The Beauty of Unpredictable Complexity
In expressing the central concepts of the Patra Passage, Lynda uses the words, “generosity”, “gratitude”, and “altruism.” In the same paragraphs, we also find the appearance of “consumerism”, “busyness” and “self-absorption.” She poses several questions at the end of her introduction, and as I look at Patra 44, I am reminded of another: Which of the above 3-word groupings is most characteristic of my life?
Don’t answer that.
The act of giving is something we experience early in life, and, like a lot of other things, it is primarily modeled by our parents. They give, and we get. We learn something quite intuitive – that getting is better than giving. It’s not even close. We also learn other things from our parents, such as separation anxiety, the consequences of certain behaviors, and, if we are lucky, agape love. We learn, we adapt, and we get by. Most of these learned concepts stand us in good stead as we progress. But a few will at some point demand reconsideration.
Giving is one of those. It is counterintuitive. Try convincing a young child that it is better to give than to receive. How do we learn this? Perhaps some people never do. Learning this is a process. We are social beings. We engage in relationships, all sorts of relationships. Mommy and Daddy, siblings, friends, Uncle Fred, teachers, coaches, bullies, competitors, bosses, co-workers, significant others, clergy, spouses and, yes, even lawyers. Relationships are constructed through a web of agreements, covenants, rules, and stories. They are influenced by emotions, perceptions, expectations, assumptions, and trust.
We never escape relational living. But what can we learn? We may learn that there really is “magic dust” that has a power to consecrate relationships. The ingredient that makes or breaks. The magic dust, of course, is giving. We may learn this through trial and error, by making mistakes and enduring failures and then moving on from them with renewed enthusiasm (thank you C.S. Lewis). The action of giving takes some time spent in practice before it begins to work on one’s thinking and desires.
Social scientists have studied concepts such as giving, altruism, sacrifice, and heroism. (These behaviors were not a fit with the prevailing explanatory models). The findings are now published, yet because of the complexity, a consensus as to the causal roots of the “giving” behaviors is still problematic. The most that can be inferred are certain types of correlations with the behavior.
There is a reason that the social sciences are so complex. Take a moment to consider a simple act of giving a gift to another person. We begin with motivation –what is the thought behind or purpose of the gift? It all depends. We want something in return, or we want to gain favor, or we want to appease our conscience, or we must because of a birthday, or we want to deepen the relationship, or we want to pass on to someone else the bottle of white zinfandel that has been in our cellar since the Barclay’s came for dinner, or we want to advance a cause, or we want God to bless us for our alms. Beyond motivation, we might examine the purity of our motivations. This is even worse. Who can discern the thoughts and confused and often conflicted intents of our inner being, our hearts?
The social world is far too complex to understand from within science. In the less complex physical sciences, observations can be reproducible, and the self-referential bias may be controlled to the point that results can be actually quantified. In other words, we can be pretty certain of the boiling point of water at sea level. Now try to quantify the behavior of the average teenager or the average American member of Congress as to what he or she will do next – far too complex and wildly unpredictable, never mind reproducible. (There are, of course limits even in the hard physical sciences. Methodological naturalism has verified that the universe (big bang) must have a primary cause from outside of space, time, matter and energy (thank you, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking). But, it cannot identify that cause).
This may be why the art of giving could be as complex as Lynda suggested in her Patra Passage preamble. We learn over time that engaging in giving, rather than receiving (or keeping), opens up entirely new horizons for defining our lives. Giving teaches us new things that we cannot learn if we do not develop and exercise the practice of giving (again, not an exchange, which is commerce). And, everyone has stuff to give: Time, objects, attention, interest, money, affection, alms, the list has no end. We cannot learn the remarkable effect of giving via any other method or discipline.
The things we learn seem also to grow and change as our experience of giving matures and possibly broadens. We can also posit with some certainty that if one does not practice and develop the art of unconditional giving, there will be a deficiency. This cannot be statistically quantified, because everyone experiences unique and private transformations. It is too complex to “chart.” At best, it can be understood anecdotally, as people share their personal experience, which is what is happening through the Patra Passage.
(One of my favorite aspects of the Patra Passage is the unpredictable complexity of where and to whom the vessels will travel before making their way back to Lynda. Who knows? If we look ahead, say, to this coming August, vessels will be given and received by parties who at this moment have no idea that Patra Passage exists.)
What happens when a gift is given? I am not sure. It all depends. Each act has its own unpredictable complexity. I am sure that the giver is changed. Over time, perhaps the changes amount to a journey as subtle as the difference between “the good life” and “a life well lived.”
I am suggesting that the answer to understanding the “results” of giving (for both the giver and receiver) lies beyond the limitations of science. The answer would be transcendent. The fact that science is limited because we cannot understand (“prove”) all things about a system (universe) from within the system (thank you Kurt Godel) is not a cause for being depressed. It is exciting, because there are things that we are not meant to know.
We will know enough, and part of the beauty of the astounding complexity of our social milieu (wherein giving takes place) is that it insures that any hour or day or minute may bring the delivery of a surprise package, unable to be anticipated or predicted. It delivers to us, via relationships, random joys and epiphanies and “God winks.” It allows for doing projects, realizing dreams, and for friendships that grow and prosper and satisfy. And, it brings evil and suffering and heartache and defeat.
We are formed and shaped (like a Patra vessel?) through these experiences, good and bad, smooth and difficult. During all of these passages, giving remains a source of strength and renewal. With, perhaps, a secret (personal) knowledge that is unique, acquired by years of giving one’s life away, that will never be lost.
We live in an age where science has advanced sufficiently that we may count on a few things. Conversely, there are things transcendent to space, time, matter, and energy. For these things we rely on theology rather than sociology or physics.
We begin to understand how giving a gift changes our lives when we consider that we are beings created in the “Imago Dei” – the Image of God. This of course is in contrast to asserting, as many would have it, that we are beings naturally selected and mutated in the image of “LUCA” – the last universal common ancestor.
We do not have access to all knowledge, but to enough knowledge. We have the universe and the natural world. We can think in symbols, imaginatively rehearse, and use language, to develop knowledge, the fine arts, and culture. We worship. We have the Word. No matter who we are, we have the privilege to give, and in doing so move out of ourselves toward the light.
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