Discovering Beautiful Accuracy
Discovering Beautiful Accuracy: January 15, 2017
Years ago I attended a conference at Kanuga Conference Center with Jon Meacham as a featured speaker. Mr. Meacham was a college classmate of mine, though I doubt he would have recognized my name in that small sphere, certainly not 15 years later. And that was before he won a Pulitzer prize.
Truth be told, I went despite, not because of, Mr. Meacham. I was disparaging of his fame; skeptical of his prominence. I’d known him when, you know. Or, I had been aware of him when. Probably, in hindsight, he wasn’t any worse than 90% of the other fraternity boys on campus. And there’s this. We both love The University of the South, and he’s done infinitely more for that fantastic institution than I have. Even before that Pulitzer.
Sour grapes. Cause I’d been doing good stuff since college, too. Admittedly, not that good.
Anyway. I went to the conference. And, to my consternation, I liked his presentations. I don’t remember much content. But I do plainly remember one exchange. An adoring elder was introducing him—this wonderful, young Episcopal prodigy—and told some slightly embarrassing story about him meeting his wife. Touring her around Sewanee’s campus as a prospective student. The man ended the anecdote gleefully, amid laughter throughout the conference room, saying, “Isn’t that true?!”
And Jon replied, “Well, it’s true, but not accurate.”
I loved the statement and hated the stater. Loved his cleverness and resented him for being clever. Sour grapes. But I’ve never forgotten his reply. I think because it points to a larger, universal truth beyond the word-play of a clever, learned man.
The exchange came to mind recently as I’ve been mulling over a guided meditation from Tara Brach called Real but Not True: Freeing Ourselves from Harmful Beliefs. She says, "Thoughts and beliefs are navigational maps that are not inherently true. Rather, some serve us and others cause feelings of separation, self-aversion and/or blame of others." I can experience something as real—it’s really happening to me, and I really do feel a certain way about it—but that doesn’t necessarily make the experience true. It’s real for me but not universal.
The similarity of the statements reminded me of Mr. Meacham, and of my antipathy toward him. And since I told you I was resolving to investigate my beliefs, I sat with this animosity for a while. Was it still serving me? Had it ever served me? I knew that the antipathy kicked in on the occasions I heard his name, but it wasn’t as though it hurt him—he neither knew nor should care. It didn’t even hurt his sales, because I’d bought one of his books for my dad. (Though I conveniently never got around to reading it myself.)
I was surprised to find, when I reexamined it, that although the antipathy had been real, at this point it was merely habitual. And I discovered I’ve outgrown it. The feeling is in the past. It’s no longer real nor true, neither true nor accurate. It was freeing to let go of this unexamined antagonism.
For the past year or so, I’ve been nursing a renewed interest in Physics. I just finished the book Genius by James Gleick—a biography of the brilliant theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. One of his lasting accomplishments was creating a type of pictorial representation that shows the mathematical expressions describing the behavior of subatomic particles. Here’s an elegant example of a Feynman Diagram, this one depicting the production and decay of the Higgs particle.
The book is a great read, and I found myself wanting to re-engage with the basics of physics. Thanks to two of Mark’s faculty colleagues at the Governor’s School, I borrowed a copy of a high school Physics textbook that I’m working through. It’s humbling.
Part of the beauty, and the difficulty, of physics is the formal, often mathematical, explanation of observed (or derived) reality. Making sense of the *way* something common is described is a learning curve—not so much learning a new language as refining what I thought I knew about language. That exploration of language is a bonus track in this endeavor.
Last night I was grappling with the terms accuracy and precision. Accuracy is a description of how close a measurement is to the correct/accepted value of the thing being measured. Precision is the degree of exactness of a measurement. The Physics book offered the example of a meterstick.
I suggest you consider a dart board.
At the top there you see the triangular piece numbered 20. If a player trying to land in the 20 wedge throws a dart that lands anywhere in that wedge, it’s an accurate throw. It counts. If the player can land in the double ring on the outside edge—kudos! That’s still accurate, and it’s more precise. We could now go back and amend this paragraph’s first sentence to be both more precise and accurate and call the ‘triangular piece’ a sector.
What if the player aiming for sector 20 consistently lands in the triple 5? Well, that’s super precise, but not at all accurate.
For many years I held a highly precise and, for me, accurate antagonism toward Mr. Meacham. Revisiting it showed me that it remains precise, but is no longer accurate. And *that* realization caused me to reevaluate the precision of my measurement. It no longer measures up. Time has recalibrated my meterstick.
Time has given me the perspective and the grace to begin with the assumption that people are generally trying to live with integrity (wholeness, consistency). I can’t say that I’ve always started with that premise. And here’s the trap. When something becomes consistent and habitual, we stop checking it. And sometimes it loses its accuracy. It no longer serves us.
Sometimes we must give up beautiful precision for messy accuracy on the path to discovering beautiful accuracy. And there’s plenty of Mystery right at hand.
Feynmen, himself, cautioned against losing sight of the broad mysteries by digging too far down a theoretical rabbit hole. He wrote to a correspondent in 1967, “What we are talking about is real and at hand: Nature.” And he went on:
Learn by trying to understand simple things in terms of other ideas—always honestly and directly. What keeps the clouds up, why can’t I see stars in the daytime, why do colors appear on oily water, what makes the lines on the surface of water being poured from a pitcher, why does a hanging lamp swing back and forth—and all the innumerable little things you see all around you. Then when you have learned what an explanation really is, you can then go on to more subtle questions. Gleick, p. 357
Revisiting Physics shows me that I know just enough to glimpse how much I don’t know, which is excitingly uncomfortable— it’s a place of wonder and awe, which seems like a good place for a seeker to be. Sometimes, for me, I find that place more easily in science than I do in the church, which seems to go over and over the old stuff—making a smaller and smaller sector—instead of exploring the stuff that widens, deepens, broadens our understanding of God.
I harbor a deep respect for doctrine. Regular readers will recall my recent wrestling with the Trinity, a whopper of a doctrine. But if we become mired in the minutia of doctrine we run the risk of constantly refining the words instead of clarifying the mystery to which the words point.
At its best, doctrine is a clarified statement of a shared truth. Doctrine must be tempered by personal experience and communal tradition. When a seeker experiences profound love, unexplainable awe, a blinding moment of truth—that’s the accuracy we’re going for as disciples. That’s the bull’s eye. And the purpose of bearing witness to this love is to share the good news, not to codify it. *My* experience isn’t necessarily how *your* experience is obliged to feel/look/sound. It still counts.
When we focus on creeds and resolutions and doctrines with more and more and more precision, we lose the call to faithfulness in our own time and experience. In fact, I believe God gave us a huge sector because there are lots of accurate results possible. Getting mired in precision is a cop out and allows us to ignore at best, and attack at worst, people who may care more about practicing accuracy than theorizing precision. If you’ll notice, whenever Jesus quotes his own scripture, he only addresses the open, inclusive, broadest accuracy. He never gets mired in the splitting hairs precision of the Sadducees or Pharisees; never blesses the violence of the Zealots. There’s a lot more room for grace in accuracy.
I’m starting to think that the range of possible accuracies might look more like this.
This is one of the event displays by which physicists identified that Higgs boson I mentioned earlier. Its nickname is the God particle.
In August, my longtime email account locked me out. I got it running again, but also changed to a new email address. Last week I checked the old inbox and found an important work email I’d missed as well as an email I’d saved from a friend. Clare recommended an article—based on some conversation we’d had in July—and I thought I’d finally check it out. It was on a site called OnFaith, which I hadn’t heard of but was interested to explore. I found that its mission is to provide an online platform of conversation for people wanting to explore and connect on issues of faith. Right up my alley.
Reading further I discovered that this cool platform is an outgrowth of OnFaith at the Washington Post that was founded a decade ago by Sally Quinn and, wait for it, Jon Meacham, who is also an OnFaith Founding Editor & Advisory Board Member.
Sigh. I signed up.
Sometimes, Lord, I like it better when you’re subtle.
.I invite you to reexamine some old assumptions you’ve been hauling around. Are they still accurate? Do they still serve you? Do they help you on the path of, in Mary Oliver’s words, “what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life”?
As for me, I think I’ll be asking Daddy to lend me that book.