Getting the theory right

“Good strategies need a clear problem definition”. This is a brilliant insight and applicable to all contexts. Although, I copied it from Jesper Johnsøn’s book Anti-Corruption Strategies in Fragile States which obviously addresses a very specific kind of a problem. As Johnsøn points out, the definitions of fragility of the World Bank and the EU are based on a country’s performance in terms of traditional development outcomes, such as GDP, failing to capture the defining challenges of fragile states. How can you implement anti-corruption policies if you measure the wrong indicators of the context in which you are operating? Successful outcomes must start with sound theories, while implementation too is critical.

Let’s apply this wisdom to the context of, well, life. Have a look at the words on the following list:

misplaced shame

Aren’t these issues that we’re all battling with? How? What’s our theory of the root cause here? And how are we addressing it?

Or, maybe we are on the contrary concentrating our efforts precisely to defend some of these issues in our personal lives. Anxiety, shame (not only misplaced but all), despondency (for non-native English speakers like myself, this is close to hopelessness or lowness of spirits), and perhaps even bitterness (= category one) are commonly regarded in our culture as problems people are encouraged to address in their lives. However, in my observation the same doesn’t apply to pride, impatience, covetousness, or lust (= category two) in the context of our “post-truth” culture (note that the term ‘post-truth’ was named as the Word of the Year 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary).

Anxiety and the rest of the issues in category one are experienced in association with subjective discomfort and suffering, which is why they are seen as negative, deserving efforts of eradication. Instead, the items in category two, namely pride, impatience, covetousness and lust have a rather normative flair, lacking a direct association with the affliction of the agent. On the very contrary, not getting what you want, now, is considered to cause distress, which the advertisement industry is making a great advantage of.

The normative tone of category two is what I believe causes it to be treated differently from category one. This is, in my understanding, produced by a perceived lack of an objective truth characterizing our culture. In our time, universal and absolute norms are replaced by subjective and relative ones, the universal ones being disposed as limitations to the capacity of the individual to live his/her life to the fullest. However, all life (including the social sphere and individual psyche) function on the basis of a logic (like the rest of the universe – ask any physicist), and breaking these rules works against the things we might consider good and beautiful, such as relationships, peace, or balance of ecosystems.

For instance, acting on the basis of lust, leading to adultery, destroys marriages, pride is an erosive power in friendships, and covetousness can lead to wars (think of ‘blood diamonds’…) and over-production of goods we could live without (think of pollution causing climate change). When God is dismissed as a secondary priority, irrelevant, relative, impossible to know about, or non-existent, human beings navigate in life, driven by their temporary, subjective conception of morality which is likely to contradict itself from time to time. (I include relative in the above list as well, for relative “pick and choose” gods are basically extensions of the individuals themselves, reflecting what they would like their universe to look like, which is not a solid basis for a world that serves all human beings and life in general.)

In this way I may end up embracing harmful choices which are wired to be followed by respective corrosive effects. Massive sufferings are experienced amidst dysfunctional relationships, numerous obsessions, and a restless mind burdened with crashing fears and purposelessness. Now the chances of getting out from these metaphorical dead ends rely on the extent to which one can see into their core. Some years back, I felt deeply troubled with my life. I had walked a long way to get into this swamp in which I was left to deal with the bad fruit of my choices without knowing which ones of them hadn’t been right. I had definitely tried out some remedies, such as yoga, meditation and rigorous exercise, and while some had felt helpful in that moment, nothing had had the capacity to produce a fundamental breakthrough. The problem was I didn’t know the how and what for I – and everybody else – had been built. I would have kept working on the implementation part of the picture– life skills someone would say – unless a totally different theory of life would have come so inescapably in my face. Being exposed to the biblical foundations of Christianity finally put my situation analysis upside down.

Now returning to the connection between the words on the list, pastor John Piper says, they essentially share the same root cause. In his book Battling Unbelief he explains that behind all these issues, there is essentially a lack of faith in the grace God has promised everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their savior (Romans 3: 22-26). For, our purpose is to live in a personal relationship with God who is the source of all life, yet from whom we have been separated by loving something or someone else more than him (this is called ‘sin’ in the Bible). Imagine what happens to a flower cut off from its water source and you see why this separation is such a huge problem. In fact, only God himself could fix this relationship by coming himself to the earth to live a life of a human being and to pay the price on our behalf. This is why Jesus had to die, for the price of sin is death, but he not only died but was also raised from dead. So now our job is to believe in him and what he has done for us to become reconciled with God.

As Piper put it, finding out about this surprising theory is like seeing a doctor who tells you you’ve got cancer. It’s bad news if you had lived your life to date basing it on another view of life – and extremely good news because now at least you got the theory right and can get started with the correct implementation (see Johnsøn above), addressing the root cause, which means, metaphorically, fight the cancer for real.

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