June 16, 2005

The Necessity of Hypocrisy

One of my most unusual traits as a person is my tendency to make every effort to be honest about myself, to act in such a way that my actions show who I am on the inside. The charge of "hypocrisy" is one of the most painful that can be brought against me, and I am (trying to be) constantly on the lookout for hypocrisy in my behavior. I try to be as open as possible about myself, willing to reveal just about anything about myself to anyone who asks (or is even willing to listen to me for a while).

People's reaction to this has been mixed. My friends get used to it as one of my personal idiosyncrasies and gracious put up with me. Some people admire the tendency, but are also glad that it is me, not them. I think that most people are surprised and skeptical that such an approach to life can last, or is anything but an expression of naivete. I'm not sure myself.

But this post wasn't supposed to be about my tendency, but rather about the messages society sends us about such behavior. Two instances from my childhood might show the dichotomy. Once, when I was about twelve or thirteen, some friend of our family complimented us children on how well behaved and agreeable we were. I couldn't let such a misconception go uncorrected, so I gravely informed the person that me and my siblings fought viciously and often. Later that day, my father took me aside and told me that had been the wrong thing to do. I remember him saying, "I know you think you're just being honest" and going on to say something to the effect that a person should exercise discernment in what he or she tells people.

When I was younger, I had an enormous struggle to maintain control of my temper. I could not handle losing at all. I honestly used to go nuts if I lost at anything. As my parents struggled to teach me to control my temper and lose gracefully, I remember that, after a particularly painful loss in some game or other, I congratulated the opposing team on their victory (or made the best attempt I could at it). My father talked to be later about that, saying basically that it was wrong for me to put up a good, sportsmanlike face on the outside, when "on the inside, you're seething." Dad was quite right that I was seething. While what I said on the outside was "Good game," but what I felt on the inside was "I want to tear your heart out and eat it," or something to that effect.

CS Lewis says something about this struggle in Mere Christianity. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost my copy of the book, so you'll have to put up with my paraphrase. He said that as a Christian strives to bring his life into line with what the Bible teaches, he or she basically puts on a mask and pretends to be a better person than he or she actually is. He relates an old fairy tale about a man whose face was so hideous he was forced to wear a mask for his entire life. At the very end of his life, when he was able to remove the mask, he found his face had changed shape to fit the contours of the mask. I suppose, as a general statement, Lewis would argue that we become like the people we pretend to be.

Needless to say, I've never felt quite comfortable with that thought. Jesus seems to be dead-set against people who put on righteous masks and pretend to be perfect. I suppose His anger wasn't so much directed against the Pharisees for the fact that they were trying to be good, but at the fact that they believed they were good. As I've noted before, He once said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." I think what He means is this: Jesus came for everyone ... but He is of no use to people who are secure in their own righteousness, people who believe the masks they assume.

I think mask-wearing is essential in life. After all, it's probably a bad idea to cuss people out (even when we feel like it), to explode in fury at losing (even when you feel it on the inside) ... quite simply, a person without self-control is at about the developmental stage of an unpleasant two-year-old. And what is self-control but an ability to force yourself to behave in a manner you don't want to?

Does that mean I think that my policy of honesty at all costs is wrong? (Actually, I have been thinking about discernment issues, but let me save that for later ...) No, I get out of the apparent dead-end by trying to be honest about when I'm wearing a mask. Everyone wears masks. But I'm willing to tell anyone who asks (or listens to me) what's underneath it.

I think the problem with hypocrisy is hypocrites who believe that their masks are genuine. In my earlier example of my congratulating my opponents after a painful loss, it wasn't wrong for me to hide my anger ... but it would have been wrong for me to congratulate myself on being a good sport. A real good sport is a person who can genuinely say to the victor "good game" and mean it. I was only pretending ... but as long as I remembered that fact and continued to try to become a real good sport, I think it was all right.

I'd better wrap this up; it's almost time for me to go. I think my thoughts boil down to this ... pretend to be the very best person you can be ... and never forget that you are pretending.

And there are certain issues with the word "best" above ...

Posted by Leatherwood at 07:04 AM
This post has been classified as "Musings"

June 14, 2005

The Coffee-maker at Work

I only have a couple of minutes, so I have to make this a quick post. They the most awesome coffee-maker at work; it would probably be worth the work just for the privilege of using it to make coffee. I swear the machine had to cost a couple of hundred dollars. It's a little bigger than oven, and has a digital read-out that guides you through the process. It has several buttons on the front that you can press to determine how much coffee you want, whether you want it espresso or americano style, and it also has a steam-spout for milk frothing. Some of my fellow co-workers demonstrated this marvel to me and ushered me into the sacred art of milk-frothing. The machine automatically grinds coffee beans for you when you make your request so the coffee is always fresh. I've never tasted better coffee anywhere, not even at Common Grounds. I'm trying to limit myself to only three cups a day or so ... :-)

Posted by Leatherwood at 06:58 AM
This post has been classified as "Public Address"

June 08, 2005

Update, in brief

I just wanted to leave a brief update; I'll try to post something more substantial later. I've started work this past Monday, which has been good. Nikki and I have mostly completed moving into our apartment, which is probably a little bigger than the one we left behind in Texas. However, it doesn't have an attic and is a lot shorter on nooks and crannies to cram stuff in. :-( However, "ingenunity sets us apart" - we have dealt with some of the things we would otherwise have put in the attic by stashing them behind the couch and pushing the couch up against the wall. I suppose if my children find this post one day, they'll complain this is functionally identical to shoving messes under the bed. I have a few years to think of a reply, though. That's good; I'll need them.

My first project at Logos is supposed to be finished this afternoon :(. I'm doomed; I always take longer than most people to write code, and I'm quite busy learning JScript and the whole Logos framework. On the brighter side, I really like where I'm working ... and they have lots of good coffee, Mountain Dew, etc ... not to mention the spiciest chicken wings ever. The Software Development group went out to lunch on Monday to a Chicken place that serves their chicken on a 7-point scale of spiciness. Having tried 6, I have no desire to try 7. At level 6, it doesn't taste like chicken anymore; it tastes like hot coals mixed with boiling salsa. I washed my hands at least three times, but when I rubbed my eyes seven hours later ... ouchie!!!

More important; the people I'm working with are a great deal of help and have been quite friendly. And it's about time for me to start getting ready to go ... so, until later, I bid you farewell.

Namarië (farewell in Elvish, I think).

Posted by Leatherwood at 06:55 AM
This post has been classified as "Public Address"

June 06, 2005

My Fallacy of the First Mistake

In musing about the mixed-up psychology of myself, one of the many interesting (and disturbing) quirks I've discovered is what I call the "fallacy of the first mistake."

I love to start new things. There's something about an empty, fresh notebook that sends a thrill of delight coursing through me. When I begin one of my strategy games, there's something delightful about the planning and deciding of things as I think through how I'm going to make this game different and better. I love the early morning hours, when a day is fresh and new and unspoiled. I love standing at the beginning of something, working out a plan for perfect execution.

As I begin things, my performance usually starts out very good. I stick to the plan and do very well. Whether it's schoolwork or games or days, I work with a will and enjoy it. But, eventually, there always comes a point when I make my first mistake. In schoolwork, there's a missed or delayed assignment. My discipline slips for a moment (or longer), and I procrastinate. In games, a battle doesn't turn out quite the way I want, or I lose a ship despite my best efforts. In days, despite my determination to please God and think about Him all day, my mind wanders to some distraction or other and my day is spoiled.

In the words of Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes, "My life needs a rewind/erase button." (those of you familiar with the quote know the next line ... enjoy the grin) This is where God neglected a very essential point in designing the cosmos, one we humans have been careful to include in the worlds we design ... the bloody save/restore option!!! I remember one of Gallagher's shirts described one of the important life lessons learned from video games as "death is reversible (only for me)." (or something along those lines ... exact quote, Mister Gallagher?)

Few people have the patience to watch me play computer games, because I am a compulsive perfectionist. In first-person shooter games, I will save/restore every five seconds, as necessary, to get a sequence exactly right (or satisfy myself that it is quite impossible to do so). In strategy games, I "cheat" this way continually by saving and restoring, ensuring that my pretty little plan doesn't get messed up. And it works. It takes time and patience, but it works.

But, as previously noted, there is no such option in life. If there were, I would be continually using it, rebooting every few minutes to take back my choices. Some of you may be thinking that forgiveness accomplishes the same thing; God forgives and wipes the slate clean. You are quite right ... but it isn't the same. One of the many things that strikes me as sad and tragic and ... true, I guess ... about the Bible can be observed in reading 2 Samuel. As good old Dr. Hummel relentlessly drilled into us, the book has a structure like a mountain ... things get better and better and better for David as God fulfills His promises ... and then we reach chapter eleven. David sins with Bathsheba and murders Uriah. Everything after that goes downhill for him. His family falls apart, leading to the rape of his daughter, the murder of his son, the rebellion of his other son, a plague upon Israel, and the weakness of old age and Solomon's succession.

The thing that gets me about that story is that David did what he was supposed to! He confessed his sin and was honestly contrite. Psalm 51 is one of the finest pieces of literature ever penned! And God forgave him! But nothing could put the genie back in the bottle. God forgave him, yes, but the consequences of David's decision kept echoing. Part of me wants to ask bitterly what good is forgiveness? If God still punishes you (or allows natural consequences to punish you, which is roughly the same thing), how is that "wiping the slate clean?"

I suppose that question reveals a deadly misunderstanding of forgiveness. One should not ask forgiveness in order to avoid consequences, but to restore relationship. David's life may have gone to pieces after Bathsheba, but he still loved his God. Even at the very end of his life, he could say the things in 2 Samuel 22-23. When God forgives a person, it's as if He says, no matter what happens as a result of what you've done, we'll face it together and I will love you.

Sorry for the digression; I was just trying to make the point that forgiveness is not the same as erasure. God decided to make this universe real ... he gave us real choices that really matter. Each choice we make is indelible, burned forever into the space-time continuum. And it will have its full effect. That is the terrible, wonderful goodness of God.

I have trouble dealing with life because of this. I'm fine until the first mistake, but once I've made it, my motivation tends to go to pieces. I suppose that means that a significant part of me believes that only perfection is acceptable. To a large degree, there are only two marks I give myself inside ... "perfect" and "failing". (Allow me to bitterly say it in the words I think my parents taught it to me, "perfect" and "needs improvement.") In the course of my academic career, I was able to slowly relax my standards for "acceptable" from 100% down to about 95%. But, as I noted before, at the awards banquet, my first, instinctive, feelings reaction was the thought I just wasn't good enough. Or, as my grandmother said, "It wasn't that you weren't good enough; you just didn't study hard enough." Thanks, Grand-mom.

So what do I do? How do I deal with this part of life? What do I do with the deadly, fatal reality of failure? One very sane, sensible way that I suppose is very wise would be for me to define "failure" as giving up or something like that. All sorts of wise, motivational sayings come to mind, "All you can do is your best" and "The only way to fail is to quit." I have a few objections to that, though. First, as far as I know, nobody ever does their best. How do I even know what my "best" is? As a matter of fact, that saying can be twisted into an even crueller taskmaster; even 100% would be unacceptable if I didn't "try my best." And "best" would be defined as some perfection I could never reach. As regards "the only way to fail is to quit," I'm not sure I'm wired that way, and besides, what happens when you do quit? When an opportunity's window closes? And besides, the world can be extremely unforgiving. Life does not reward "trying," it rewards "doing." It rewards success. To me, the admonition that it is enough to try, if you don't give up, is a comforting thing adults tell children who've screwed up. If someone told me that, I'd like to fix them with a steady look and say "Really? Do you really believe that it's enough to try? That it isn't necessary to succeed; you just have to try?" Life doesn't work that way. Winners get the rewards. The question of whether life should work that way is one I haven't made up my mind about.

Before I leave that last subject, let me add another wrinkle that shows up. You see, even if you accept the idea that it's enough to try, you probably also believe that you have to try hard. No half-heartedness about it; you've got to really try! Which can get into the same vicious cycle of "trying" hard enough. In my head, I can't quite decide if it's true. In my heart, I feel a cruel, cynical voice saying that the admonition "it's enough to try hard and not give up" is a cheap excuse to make losers feel better.

Back to the original problem, loss of motivation from a first mistake. Another way of dealing with this (one I've adopted for most of my life) is to try to set a lot of internal "re-set" points. I don't exactly try to get my life perfect ... just one day. That way, if I fail, only one day is screwed up. There's always a fresh, new day tomorrow. In this way, I wonder if the line from Anne of Green Gables has actually hurt me - that "tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it." When I make a mistake in life, I tend to muddle along until the next "new point" marker and then try again in earnest. With schoolwork, every new semester (or school year) marked a new beginning, a new chance to "get it right." The problem with this is that life doesn't quite work that way. I suppose the way this has been brought home most painfully is in my GPA. Once I got my first "B," that was it. No restarts. No refreshes. If I got "A's" to the end of time, my GPA would never, ever reach perfection again. It was gone forever. There's a deadly finality to it that burned me. Life is like that. There are some things that aren't amenable to a fresh start each day. Mistakes are etched permanently and can never be erased. They stand for all time, mocking you.

How do I live in a world like this? Granted, this world is largely inside my head. If I weren't such a perfectionist, if I didn't so earnestly desire to win, to succeed, to "get it all right"; if I were willing to accept a "good" rather than a "perfect," I might not face this cruel place. If my heart was willing to buy the idea that it's enough to try ... even then, I don't think I could avoid this point, because I have to live forever with the fact that there are times when I didn't try my best and nothing I do can ever change it.

How can I live with imperfection? You see, on the inside, I feel as if I have been forever stamped "failure." It's over. Done. I had my chance and can't say it wasn't fair. Maybe now I should have a kid and stake my hopes on the kid getting it right. (Heavens no; I don't want to lay that burden on any child ... I pray I'll be watchful of my perfectionist tendencies being laid on my children. But I only hold myself to a standard of perfection ... everyone else I give a sizeable amount of grace to.)

How can I live with my record saying "Not good enough"? My grandmother's admonition that "it wasn't that I wasn't 'good enough,' it was that I didn't study hard enough" makes it even worse. Failures you cannot help are acceptable. Even in video games, I accept there are certain points where perfect performance is impossible. In Jedi Knight, when the elevator you're trapped in opens its doors and four storm-troopers stand there with their guns trained on you, I accept I have to take a hit or two; there's no way out (Actually, I did discover a way out - a perfectly timed thermal detonator kills them all before they can fire a shot). But if you could have succeeded and didn't, it's ranked internally as a personal moral failure, the worst kind. I don't blame myself for not being Einstein. I blame myself for not getting a 4.0, because I could have. If I'd just tried a little harder says my internal voice, I'd have made it.

I think I have some answers that satisfy me ... at least, to some degree. I am a fallen, sinful being, and part of me will always stay here, wallowing in an eternal personal indictment of "not good enough." But that part of me is doomed in the long run, anyway. The part of me that God controls doesn't have to stay here.

The answer I think Jesus gives to this is this: No, Daniel, you are not perfect. I am. You didn't make it. I did. And I'm willing to trade records with you, in the only court where it truly matters ... before God.

You see, I stand before God, justified by the perfect record of Christ. Because of Jesus, my failures are not fatal.

Please, understand, I know that, before God, a GPA of 4.0 counts for exactly zip. I know that the things that truly stain me are attitudes and beliefs and sins, not failed grades. But it is in my academic imperfection that I feel imperfect. The realization that I don't love perfectly, though somewhat uncomfortable, doesn't hurt anywhere near as much as the realization that my academic miss-steps are fatally permanent. And I know that, in itself, is evidence of a deadly flaw in my character. But it is in this area that I can "feel" the effects of the justification God gives in a way I can't through the abstract knowledge that God has forgiven me my sins.

Of course, all new issues are raised, and I probably failed to tie all the ends together ... but I need to stop for now. Thanks for reading, you brave few who made it this far. God bless.

Posted by Leatherwood at 09:09 AM
This post has been classified as "Musings"

I'm still alive

Sorry for the very long silence; after graduation, I lapsed into a week of gaming and lethargy, and then we moved, and then I didn't have a phone for a couple of weeks ... and now I'm back. More later.
Posted by Leatherwood at 07:09 AM
This post has been classified as "Public Address"
Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict
Valid CSS!