December 25, 2007

Peering Into The Manger

As I write this post, Christmas is rapidly drawing to a close. I had a great Christmas this year, and I hope that you have as well (if you celebrate Christmas, that is). And I have a question for you as another Christmas ends:

Who did you see in the manger?

A Baby In The Manger
Each year, we are drawn to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the one who would grow to become our savior by reconciling the sins of man with a holy God. When we read the Gospel accounts of the nativity story, many of us see a beautiful baby boy, dreamily sleeping as shepherds and wise men graciously visit him with gifts and reverence.

And if on Christmas you see a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, then I would humbly ask you to look deeper into the manger to discover the full wonder of the Christmas story.

God Almighty In The Manger
All too often, we see the baby in the manger and forget that there is more to the story -- the baby Jesus is also God! For me, this is what makes the story of Christmas indescribably marvelous.

In our daily lives, we constantly seek to improve our skills and increase our learning so that we may steadily improve our station. We seek ever to improve our influence and our importance among our fellows. We strive to know more, have more and to be more.

But imagine having created the entire universe and all that exists within it. Imagine having ultimate power and perfect knowledge. God had it all, and yet lowered himself to the smallest possible position of humanity so that he might elevate us.

This is the miracle of Christmas: that God chose to come from Heaven to Earth, placing himself among us as a baby so that we may one day leap from Earth to Heaven.

The Christmas Spirit
Our need must truly be great if a supremely powerful being must take such a surprising and humbling action to broker a reconciliation to him!

Often, we don't realize the depth of our need. Often, we don't recognize sin's poinsonous influence in ourselves. In a world where people daily carry out atrocities against each other, like a serial killer that coolly slays his victims solely for the joy of watching them die at his hands, it can be pretty easy for us to look at ourselves and think that we are basically good people.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we can readily see that we fail each day to abide by God's precepts. He asks for us to merely put our trust in Him and to treat each other with loving kindness. Yet we find that we often fail to do so or miss opportunities where we could have done so, despite our honest desire to do good.

And yet, despite our great failings, God has already done the work required to reconcile us to him and view us as holy and blameless, beginning with his work on Christmas day.

How then should we respond to the miracle of Christmas? I believe the most appropriate response is, in gratitude to God for his extraordinary love, to reach out to each other with loving kindness and to renew our trust in God -- for he has shown himself worthy, time and time again.

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December 18, 2007

Impossibility Is An Impossibility

If somebody were to claim that he could turn lead into gold through the power of concentrated thought, what would you think about that claim? You'd think it was impossible, right?

Then you would be wrong!

A Matter Of Semantics

Lest you should think that this article is about startling advances in the field of alchemy, allow me to explain: it's a matter of semantics.

It is certainly improbable that lead can be turned to gold at all, much less with only the power of thought. It could also accurately be called unlikely, impractical or unrealistic.

Impossibility, however, is difficult to make a case for. For a thing to be impossible, it must not be able to happen, by anyone or anything, at any time, under any circumstances. To confidently declare a thing to be impossible is to assume way too much about the quantity and quality of what we know.

Standards of Knowledge

Claims regarding possibility and impossibility carry with them implicit demands for knowledge. To say a thing is possible, for instance, asks for a very broad range of knowledge. The standard is only can such a thing happen, ever? If it has happened even once, it is then known to be possible. The circumstances that made it possible may not be fully understood, but it happened. It may not even be known if it will ever happen again, or when. All that is known about a thing that is possible is that it could happen again. The degree of understanding required to define possibility is very small indeed.

Compare that to a thing that is imminent. To correctly declare an event to be imminent requires a wealth of knowledge about the factors and circumstances that typically lead to such an occurrence. You have to know so much about an event that you can readily understand the patterns that lead to it -- indeed, to understand it well enough to know that there are patterns involved.

To say that a thing is uncommon also implies some degree of knowledge about the event. To say it is uncommon implies that it does in fact happen, and that you've seen it happen often enough to understand its frequency of occurrence. Implicitly, it means that such a thing actually happens quite often -- just not as often as other more likely outcomes under similar circumstances.

But impossibility is a breed unto itself. Impossibility demands that a thing will not occur under any circumstances and at any time. Therefore, to accurately claim that a thing is impossible implicitly demands total knowledge -- certainty of impossibility demands omniscience!

In essence, impossibility is an impossibility. If we are intellectually honest with ourselves, we're forced to admit that we don't know enough about what we know to know what we don't know enough about.

Mistaken Impossibility

Often, when we say that a thing is impossible, what we actually mean is that it is difficult to achieve or that it has not been achieved in the past.

But take note! A thing that has never happened, even after a large number of attempts, does not qualify as a thing that is impossible. All that we can be certain of is that we have not yet discovered the conditions that would make such a thing possible.

If we were to mistake what seems to be impossible for what truly is impossible, we would put a permanent end to innovation and advancements in all fields of thought and scientific advancement. If people allowed themselves to stop at what seemed impossible, we would not have airplanes, wireless handheld computers or genetically engineered wheat, to name only a few examples.

Impossibility and Sensibility

But even in a world where impossibility is uncertain, there must also be sensibility. For instance, it wouldn't be sensible to doggedly continue to attempt something, taking your encouragement solely from the prospect that nothing is impossible. Although things may not technically be impossible, they can still be practically impossible.

Consider the case of alchemy. Many people in history have wasted many efforts attempting to turn lead (or other elements) into gold. The track record shows that such a thing is extraordinarily difficult to accomplish. We could continue to fight that fight, armed with the comfortable fact that we do not fully understand quantum mechanics. Indeed, as we continue to learn more about what makes atoms what they are, we may well discover some day that alchemy is ridiculously easy!

But making it happen requires a LOT more knowledge than we currently have. And therefore, it would not be practical to pursue.

An Intelligent Approach to Impossibility

If you want to make the impossible happen, here is a rule of thumb: take it a step at a time.

For instance, if you wish to build a teleportation device, you wouldn't just go to the local surplus store and start putting something together with the expectation that you will get there by trial and error. You need to take it a step at a time!

The first step is to determine not whether a teleporter is possible, but to determine under what conditions a teleporter could be possible. Then, determine what events might create such conditions. Are there things that could be done (by a teleporter, for instance) that could manipulate those factors? Continue working along those lines by nailing down how it could be possible instead of whether or not it is. As the idea becomes more concrete and better understood, then you are ready to approach its particulars.

As you can see, much of the initial investment in such an endeavor is only time and thought. If you put considerable thought into the matter, and you feel that you are no closer to a solution, then you have discovered only that it is beyond your understanding at the time (and not that it is impossible).

Impossibility is Liberating

There's something particularly liberating about the malleable nature of impossibility. Too often, we limit ourselves by claiming that things are "impossible" for us -- even if they are quite simple things! We can feel trapped in a dead-end job and despair that it is "impossible" to get a better job. We can become disheartened after several lousy dates and begin to believe that it is "impossible" to find a person that we belong with. We can look at an overwhelming amount of debt and worry that it would be "impossible" to ever catch up.

But take heart. A sense of impossibility is only an indication that you've given up too soon. It says that you haven't explored all of the avenues yet. Impossibility is a call for greater creativity and for new ways to approach a problem. Remember, impossibility is best tackled when you start with the assumption that it IS possible, and then determine what conditions would make it possible.

It becomes possible to pay off a sizable debt, for instance, when you ask for a much deserved raise, sell your house and apply the proceeds to your debt, live in an apartment or with family while you get back on track, stop eating fast food for lunch, and so on.

It becomes possible to find a better job when you get clear with yourself about the things you don't like about your current job and the things that a new job would have to do to be better. It becomes possible when you define what work you want to do, and then tell everybody you know what you are looking for.

It becomes possible to find the love of your life when you are clear about what kind of a person that would be and brainstorm the kinds of places where a person like that can be found.

Impossibility is only a problem that either hasn't been properly defined or a search for a solution that has not been exhaustive. So, what are the areas in your life where you have allowed the "impossible" to hold you back?

Also At Babblermouth:
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December 11, 2007

Writing A Novel Is Impossible, Then Easy, Then Challenging

As any of my faithful readers may have noticed, my blogging dropped off the face of the Earth toward the end of November. My apologies. I was participating in National Novel Writing Month, an endeavor I highly recommend to anybody.

National Novel Writing Month (affectionately called NaNoWriMo) is a contest of sorts -- its participants are challenged to write 50,000 word's worth of a novel between November 1 and November 30. That's a pace of about 5 pages a day!

The novels don't need to be finished products, or even be good. They only need to exist at the end of the month. There are no prizes for winning. In fact, there isn't even technically a winner.

I've done NaNoWriMo for three years now, and finished two of them. One of the many things I have learned in the process is that NaNoWriMo is a wonderful metaphor for any of life's challenges. NaNoWriMo, like life, is a challenge against yourself. For when you set out to do big things, you are often your biggest obstacle.

In NaNoWriMo, as with any major task, you move through three distinct stages on your way toward your goal: Impossibility, simplicity and challenge.

An impossible challenge
At first glance, a major goal can seem almost impossible. In fact, the subtle fear that its accomplishment may not even be possible is often a good indicator that you are embarking on something significant.

This feeling of impossibility is an important measuring stick, for the value of an action is often relative. Going to the grocery store to pick up some shampoo, for instance, is not normally a significant action. But, if you have spent the past fifteen years struggling with intense agoraphobia, it may well be a life-changing experience.

Remember also that the key here is for a project to seem ALMOST impossible. That can be a fine line, but you will know when you've struck that balance. A balanced goal is characterized by a calm, confident sense from the heart that the project can be done, even though it may seem too big for you on the surface.

An easy challenge
Next, you become surprised by just how easy the project turns out to be. This is the most empowering part of the whole journey, and practically guarantees your eventual success. Sadly, this is the stage that quitters never get to. This is unfortunate, because it is so easy to reach.

We are all familiar with the old maxim that a journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step. In NaNoWriMo, the truth of this leaps into view. If you focused solely on the immense workload that stands ahead of you, you would never dare to begin. But a funny thing happens when you instead focus on a single day's workload. Writing 5 pages, though challenging, is easily done. And when you've written those 5 easy pages, you don't feel like you've done a mere day's worth of work, but actually feel that the entire project's success is within your grasp.

And the real fun happens when you've made it about 25% of the way toward your goal. Those first days of work, in addition to being surprisingly easy, also help to set the tracks for the remainder of the work. You don't realize it at the time, but your early work actually simplifies the work that lies ahead.

In NaNoWriMo, this is clearly evident. In the beginning, you aren't necessarily sure who your characters are, much less what they are or will be doing. But eventually, things in the novel being to take place as a natural result of the things that have transpired in its earlier pages. Soon, it becomes incredibly easy to write a novel -- it practically writes itself! But you will never experience the thrill of being carried off by your goal if you do not take those first steps.

A worthy challenge
Eventually, even the thrill of the surprising ease of your work dies away. And finally, the project becomes a worthy challenge. Though the work may be relatively easy, there is still a lot of it to be done. The question is no longer one of whether or not the goal can be accomplished but whether you are committed to doing the work that needs to be done to get there. You are now locked into a battle of self-discipline.

In NaNoWriMo, there are many reasons to write a novel in such a short period of time. But not all of those reasons will lead to success. If you merely wanted to "try something new", for instance, writing the first 20 pages might be new enough. After that point, it can be very difficult to finish. But if your interest is to train yourself in self-discipline, completing the novel becomes absolutely necessary. What self-discipline have you learned if you quit before the task is done?

The novel gets done only when you diligently sit down at the keyboard (or take pen in hand) day after day, for as long as it takes, until the job is done. That is the ultimate challenge of NaNoWriMo.

Discipline is the key discipline
In every major undertaking, there is a time when the fun disappears. There is a time when the task is no longer easy. There is a time when the reasons no longer seem reasonable. It is at those critical moments when the only thing that stands between you and your goal is the ability to put one more day's work into it despite all of your feelings to the contrary.

Discipline is the one skill that carries you through to the accomplishment of your goal. Discipline is what gives you the courage to keep going, even when you don't feel like it. And you know that your work is not in vain, for nothing compares to the euphoria of accomplishing a major goal.

So, what major goals do you want to accomplish? Do you have the discipline that it takes to accomplish it? The only way to know is to get started -- and to keep going.

Also at Babblermouth:
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