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Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing

  • “You were just trying to help. But you ended up doing more harm than good.”
  • “Your heart was in the right place, but you just made things worse.”

There’s something uniquely depressing about these sentences. It turns out, it’s the same mechanism that makes you feel sad when an opportunity is lost, or when your reputation is damaged.

You depend on yourself to have a decent understanding of the world — the state of the world, and how it works. When something unexpected and bad happens as a result of something you thought you were doing right, it throws into question those things on which you were depending.

The result is confusion, anxiety, and a desperate retrospective evaluation of what went wrong, or what you could have done differently.

Needless to say, that process usually isn’t very pleasant. And thus, undergoing that process is a “loss” in and of itself. You don’t want to feel that way.

You’re sitting on a bus, riding to work, when a moaning young man falls out of his seat. He pulls himself up, kneeling on one knee, eyes closed, and holds the bar in front of him. He doesn’t look so well.

A part of you wants to go to him, lean down next to him, and ask him if he’s alright, maybe help him back into his seat. But what if he yells, “Get your hands off of me!”? What if he says, “I don’t need your help!”?

There are so many people watching. He’ll probably be okay.

“I’d sure be an idiot if I went to help, only to come across as patronizing in front of everyone.”

“I’d sure be an idiot…” is the beginning of a sentence that indicates loss aversion is at play.

Loss aversion is a psychological phenomenon where we are doubly afraid of perceived losses than we are eager for perceived gains.

Gambling games leverage this by using various tricks to flip loss/gain perceptions upside-down, and make you be loss aversive about future hopes, e.g., “I better not walk away from the slot machine… I’d sure be an idiot if the very next pull was the jackpot.”

You’re afraid of being embarrassed.

You’re afraid of the anxiety.

You’re afraid of the unpleasantness of dwelling over and over again on the incident if it goes badly, for days or weeks.

By “you,” I really mean “me,” since that bus incident happened to me a few years ago.

After a few minutes, the bus driver found place to pull over, got up, and came back herself to check on the young man. He simply moaned, allowed her to help him up, and got back into his seat.

I was closer to him. I wasn’t busy. I was just loss aversive — I was afraid. And I allowed myself to be the “priest” who “passed by on the other side.”

Everybody else on the bus was guilty of the same negligence. But, privately, I was more embarrassed with myself than I would ever have been if the young man had reacted badly. My critical faculties were appalled at what my lower-order faculties — those selfish, “now”-driven impulses to which we feel enslaved — had allowed to occur.

I was completely ashamed. How on Earth could I let that happen? The Good Samaritan story is one of the most resonant and famous of Jesus’s teachings. What kind of Christian am I? What kind of human?

I dwelt over and over again on that incident. I was anxious about its implications. I was confused about how I could have failed so plainly.

But wait.

Isn’t that I was afraid of in the first place?

The unpleasantness of dwelling on a bad memory, anxiety, and confusion?

It was!

What this realization meant was this: Like in a casino game’s design, I can flip my loss aversion upside-down as it suits my higher-order interests. I resolved that when a similar situation happens again, instead of fearing the riskiness of commission, I would fear the riskiness of omission.

And fearing the riskiness of omission is another way to say, “Be doubly eager to commit your charity.”

I’m talking about psychology, loss aversion, dopamine stimulation — but Jesus was onto it the whole time.

We’re not called to sit there and bank on the supposed “amorality” of omission.

That earns a justified “You lazy servant!”

Little Sermon Sunday: Ignatius to the Ephesians

(Roman Colosseum, from desktop wallpapers)

Ignatius of Antioch, in the custody of Roman soldiers, along the long road to Rome to be executed, sent a letter to the church in Ephesus:

You are stones of a temple, prepared beforehand for the building of God the Father, hoisted up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a rope the Holy Spirit; your faith is what lifts you up, and love is the way that leads up to God.

Pray continually for the rest of mankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be gentle; do not be eager to retaliate against them. Let us show ourselves to be their brothers by our forbearance, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.

There is nothing better than peace, by which all warfare among those in heaven and those on earth is abolished. None of these things escapes your notice, if you have perfect faith and love toward Jesus Christ. For these are the beginning and end of life: faith is the beginning, and love is the end, and the two, when they exist in unity, are God. Everything else that contributes to excellence follows from them. No one professing faith is sinful, nor is anyone possessing love hateful. “The tree is known by its fruit”; thus those who profess to be Christ’s will be recognized by their actions. For the Work is not a matter of what one promises now, but of persevering to the end in the power of faith.

It is better to be silent and real, than to talk and not be real. It is good to teach, if one does what one says. … Nothing is hidden from the Lord; even our secrets are close to him. Therefore let us do everything with the knowledge that he dwells in us, order that we may be his temples.

Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord — three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone forth in heaven brighter than all the stars; its light was indescribable and its strangeness caused amazement. All the rest of the constellations, together with the sun and moon, formed a chorus around the star, yet the star itself far outshone them all, and there was perplexity about the origin of this strange phenomenon which was so unlike the others.

Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life; and what had been prepared by God began to take effect. As a result, all things were thrown into ferment, because the abolition of death was being carried out.