Monday, January 3, 2011

Sons Of The System

Consider this story recalled in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells. In the 50’s a fatal accident occurred on an operating table in Edinburgh. A child died due to an unexpected complication, with the surgeon apparently left helpless in the face of sheer bad luck. This is not the story, however. The story is the conversation between two men after the tragedy. One of the men expressed deep sympathy for the unfortunate surgeon. The question, What could he do? was no doubt present with full rhetorical force.

But his conversation partner perceived events differently. He knew the unfortunate surgeon, and therefore knew that there was nothing unfortunate about him or this tragic event:

I think the man is to blame. If anybody had handed me ether instead of chloroform I would have known from the weight it was the wrong thing. You see, I know the man well. We were students together at Aberdeen and he could have become one of the finest surgeons in Europe if only he had given his mind to it. But he didn’t. He was more interested in golf. So he just used to do enough work to pass his examinations and no more. And that is how he has lived his life – just enough to get through, but no more; so he has never picked up those seemingly peripheral bits of knowledge that can one day be crucial. The other day in that theatre a bit of “peripheral” knowledge was crucial and he didn’t have it. But it wasn’t the other day that he failed – it was thirty-nine years ago, when he only gave himself half-heartedly to medicine.

“Just enough to get through, but no more.” This was the story of the surgeon’s life. This is the story of many people’s lives. This is the story of my life.

I gave myself half-heartedly to Financial Mathematics and Economics. I was never going to be one of the finest mathematicians in Europe, but I had the potential to do well. I chose the path of least resistance, however, and have been shaped by that choice ever since. It didn’t matter at the time that I left a Money and Banking exam early because I was so bored with what I was writing. I knew I had done well enough in a conjoined module to pass the class overall. But these choices in the “training ground” form habits that die hard.

“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” The Duke of Wellington’s point is that the training ground in Eton is what really mattered. Here is where skills were honed, decisions were made, and character was formed. Waterloo was simply the tip of the iceberg. I think also of the Barcelona trio Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. We marvel at their natural talent and giftedness, but it is the training ground at La Masia that has formed them from an early age. They are “sons of the system,” according to Xavi; disciplined, even indoctrinated, to play football a certain way.

“Sons of the system” sounds like slavery, but to watch these three play football is, as Arsene Wenger highlighted, “art”. The “system” is not oppressive; rather, it sets its sons free.

The reality is that we are all sons of a system. The surgeon in question’s system was “Just enough to get through.” It was a system that promised freedom – freedom to play more golf. It probably looked harmless at the time, but it ended up costing a child’s life. What we do in the training ground echoes in the battle ground, for better or worse.

Of course despite what films shows us, most of life is spent in the training ground. Dramatic, life and death moments are rare. Our lives consist of the little things. They are the stuff of training sessions and weekly league games – Champions League finals are few and far between. The training ground and life can’t be separated, because the training ground is life. If we are training, we are training for the present. Our sonship to a system is for the here and now as well as for the future.

The question is, whose sons are we? We know by the fruit. Are we being formed into works of art, virtuous human beings for whom no piece of knowledge is too “peripheral”, for whom no act of faithfulness is too small, for whom no display of love is too insignificant?

To take the Sermon on the Mount seriously is to wrestle with the reality that Jesus didn’t place too much weight on professions of allegiance. The greater weight was placed on doing the will of the Father. Our sonship is a gift freely given by God. No amount of doing can earn entry into the family. But the gift is also a vocation, a calling. We become “sons of the system”, disciplined, even indoctrinated, as Xavi was. But slavery to this system sets us free.

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