozen sub-goals contributing to the fulfillment of the main one. First I have to set up my alarm clock for at least half an hour earlier than the time she usually wakes up. Providing that I have already taken care of the groceries I would need, getting out of bed at 7:30 would be my initial sub-goal. Once in the kitchen, my next goal would be to grind the coffee and put it in the coffee machine; then I’d probably have to take the eggs and the bacon out of the fridge, as well as juice, syrup and jelly, which would be placed directly onto the dining table. Oh, I would also have to get the old family china instead of the ragged “contemporary” coffee mugs. My fifth mini-goal would be to pull out the flour jar, break the eggs and start whipping my signature pancake mix. Three minutes later I would have to go through the pans, deciding which ones would best suit my needs. Thinking of which reminds me of the hashbrowns in the freezer, the preparation of which, together with heating up the pans, becomes my next sub-goal. And what if I add a couple of Eggs Benedict to the surprise breakfast…

I can surely go on with the list of the sub-goals (or objectives – according to Stanislavski) which my main goal would be divided into. As we can see, each of them, by triggering a simple physical action has one purpose: to straighten up the imbalances in the environment, occurring from the point of view of the main goal. If I want to wake up early in the morning the idle alarm clock would be an imbalance; since I want to make fresh coffee, the unground coffee beans would be also an imbalance; an imbalance would certainly be the uncooked eggs and bacon, sitting in the fridge, and so on. Hadn’t I decided to go ahead with my surprise breakfast, I wouldn’t have bothered with any of these imbalances; actually, they wouldn’t have been imbalances at all. For me they would have remained facts – amorphous, non-committing features of the environment. But my goal has made me reconsider the scope of my influence over the environment in these particular directions. It prompts me to look at my surroundings from a different angle – an angle that finds certain facts out of balance with my needs. In order for the goal to be achieved, these facts have to be overcome. They become factors influencing my action, or circumstances.

Each of our goals – big or small, sub-goals or a major – offers a unique point of view towards the outer world. It is like riding a horse around a grove. At every stop we see the same patch of trees, yet each of them stands in a position different from the one we’ve seen before. Some trees get larger and stick out right in front of us, others get smaller, shying away, and still others disappear completely behind the rest. In the same way every switch in our goals gives us a different perspective to the facts surrounding us: some of them can suddenly grow into big circumstances and occupy the lion’s share of our attention, while others, having been quite significant circumstances just a while ago, unexpectedly sink into obscurity. One way or another, every goal stirs some of the facts within our reach into a unique combination of circumstances, which we have to overcome in order to achieve our end. Even if they change with time, at every single moment these circumstances make a sequence based on their superiority in urgency, importance, and level of abstraction. This sequence is a situation – as any other conglomerate of circumstances. It is the goal that generates the situation we are acting upon. Dealing with it conditions our action. If we are not in a situation, there couldn’t be any action on our part. But no situation can exist unless there’s a goal to single out what from within the environment needs to be changed.

How are the situations, created by our goals, relevant to our comprehensive system of attitudes toward the world, called “perception of the environment”? Yes, once we have a goal we start acting upon the situation it raises; this way the situation becomes part of our perception of the environment. But what about the other “attitudes” – the rest of the circumstances in our outer hierarchy? Do they disappear, or they keep influencing our action in some way?

Since every single goal produces a situation, its state (active or inactive) at every moment depends on the state (active or inactive) of the goal itself. We don’t chase on a moment-to-moment basis every goal we have in mind. Unwillingly or not, we give some of them a “break”, because we get involved in solving more pressing issues. The situations stirred by the goals “on hold” continue to be part of our perception of the environment, but they stay inactive, latent, waiting to step back “on stage” once we revive the goal they’re related to.

While setting up the breakfast table I’m obviously not pursuing my goal to lower the mortgage for our house; so the situation determined by this goal – the high mortgage I’m paying and all the circumstances around it, is currently latent, even though it occupies quite a high position in my perception of the environment. So are the situations surrounding my scratched car bumper, tomorrow’s sale at Best Buy, or my obnoxious boss; all of them are parts of my outer hierarchy, but at this very moment they don’t matter, because they’re irrelevant to my present goal. In an hour or two my goal could change and some of these situations might begin to strongly influence my action; yet for the time being the china sitting in the cupboard is way more important.

On the other hand we rarely go after one single goal at a time. Even if we are not willingly multitasking, our mind and body find a way to tackle several goals at once. This means that at every moment our action is influenced by situations which are part of the “active” segment of our perception of the environment, but are not necessarily products of one and the same goal.  Even when I hurriedly whip the eggs for my breakfast pancakes, and compete with time, my brain is free enough to keep bugging me with other situations, like the dilemma: should I let my seventeen year old daughter go to the prom of her boyfriend, a year her senior. I still have a couple of days to decide, but this goal started intervening in almost everything I do recently. The pressing request of my daughter to go to the party and stay there almost all night, my distrust of her boyfriend, the nasty stories I’ve heard about proms – all these circumstances harden into a vicious situation which doesn’t go away even while I’m occupied with something utterly different. Then I catch myself beating my mixture too loudly and abruptly stop, giving an ear to what’s going on on the second floor. It’s still quiet up there, but my wife is a light sleeper – another circumstance of the main situation I’m reckoning with. This brings my attention back to my current goal, but not for long, because a second later my stare accidentally falls onto the china, which reminds me of my mother-in-law, whose dog has been sick for three days. This circumstance is part of a completely different situation whose importance is defined by my permanent goal to be the perfect husband, and that includes being a tolerable son-in-law. This is why I venture on the bold move to call my mother-in-law right now, in the midst of my cooking – a self-sacrificing tinge to the breakfast surprise for my wife. In less than a minute I am whispering pleasantries into the receiver squeezed between my ear and shoulder, interrupting myself only when I have to flip the pancake. In response my wife’s mother showers me with bits of information about her life – a new situation, which I do my best to recognize and honor. I can’t care less about her overweight poodle, but I don’t stop moaning and groaning with all the zeal the quiet house allows.

My half-hour shuttling through the kitchen in this early Sunday morning concludes with mixed results: first, half of the bacon is burnt (the smell of which actually wakes up my wife); secondly, I have decided to allow my daughter to go to the prom (which I know is a mistake), and thirdly – even though I sympathetically told my mother-in-law that I wanted to hang out more around her dog, she didn’t hear the words “out”, “more” and “around” – maybe because of the crackle of the frying pan, and got very, very upset.

On a larger scale the conclusion is, that even without initially having the least intention to do so, in a relatively short amount of time I pursued several goals simultaneously. In other words I dealt with a number of situations, completely different in nature, at once. This is the way we all act. Our goals constantly contradict each other; we often follow silly impulses and sometimes, knowingly or not, go against the logical flow of our interests. Moreover, the outer world constantly surprises us with its unstable, whimsical nature, so every goal of ours sooner or later gets in the way of other goals. Yet our perception of the environment finds a way to embrace in its fold all the different situations our goals create, establishing a behavioral pattern that is if not logical, at least traceable. How does it succeed in finding a spot for each of these situations in its own hierarchy without leaving us overwhelmed by their contradiction? The solution it is that it refuses to accept them intact. It disregards their inner hierarchies and takes their circumstances as independent entities, which it rearranges in its own, general hierarchy. If a situation brought to life by a goal is set up as an arrangement of circumstances relevant solely to this goal and disconnected from other situations and from time, our perception of the environment is built by taking into account ALL circumstances of the goal-created situations, which it puts in a completely new order. This new structure explains our every move within any timeframe, becoming an adequate reflection of our complexity as individuals existing in a ceaselessly changing environment.

In this structure it is the separate circumstances (no matter what goals they are related to) that have to compete for our attention, not the entire situations. This way we keep working on achieving our goals one step at a time, simultaneously with other goals. The rest of the circumstances of our perception of the environment stay inactive, until an inner or outer fact prompts us to chase the goal they are related to.

Being the only pastor of the small town that hired him, Robin passionately throws himself into pursuing all of his obligations. He strictly supervises the maintenance of the church’s property, watches closely over its finances, promptly announces the sermons and regularly meets with the top members of the congregation. Besides leading the worship services of every major Christian holiday, like delivering the sacrament during Communion or distributing bread on Easter Sunday he unflinchingly officiates the weddings and holds the funerals however rarely they occur in this sparsely populated area. But above all he devotes his fervency to reading from the scriptures and delivering their very essence to the believers. He spends nights in preparation for the Sunday sermon, doing his best to relate the message from the Bible to the lives of those in attendance. He loves the moment when he stands up in front of the buzzing audience, and the silence gradually makes its way amid the shushing of the elderly. His self-confidence comes from the ease with which he finds the most exact words to describe distant times and places, and use these descriptions to draw expressive conclusions. Once done with his testimony he knows that his week hasn’t passed in vain, and that he deserves his job, as well as the respect of the parishioners.

Yet he often becomes disappointed by the insufficient zeal of their religious worship. Their petty conversations, especially on important occasions like high masses or wakes, deeply bother him. He sees how little they comply with God’s will in their everyday lives, and even how disrespectful to God most of their life decisions are, not to mention their blasphemous language. He is aware of the sin of pride and constantly reminds himself to keep away from it; yet he can’t get over the feeling that in its overwhelming majority the congregation has a limited ability to comprehend God’s word. To no avail are his carefully prepared, ardent sermons about the bliss of opening up your mind and soul to the Lord’s glory. At the end of the day they seem to have little impact on the churchgoers’ frivolous approach to anything in life. As his first six months in this small town run off Robin begins to succumb to the belief that his efforts are doomed, and the whole place is hopelessly callous.

This same month happens to be the birthday of his father, who insists that his son visit him. Robin hasn’t seen his dad for quite a while, but these days he doesn’t feel like going anywhere. Yet he has always been a good son, and given that he has no siblings he yields to the pressure. On the day, after a twelve hour drive he sits across from his father in the small countryside cabin the old man has been living in ever since his wife passed away five years ago. Actually the son has been here only once; it was the father who visited Robin in the seminary, and then followed him around on his first assignments.

The two days of the visit pass quickly. The time spent with his dad once again reminds Robin of how witty and amusing the retired farmer is. On his part he doesn’t share anything; he considers himself mature enough to handle his problems on his own. The morning he is about to leave, his father invites him for a short walk through the garden of his small estate. In the very middle of it he suddenly stops and asks Robin if he likes what he sees. The young pastor looks around at the carefully tended and artistically arranged lush vegetation, and only then realizes what an amazing job his dad has done. In a relatively small perimeter Robin witnesses the perfect harmony between grass, flowers and trees, where sizes, forms, colors and scents seem to never compete, but rather complement each other in forming, as Robin sees it, a humble replica of the Garden of Eden. But the father doesn’t leave him much time to reflect on the scenery; he drags him to a far-end corner of the property, where they almost fall into a ditch full of fetid moist matter. “This is my compost pit,” notes the father. “Believe it or not, Robin, it is filled entirely with cut grass, chopped leaves, bush trimmings, as well as shredded dead branches from the garden. Well, it also holds some dung from the farm nearby. Quite disgusting, isn’t it? But you know what? It is an actual part of the garden. What you just saw is only the other half of what you’re seeing right now – this rotting substance comes from what you admired less than a minute ago. Moreover, that goodliness there can’t exist without the repulsive matter you have here. You let the ugly and unnecessary parts rot away, and then you put them back to where they’ve come from, because the beauty needs their support to preserve itself, and grow. The truth about any good and noble thing, Robin, is always in the middle. The beautiful can’t exist without the mediocre, since it’s the mediocre that the beautiful sheds away, and feeds on at the same time. It isn’t true that nothing is perfect. Look around and see for yourself the perfection of every single object you lay your eyes upon. Rather, nothing is pure in its perfection. Purity is a good quality for an ingredient, not for a substance. And we all want substance, not empty shapes, right Rob?”

An hour later Robin is sitting in his car, driving back to his congregation. He is smiling – his first smile in more than half a year. Within the next months he becomes one of the most active members of the community. He starts taking part in occurrences and activities that don’t have anything to do with faith and God, let alone with his church. He not only aids the boards and committees of the annual events like the fair, the middle school graduation ceremony or the sport tournaments in the municipality, but also does his best in privately assisting and consulting families and individuals in need, out of the church and outside of his regular work hours. His visits to the hospital turn into regularity, and often he finds the time to stop by the kindergarten and amaze the kids with stories from the Bible.

The truth behind the pastor’s abrupt change is that he understood what his father was really saying. Knowing Robin pretty well it hadn’t taken the old man too long to grasp his son’s low spirit, as well as the reasons behind it. That’s why he went ahead with his botanical lesson, referring in actuality to the complexity of human nature. What he had in mind was that peoples’ everyday behavior is not an immediate reflection of their values; that there are many petty, insignificant, often even ugly things we have to deal with – some of them part of our own nature. Our beauty, our honesty, our high spirituality inevitably coexist with qualities of less merit. It’s an inevitable speciality of who we are. The bigger point is how we try to resolve this conflict; do we make our best effort to find our own gardener who can separate the good from the bad and even make the bad work in our advantage.

Stripped of its moral message this notion reaffirms the contradictory – or parallel – nature of human action, whose – as it seems – most visible quality is its inconsistency. This distinctive feature of our behavior is conditioned by the changeable character of the world we live in. It is the natural response humans have developed towards an environment notable for its inscrutability. However, if we trace it on a moment-to-moment basis, and examine it in regards to the specific facts coming from the outside, the inconsistency translates into an intelligible polyphony of acts, devoted to fulfilling our goals by making selections from among the facts and turning these selections into situations. Within the share of influence of the conscious, this notion is an important part of the algorithm of human behavior.

© 2011 Peter Budevski

VI. 3. All’s Well That Ends Well

 

We imagine things by selecting and mentally combining features of the already existing and familiar environment (chapter V.4.).  This is how our dream destinations (chapter VI.2.), which obviously are also products of our imagination, bear qualities that are tangible. Taking these qualities into consideration helps us get closer to where we’re headed. We might have never seen the peak we want to reach, or the river we want to raft on, or the herd we want to hunt; yet if we aim at the peak, we make sure to take the high road at a crossing; en route to the river, we listen for the sound of flowing water; to find the herd we survey the terrain for traces. (more…)

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