Preparing to move from Croydon to Bradford at the end of April, I am conscious of the discontinuities that make life interesting. In Rumsfeldian terms, I am moving from a particular set of knowns and unknowns to a different set of known unknowns and straightforward unknowns.
What interests me about this is something that underlies much of the language we use to explain the news. There seems to be an underlying assumption (or desperate hope?) that there is a pattern to be followed, an outcome to be assumed and a ‘plan’ to be conformed to. Somewhere. Somehow.
Human beings seem to be wired for pattern. Maybe part of the notion of the Imago Dei (being made in the image of God) is the instinct to bring order out of chaos – or, at least, to think that order should be brought out of chaos. Whether with telephone numbers (doubles or triples?) or travel directions, we look for pattern and shape and order.
But, the truth of the matter is: despite the best preparation and the fullest briefings, we have no idea what might happen tomorrow. The outcome in Libya will be shaped by decisions and dynamics that can’t be fully predicted because they are made or shaped by people – and people do strange things sometimes. I have little idea of what awaits me in Bradford (other than in structural terms) because it is hard to be categorical where people are concerned – and people change their minds, behave irrationally in certain (unpredictable) circumstances and have an infinite capacity for surprise.
It might be helpful to the rest of us if politicians and journalists (in particular) left a little space for the unpredictability of life and the inconsistency of human agents – especially where the ‘observer’ becomes ‘agent’ and changes the context. Read any political biography and we realise that what was presented as intended outcome was really a jammy confluence of factors that brought a certain ‘orderliness’ to otherwise random events. Utopia is a fantasy – as is the notion that we are masters of our chosen destiny (rather than constantly surprised by events beyond our control).
And the difference between this fantasy and what is known as the Kingdom of God is simply that the latter takes human agency seriously. Wherever order is sought, chaos is not far behind… and chaos can always be wrested from the jaws of order. Equally, however, what looks inevitable can be transformed by the surprise of hope.
In other words, we just have to get on with whatever is presented to us. In my case, I have to work with what I find and (yes, on the basis of previous experience and the wisdom acquired from it) go from where we really are to where we might realistically become… and put up with whatever good or bad stuff shapes the journey. That’s what makes it all so interesting.
This reminds me of the great Bruce Cockburn song Pacing the Cage in which he says:
Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend.
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend.
Spot on, Bruce. And that reminds me of the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister who, after being given a hard time by a group of us in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem some years ago, banged the table and said:
Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.