Running in Place

In his bestselling Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recounts a story to illustrate the danger of letting something demand “so much attention that it makes us oblivious to the rest of reality.” It happened in the 1950s during Air Force parachute training; one chute failed to open, and the user died in the fall.

Investigation found that the parachute was in perfect working order, but it differed from standard design in one small point: originally intended for a left-handed chutist, it had the rip cord release positioned a few inches farther to the left. Although the instructor had carefully pointed out the handle’s location before the jump, damage to the dead man’s uniform and deep scratches in his chest indicated he had been tearing at the “normal” release position up to the moment of impact. The investigators could only conclude he had panicked when he reached for the habitual spot and found nothing.

Although it’s rare for the situation to be so serious or the outcome so tragic, most of us can identify with the experience of searching frantically for something where we think it should be, only to eventually find it (or have someone else point it out) literally within arm’s reach:

  • Digging for keys fifteen minutes before realizing you’re holding them in your other hand.
  • Turning the apartment upside down looking for a cell phone, then finally spotting it and remembering instantly that you plugged it in last night to charge.
  • Retracing your steps for ten miles and asking two lost-and-founds if anyone has turned in your eyeglass case–then having the second lost-and-found clerk point to an obvious bulge in your pocket.

Going on autopilot is dangerous, if only to the ego. It’s one thing to forget momentarily where something is; it’s another thing to get so busy looking where it obviously isn’t that we forget to pause and consider other possibilities. Usually it happens when we’re too hurried to think: when you have fifteen minutes to make a fourteen-minute trip to the appointment you delayed leaving for because there were thirty e-mails to answer, misplacing your car keys can trigger as high a burst of adrenaline as if you were falling 13,000 feet without a parachute. The adrenaline-dominated brain knows only fight and flight as options, which makes it a valuable ally when enemy and escape route are obvious, but turns it into a traitor when what the situation needs is a moment of intelligent consideration. We lose memory of what we knew five minutes ago, and go blind to what’s in plain view. We go temporarily insane, doing the same thing harder, looking for different results.

Remember Martha in Luke 10:38-42? In her society, it was “normal” for women to take care of housework and hospitality, leaving the men to their conversation; so that was what she did when Jesus came to visit. Her sister Mary apparently took a closer look at their Guest and sensed an invitation to break custom and join the “conversation” group, and Martha promptly became annoyed because “I’m stuck with all this work and no one cares.” Jesus had to tell her directly that she was getting so frantic about how things were “supposed” to be, she had blinded herself to the better things He wanted to give her.

If it seems that what’s “supposed” to work just isn’t working, perhaps it’s time to stand still and ask God what He wants us to do. We may well get an “all you had to do was ask” answer.

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