Nearly every day I have occasion to cross the busiest street in the city. Given its eight lanes, I usually chose to do so at a convenient crosswalk that is regulated by a traffic light. As is the case with most of Vienna’s 1,286 traffic lights, this one is controlled by a timer. It also features an audio and tactile system for guiding visually impaired persons over the street. Basically this system consists of raised lines on the sidewalk and across the street for guiding the tip of a cane and a box about a meter off the ground that has a raised pictogram of the number of lanes to be crossed and, hidden from plain view, a button that can be depressed to activate an audio signal that sounds while the light is green.This is important–the box pictured below does not turn the light green or in any other way influence the timer; it simply activates an audio signal whenever pedestrians are given the right of way according to preprogrammed intervals.
Since the light is controlled by a timer, there is no need for other devices or interfaces for either vehicles or pedestrians to signal their presence and, more importantly, readiness for the light to turn green. The powers that be have decided in advance when the light will turn and that’s that. But though the gods have cast the die, it is not mankind’s wont to accept its fate passively. And so, as crowds grow impatiently on either side of the street, someone who’s been around the block a few times and knows there’s a button under there–though not long enough to know the limits of its power–will inevitably reach over and vigorously press the hidden button, expecting it to turn the light. Sometimes they are lucky and the button pushing coincides with the end of a red phase, reinforcing cognitive errors about cause and effect. Other times the button pusher is not so rapidly rewarded, but established beliefs die hard.
In fact, the belief that pushing the button does something beyond its designed function is so widespread that newer devices explicitly inform seeing pedestrians that this is not the case.
I don’t know if it makes a difference; I still routinely see people pushing buttons at timed intersections across the city, expecting the light to turn faster in their favor. I find myself secretly hoping that the wait will be long and wincing when it’s not. “There’s no meaningful relationship here, people!” I mutter to myself.
As a practicing Mormon, however, I no doubt find myself in a glass house where, say, invoking a blessing of nourishment over an artery-clogging, diabetes-onsetting dish at the ward potluck is a long-standing tradition. But this won’t be the post to sort out magical thinking from the truly efficacious in a religious context; rather, I would like to consider misplaced confidence in causal relationships in the context of Elder Steven E. Snow’s talk “Be Thou Humble” at the Saturday morning session.
Elder Snow describes how his athletic, intelligent and popular teenaged son suffered a serious head injury, lapsed into a coma, lost his short-term memory and struggled to relearn very basic skills. Elder Snow recounts that this cruel blow of fate “was a very humbling time for him. It was also a very humbling time for his parents”:
Honestly, we wondered how such a thing could happen. We had always strived to do the right things. Living the gospel had been a high priority for our family. We couldn’t understand how something so painful could happen to us.
I share his pain and dismay at the sense that somehow righteous living ought to prevent such tragedies. I too have pressed buttons fully expecting a particular outcome, imbuing my religious observance with unwarranted protections against the buffetings of a mortal existence in which the problem of evil was someone else’s. Impressed as a youth by teachings such as tithing as fire insurance and the Word of Wisdom as an alternative to anesthesia, I set out to bind the Lord. (See here and here for this principle being taught in the contexts of covenants and commandments; see here and here for discussions at BCC.) But when financial and health-related setbacks afflicted me and those in my immediate circle I know to be faithful and obedient, disappointment was a common refrain. I mean, where’s the Law of the Harvest when you need it?!
If only life were that simple, and the relationship between law, obedience and outcomes so straightforward. As Elder Snow observes:
Simply living life can be and often is a humbling experience. Accident and illness, the death of loved ones, problems in relationships, even financial reversals can bring us to our knees. Whether these difficult experiences come through no fault of our own or through bad decisions and poor judgment, these trials are humbling.
There is no question that our ability to exercise moral agency leaves an imprint on our lives. On the other hand, “your Father which is in heaven […] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). This feature of our mortal existence makes it difficult to attribute reward and merit to individual agency, at least for the time being. We may have pushed a button and the light may have turned green, but how can we be so sure that the one had anything to do with the other?
Well, we can’t. And yet the human mind is hardly wired to
acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events. Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight. (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)
And so we assume in dubio pro homine, at least when it comes to life’s timely green lights; the red lights we’re usually happy to ascribe to others. But in doing so we run the risk of disappointment as the rug of certainty is whisked from underneath budding faith. Unwarranted confidence in the arm of the flesh also fuels pride, discounting the role of others, including God, in our lives.
While we trust in divine promises and seek to qualify for them, we must avoid giving ourselves too much credit if we hope to”become better parents, sons and daughters and followers of the Savior.” Why? Well, imagine you spent a lifetime confirming the belief that, say, the press of a particular button had a particular effect…and it turned out you were wrong? It turns out that few of us are able to interrogate and correct pre-existing beliefs (though check here to see if you are the exception); we prefer to fit the facts as we see them to rules we’ve already intuited.
This is no big deal when we’re just trying to cross the street; but sometimes the stakes are higher like, say, determining the path that will lead to eternal life. How do we overcome our tendency to be so certain about the wrong answer? Part of the answer is humility. Elder Snow recalls President Kimball’s counsel: “How does one get humble? To me, one must constantly be reminded of his dependence. On whom dependent? On the Lord. How to remind one’s self? By real, constant worshipful, grateful prayer.”
In keeping with other gospel paradoxes–e.g., the first shall be last and the last first, losing your life for the Lord’s sake will help you find it, etc.–this appreciation for our dependence on the Lord, the realization that we see through a glass darkly and that the control we believe to exercise over our mortal environment may be more tenuous than assumed, is not a capitulation to fate but the key to developing the kind of strength promised in the scriptures and exercising power and influence in a divinely approved manner.
It may seem counterintuitive, but questioning our iron-clad assumptions about the way the traffic lights of the universe work offers a path to greater certainty about the kind of outcomes that really matter, that “we will ultimately return to the presence of our Heavenly Father.” Elder Snow teaches that “peace of mind” is one of the fruits of humility, certainly a blessing for those of use striving to be faithful in a world where uncertainty is plentiful and easy answers in short supply.