Life for me right now means I drive home from my part-time job at the computer store two or three nights a week and listen to a podocast of The State of Things on WUNC, which works out well since I was teaching during the day when it first aired. Last Thursday, Dan Ariely was interviewed. He has just published a book called The Upside of Irrationality, which is a part of his work at the Center for Advanced Hindsight. (I so want a t-shirt from that place; the name is too good.)
Ariely said his interest in the work he is doing began years ago with bandage removal. He suffered severe burns a number of years ago and was in the hospital for three years. The nurses had to remove the bandages everyday. Bandages cane be taken off either quickly or slowly. All the nurses believed ripping the bandages off quickly was the right approach to dealing with the pain. After he got out, Ariely did experiments of his own and found the “nurses were wrong in a predictable and systematic way.” They didn’t talk to each other about the various ways it could be done or compare notes. “All the nurses had the same bias and they were getting it wrong for every patient every time.”
Change the preposition and the Center of Advanced Hindsight might also serve as another name for Ash Wednesday, if I take the word center geographically rather than as a name of an organization. From that center, hear the words poet Barton Sutter shared at The Writer’s Almanac today as a part of his poem, “The Thousand-foot Ore Boat”:
To live until we die—
The job seems just impossible.
The great weight of the past
Pushing us forward, the long future
Thrust out before us, and so little room to either side!
On this day, when we seek to focus our hearts and minds toward repentance, when we seek to find deeper meaning in living by coming to terms with our dying, when we feel the push of the past and the pull of possibilities, we stand at the center of advanced hindsight, at the fulcrum of our faith, at the place where we are willing to let the Spirit show us where we have been predictable and systematic in our errors, at the place where we can repent.
Repent. When I work on vocabulary with my students, I try to get them to notice the prefix of a word as a way to begin to unpack its meaning.
re-: 1. indicating return to a previous condition, restoration, withdrawal.
2. indicating repetition of an action.
Repent. The dictionary draws connections to regret and repair, but then draws distinctions. Regret carries the main idea of wishing I had not done something, or had done something differently, that cannot be changed. Repair focuses on making things work again. Repent carries some of both contrition for what has been done or left undone and commitment to do things differently and to make things right. Looking back, I look inward that I might look forward and live in such a way that I do not remain committed to my error.
Repentance requires community. Though it is an individual commitment, it is not done in solitary. The power of our turning round right is found in the cloud of witnesses who share in the dance because most of what needs to be made right is relational. When I look back to see I have not done justice or sought kindness or walked humbly I must circle back, retrace my steps, and do what I can to repair and heal my damage. Where I have chosen cynicism, I am called to hope. Where I have chosen to caricature, I am called to listen. Where I have chosen to dominate, I am called to include. Where I have chosen to forget, I am called to remember.
All in the context of relationships.
In his podcast, Ariely talked about one of the tasks of a society is to decide what level of inequality we are willing to live with. He said his favorite definition of a just society came from philosopher John Rawls who said a just society was one that if you knew everything about it you would be willing to enter it at a random place. I love the definition because it calls us all to live outside of ourselves, paying attention to one another’s circumstances and challenges, as well as successes. Where Rawls used the word society, I would substitute community to say that definition of justice works whether we are a city or a church, a mega gathering or a small group. To think about a just community means to remember, as Philo of Alexandria said (not to be confused with Philo of Apex), “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It also means that we are committed to including one another, rather than constructing rules and walls that divide us. “Love everyone as I have loved you,” Jesus said. That’s pretty clear.
On this Ash Wednesday, this Center of Advanced Hindsight, I look back and easily see the damage I have done. I pray these days will turn that mourning into meaning again and again and again.