Michael Crichton was one of the most successful, creative and entertaining authors of our day. In a memoir of some of his experiences (Travels, Alfred Knopf, 1988), he relates the story of a kind of party he once attended. There was a large crowd of guests and of all ages and backgrounds. Each guest was asked to dig around in their dinnerware to find a spoon they just didn’t need or care about and bring that spoon with them.
The gathering was noisy and folks were in good spirits. When everyone had gathered, the host asked that they all throw their spoons into a pile in the middle of the floor. Adding to that he dumped a box of spoons he had gathered and mixed them all up. Then the guests were asked to dig through the pile and pick out a spoon of their choosing, but they were also asked to choose one that seemed to answer their question, “Will you bend for me?”
The room just got noisier as folks picked up spoon after spoon and spoke out loud to each one, “Will you bend for me?” Once they all seemed to settle on the spoon of their choice (or did the spoons choose them?), they were directed to “hold the spoon vertically and shout, ‘Bend! Bend!’ Once intimidated by being shouted at, the spoon was to be rubbed gently between our fingers and pretty soon it would bend.”
The room became even noisier and more chaotic. There was laughter amidst skepticism. There was some frustration as guests noticed some spoons actually were responding to their holders’ demands.
Crichton was about to give up. In fact, he looked away as he continued to rub his spoon. But when he returned his gaze, he could see that the bowl of the utensil was, indeed, bending, folding around his fingers. He had provided no pressure to it, only rubbing and yelling.
After that, he tried a fork. It bent too. He repeatedly tried the yelling and rubbing with other pieces of kitchen cutlery and all of it bent. After a while, he got tired of it all and just went to get something to eat. “I was… more interested in what kind of cookies they had than anything else.” The whole experience became rather ordinary to him.
A year later, an M.I.T. professor was surprised when Crichton told him he had bent spoons. Thinking it was a trick, the professor said he had heard of such a thing but he wanted to know how it was done. So Crichton reiterated the process to him. The professor inquired why it was that Crichton hadn’t investigated the intricacies of it all. Certainly a man of Crichton’s intelligence would have been curious about it. “I would say that your behavior is a pathological denial of what happened to you. This incredible experience happens to you and you do nothing to investigate it at all?”
Science can explain much, but it can’t explain everything. I suppose I could argue that cause and effect could be applied to virtually every situation in life and the theory may even be true. But cause and effect alone do not necessarily explain why we have every experience we have or why. There are times when, search as we may, we cannot find a cause for all of the goodness or, conversely, all of the badness that happens to us or to those we love and those we love not so much.
I have often thought of a work situation I was in where decisions were made by the powers that be that made absolutely no sense, where people were promoted without regard to their actual abilities, where meanness seemed to result in accolades, where bullying was applauded because, no matter what, the actions were a means to a suitable end. In frustration, I sat down one day with my office neighbor and expressed my frustration. Her response was simple: “Gretchen, what goes around comes around.”
I took that to mean that those who cut corners and hurt others in the process would somehow meet their own reckoning. Over the years I have taken little heart in that. First, I know it is wrong of me to ever wish ill upon anyone no matter how much I dislike them or they have hurt me. Such desires only serve to hurt me even more. Second, I’ve seen little or no evidence that “what goes around comes around.” At least not in this life. And if it did and resulted in someone getting hurt (no matter how hurtful he or she was), I could not take solace in that.
Crichton simply replied to the M.I.T. professor that he doesn’t go around investigating why everything in the world happens. He said with a room full of people all doing the same thing, it all seemed rather ordinary, even boring.
I saw recently an observation from someone who said she was going to make a voodoo doll of herself and give it a nice back massage. If we believe that bent spoons are some kind of psychic phenomena that can be explained, perhaps using a voodoo doll for a good purpose might have a truly positive effect. What if we were to make a voodoo doll of someone who has hurt us and give it a nice back massage? Might it result in a kinder, less frustrated, less angry person? Or what if we were to anonymously donate a nice back massage to someone we dislike or who has wronged us?
From my perspective, I have a difficult time understanding the cause and effect of words that come from the mouth of presidential candidate Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, it is clear that he can say just about anything he wants to say, insult just about anyone he wants to insult, express anger and words of revenge toward individuals of his choosing or groups of them. He just keeps raking in the crowds and the votes. Candidate Marco Rubio tried that for about a week during the campaign and aimed his hurtful words in Trump’s direction. It not only backfired on Rubio who has since bowed out, but he felt that he hurt not only people he loved, but himself. That kind of conduct was contrary to the kind of person he is.
Some people are wealthy in material goodness because they have worked very hard for it. Some have inherited it. Some have cheated others for it. Those of us who eat regular meals, have a roof over our heads, have friends and family who love us may have earned all of that, we may have, in some ways, inherited it, we may have intimidated others into providing it all for us, or we may have just been given it. “What goes around comes around” doesn’t fit. Those who are struggling to find something to eat or clean water to drink, a piece of clothing to cover their nakedness or to keep them warm, a safe place to lay their heads, a freedom to worship as they choose – is there always a cut and dried explanation for all of that? Why was I born into a middle-class family in the United States and not into a struggling, starving, and persecuted family in the Middle East, or as a girl into millions of families in nations where girls are worthless?
There is little reason, like bent spoons, to investigate. And, like Crichton, we become bored with it all.
I did not know him, but I suspect that Crichton would have felt differently about people than he did about kitchenware. That’s the difference for all of us. While we cannot explain why certain things happen to the material or even to the physical, we don’t need explanations to know how we must respond to all kinds of people who are in need, whether that need is physical or emotional.
The problem is that we have become bored with it. Perhaps that’s why we resonate so much with the words of a presidential candidate who can toss people aside like yesterday’s newspaper. It’s much easier to hate than to love. Hate doesn’t require an explanation. But love? To explain why we love someone who has hurt us or has absolutely no connection to us or who we only know through fearful eyes as we see them on television news awaiting execution? That takes some doing.
What goes around comes around might work better if we think of it not so much as a closed circle, but as a home with an open door through which we can come and go and through which we can welcome the stranger, the hungry, the poor, the mentally ill.
People can be just like bent spoons. There may be no explanation for how any of us got that way or we may never know that explanation. People who are mean and ruthless are clearly bent spoons. Regardless, it shouldn’t matter. We are all called by God to help straighten the paths for all of those who struggle.
And if we think that what goes around comes around has anything to do with the afterlife, we had better pause to remember that judgment belongs to the Lord.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? — Job 38:4-7