Destinée (Friday, 2012 March 16)

March 16, 2012

[I’ve been "studying French" for two years and I still don’t know the word for "coincidence", for what it’s worth. I’m not even sure about "destiny", which seems to be either destin or destinée..]

I joined the Church because of a coincidence. Most of us do, of course.

I guess with the benefit of hindsight, preeventualism kind of warmed me up to the ideas. The preeventualist doesn’t need to master a philosophy; it’s good enough to just pre-believe pre-philosophies. The essential human nature is positive, optimistic, hopeful. So isn’t that enough?

See here’s the story: I was riding a bus with my suitcase of clothes and "personal items" after my wife threw me out after a screaming row about something obscure I don’t even remember any more. Maybe my friendship with an old flame. The guy next to me on the bus was a knotty old man even worse off than I was, and he tied me up in religious debate that rapidly became an aggressive little sermon. He was Pentecostal. He was a firm believer in the power of prayer, to the point that he asserted that if you prayed, sincerely, with the right words and prayers, God would straight up talk to you.

It’s weird how religion works. It’s distributed unevenly, not exactly a bell curve but with correlations and covariances all over the place. Anyhow, I needed him to shut up, and I’m nothing if not populist or a scientist. So I agreed for him and myself to try his little science experiment: I’d try to pray. All I really want is to be a good person. If God can tell me what to do, why not?

I ended up in some hotel that rented by the hour, heaved my suitcase into a moth-eaten room with a funny smell. At that point in my life I didn’t drink but I self-medicated in a rainbow of other ways: potato chips, sugar highs, mind candy, video games, staying up too late. I started to get punchy and then maudlin around 1 AM local time when the weight and exhaustion of being "on" for 12 hours of constant crisis hit me. Blood alcohol content of 0% or whatever sober is, but let’s say I was five sachets of strung-out on one sachet’s worth of bad decisions. I stumbled into the shower to wash the whole thing off. And I decided to engage in that little experiment the gnarled old man told me about.

I knelt in that filthy shower and I prayed. I even said the magic spell he gave me: "I believe in Jesus as God’s son and my savior. I repent for my sins and accept Jesus into my heart", or something like that. And you know what? Not a single thing happened.

I flashed back on his insistence on sincerity and I guessed that there was maybe some aspect in my heart still resistant, still too proud to accept submission the way the words implied. I tried to suppress or remove that part, and I said the same words again. And again. And finally I gave up and just said what I thought: "Listen, whoever or whatever’s out there. I just want to do right and be a good person. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it." And then I started crying.

And absolutely nothing happened. Not even silence — just the same white noise, the same everyday sounds of a place along a major artery. So after a while I pulled myself together and climbed into bed and curled up in a tight fetal position and fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up and got everything together and got ready to keep moving. Pulled myself out the front door of my cut-rate motel into bright, clear sunlight. The smells of motor exhaust and mowed grass hung beneath an enormous blue sky. And across the thoroughfare, a church. A Church of the Universal Stochastic. I don’t know if I didn’t notice the billboard when I came in the last night, or what, but it said: "God doesn’t give answers, only questions."

Where was I going in such a hurry? I went over and picked up a pamphlet.

The Church of the Universal Stochastic’s dogmas don’t seem completely internally consistent to me, but I guess faith is always a little irrational. Here’s what I got from the pamphlet:

  • God loves us and wants what’s best for us, and He gives it to us whether we want it or not. He visits bad things upon us to spare us from worse things, or to provide us with opportunities for growth. And growth is big. God doesn’t tell you what to do because you are supposed to figure it out — no easy answers. But if you listen carefully, you’ll get hints.
  • God has a plan, and a judicious look around should make it clear to you that this plan is a positive one. Things fall together. Violence declines. People learn to treat each other better. God works on big scales and engineers things for trends, not for individual successes.
  • And yet at the same time it seems like He sets things up for us. Coincidences, hints. I think the principle here is: because the trend is positive, and because God acts in ways that fit comfortably within the null hypothesis, you’re safe just flipping the coin and going always with "heads". Change is generally for the better. Go forth and be confident.

The Church is something of an agitator for development and aid, seeing progress as God’s work. I’d also taken a pamphlet on their offworld volunteering program and I saw a program in Education. Livable stipend — not as nice as a Foreign Service Officer, but survivable. And being a good person is free. I did OK with xenolinguistics in high school. So why not throw that suitcase on the next starship to anywhere else and see if this is what I was meant to do?

God’s plan is subtle and maybe I was "meant" to be here to incite this revolution, or maybe I’m serving some role for some young Zhenae who will grow up to do something amazing, or maybe I’m here for my own spiritual growth. I’m not sure. But even in Sumi there’s a saying along the lines of "You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs". We’re here for progress, and Zhen represents stasis. Anything is better than stasis. Even outright disaster.

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