Difficulty

Finding the proper difficulty level for a task often involves a delicate act of judgment. Kierkegaard said that he intended to make Christianity as difficult as possible without making it any more difficult than it actually is. I read a blog this morning about things men like about the Orthodox church, and one of them was that it’s difficult, and in some ways becomes increasingly so the longer one participates in it — or becomes difficult in different ways. They’re pleased that we get up at dawn, skip breakfast, and then stand for two or three hours, listening to difficult theological formulations chanted in a foreign scale. They think it’s pretty cool that if the deacon lights his hair on fire in the middle of a litany he’ll keep reading anyway and hope someone will see and put it out so that he doesn’t have to interrupt the prayers. They like that we’re expected to take God seriously, but not sentimentially. Well, ok, so do I — this stuff is kind of fantastic.

But, of course, not everybody feels that way. If they did, churches wouldn’t have to be always asking how to be more “seeker friendly.” They would just suppose that if the seeker is serious enough he’ll keep seeking, even if he has to learn all kinds of complicated liturgics and theology in a foreign language to do it. But it’s no good for necessary things, like church attendance, to be so difficult as t be impossible for a large segment of the population. So then churches must discern how show Christianity to be really worth pursuing, without making it less difficult than it actually is.

Yet I wasn’t thinking about this on account of Christianity, but on account of school. I don’t much care for precise assignments, because then I have to insist upon so many different things at the same time. But assignments have to be precise enough that students show whether they can do what I’m trying to teach them to do. So, being new and inexperienced, I tend to be precise about projects that I understand, and less so with assignments of the seasonal/school competition/hall display kind. That way students who really care can be creative and perhaps win or have their art in the hall or whatever, and the students who don’t can get some kind of a B. That seemed reasonable to me. But then I grade things, and realize that I didn’t articulate what I was doing to the students, so they’re angry that I said they could do something and then I give them an A- or a B+ for doing it. Apparently I should try to remember, when I’m agreeing to whatever it is they’re trying to do, to also tell them that they’ll get graded down for that. Well, that they might. I mean, it all depends on how well they do it. And that’s the thing. I don’t want to be arbitrary, but it all depends on how you do whatever it is you’re going to do, and there’s no such thing as a sure thing in art, just like in writing. Keeping to the sure thing is a sure path to mediocrity. So I suppose I should give out rubrics of some kind, which are a pain. They’re mostly a pain because they give students something to challenge my judgment on, which several of them have an interest in. So that brings me back to being very precise, which brings me back to having to insist on things I don’t much care to insist on.

A friend wrote a blog post today about the amount of work that’s required to properly design complicated systems. Apparently the Boeing 747 took some 10,000 “person-years” of design time. Boeing mist have had a great many people working on it, though, since it only took 3 actual years to design. Of course, engineers working on airplanes have to do their work carefully and properly, or risk people’s lives. There are lots of other tasks that should take a long time if they’re done properly, but we get by for a long time doing a shoddy job — not always because we’re lazy, but also because doing the work properly will take much longer than the task is worth, or simply because that much time isn’t available. It takes a lot more time, for instance, to write a very good essay than most of us are willing to put into it — so we get by however we can. I once heard that in most tasks there’s something called the 80/20 rule (the one for time: there’s another 80/20 rule for personnel, saying that 20% of your workers will do 80% of the work), that says the first 20% of one’s work results in 80% of the results, and then 80% of one’s work results in the remaining 20% of one’s results. Those of us doing the kind of work not involving people’s lives and millions (billions?) of dollars worth of equipment may well call 80% finished good enough. I know I do.

Ι wasn’t so much interested in the matter of time, though, as in the obvious and yet often ignored fact that some tasks are difficult simply because they are, in fact, difficult. Some ways of life are as well, and I count Christianity among them. But I’ve often had the experience of asking why something — writing, teaching, praying, whatever — is difficult for me, to at length realize: oh, wait, it’s because it’s a difficult thing. I have that experience often when reading books by Christian saints. I start thinking: why is it difficult for me to be a Christian? And then, there it is: it’s difficult because… being Christianity is a difficult thing. That’s why I found it encouraging to know that St Augustine found teaching to be difficult and unpleasant, George MacDonald found the chief value in tutoring was that he had an opportunity to suffer with perseverance, and Simone Weil was a bad factory worker. They’re all much brighter and harder working than I. I was excited several years ago to learn from St Theophan and others that prayer isn’t just difficult because I’m singularly deficient — I mean, yes, it’s difficult because I’m sinful, but not mysteriously, uncommonly so — but because prayer is actually difficult for us sinners, and that it’s necessary to work at it. That, in itself, answered a multitude of questions.

It is, in some ways, a tremendous relief to be able to recognize that difficult things, taking much work and vigilance, are indeed difficult. Art is hard. Well, good art — the kind of art worth making — is hard. It’s also joyful, but that doesn’t take away from its difficulty. Seeing is hard. That’s why art is so hard — it’s difficult to really see what’s out there with any intensity, since it’s always there. We can get by with only seeing what we have to. Even in art class, one can get a B or a C only seeing what one has to. Feeling with intensity and precision is hard. I would that I’d known that when I was a teen attending church youth camps. Knowing oneself is hard. Writing well is hard. What we want of ourselves is usually just a bit better than what we can actually do with a great deal of effort. Or at least that’s been my experience. Being slothful, I’m often disappointed. I don’t put in an extra 80% effort in order to write a polished essay, paint a lovely painting, or write a precise rubric.

I’m glad I was in craft clubs as a teen, because in them I not only learned how to do various useful and attractive crafts, but also because I began to learn a scale of effort and result. I could do a project and get a red ribbon, simply because I had done it and pretty much knew what I was doing; or I could do it properly, with attention, and get a blue ribbon; or I could be interested in it for its own sake, interested in pushing out the edges of what I knew about the craft, put in details and final touches, and get a purple rosette; sometimes I could do it with all those details, and in a way that was unexpected, that was creative and required thoughtful design, and perhaps, if it was noticeable enough, get some kind of glass vase. I tend to equate this with grades, with the purple rosette as full points on an assignment. Perhaps I’m wrong, though, when art is required. When there’s a complex system of rewards and punishments, as with grades and all the coercion surrounding them, one ought only grade on that upon which one is willing to insist, I suppose.

As it happens, there isn’t very much on which I would be readily willing to insist. That makes me a rather poor manager. It may be when one has to insist that every person do something, then one forfeits the ability to insist very strongly upon how they shall do it. Yesterday I went to an Orthodox women’s monastery in Safford for their feast day. They had a lovely Liturgy followed by a lovely meal followed by a lovely visit to their bookstore. I was struck by the way in which the manner in which we were supposed to behave was communicated, even to the children, silently, simply by the way everyone did in fact behave; the children mostly already knew how to behave in church and had been raised in it. They stood silently, moved gently, ate quietly; came and went and venerated in proper order and with decorum. I was struck by the contrast between how well brought up children behave in such a situation — three or four hours with hardly a word, because we moved straight from the church in procession to a meal where a nun read the life of St Paisius as we ate — with how students in some classes behave at school, with even a 40 minute class an endurance contest in quelling small fires. Of course, there are many reasons for that; one that seems fairly important is that only people and families who really want to participate, and are willing to go to some trouble, are there. If one is unwilling to endure the order of the monastery, one can simply leave — or if she is a child she could leave and be scolded by her parents. I don’t very well know what the priests or nuns would be willing to insist upon — a great deal, I expect — because I’ve never seen it tested. but when people are busy trying to do things well rather than trying to get out of doing things, it’s possible for something like being a Christian to successfully be as difficult as it actually is.

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