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The Widening Gyre

Our lives are literally spinning out of control. Why is this and how are we supposed to live in it? Greg discussed exponential growth, J curves, and living inside the widening gyre.

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Greg began a two-part sermon this week by talking about the “J curve” and how many aspects of our world are following the pattern described by a J curve. Historically (before the scientific revolution, which is the majority of human history), information and “progress” measured by quality of life, average standards of living, etc., have been best described as linear. A linear equation works like this: 2 + 2 = 4, + 2 equals 6, + 2 = 8 and so forth. But since the scientific revolution, we have been on a J curve which increases not by steady increments of addition, but rather by factors. So, rather than 2 + 2 = 4, we have 2 x 2 = 4, which starts out looking similar, but quickly outruns the linear pattern by a wide margin. The very next step, 2 x 2 x 2 = 8, x 2 = 16 begins to show this. As this develops and we chart it on a graph, the linear pattern is that of a straight line steadily increasing over time, the J curve spikes upward until there is no more potential for growth. Because resources to sustain the growth of a J curve are always finite, the limit inevitably emerges, and then there is a crash.

Some examples of things describable by a J curve include the increase of information (esp. in the last 20 years), the complexity and specialization of various fields of study, Gross National Product, taxes withheld by the IRS, federal debt, defense spending, bankruptcies, bank closings, cost of homes, cost of health care, number of prisoners, number of divorces, volume of mail, volume of junk mail, advertising, new books, air miles traveled, foreign travel, travel by car, number of cars, population of the world, population of the US, destructive power of our weapons, maximum speeds of our vehicles…

Greg gave an analogy of a falcon on a tether flying in a circular pattern called a “gyre.” As the falcon gets farther and farther away from the center (the falconer), control is decreased, though clearly the range of the circle increases. The parallel is that the various things Greg described as following a J curve are like a widening gyre that continually increases but pulls us further and further away from the center. On the positive side of this are the gains made by progress, but the negative side is that the control is decreased and the center is weakened to the point of threatening to lose the connection between the center and the falcon.

Greg asked the question, what drives these J curves? Much of it is in the name of progress. “More, faster, better” and the cycle is begun. The more sophisticated explanation is that through differentiation (separating out different aspects of a problem or situation) we see an increase in complexity which requires more specialized expertise, and the demand is for greater speed because of the competition. This results in faster and faster differentiation and increase in complexity. A concrete example is that a current MP3 player (very specific application of technology for storage and playback of music) is hundreds of times more powerful than the earliest laptops from the eighties.

Comfort and convenience can be results of this sort of progress, but with all of the tools that can be used for good, there are ways that they can be used for evil as well. The internet demonstrates this powerfully. Though we can easily find information that was simply out of reach for most people 10 years ago, the access to pornography is much easier and more anonymous than it has ever been as well.

The best way to see the problem is to find its contrast. Greg spoke of the life of a typical Cambodian Christian he encountered on his recent trip. He drew a diagram with concentric circles drawn around the person, each representing various aspects of this person’s life. Though the circumstances of this person’s life are not enviable, indeed the poverty is devastating, one aspect of this way of life is admirable: the simplicity of a life that is centered and relatively stress free. There are not many choices to be made. The man must live where he does, he must do the work he can find (in this case peeling garlic), he will have overlap between nearly all of his social relationships because he is not really mobile: church, family, friends and so forth. The second diagram Greg drew was of the typical American Christian, and it was immediately evident that the circles were not all centered on the person in the middle. Rather, the person was pulled in every direction by various needs, concerns, and desires: both of the individual and that of the family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and so forth. (Many of whom did not know each other, so there was very little overlap across these contexts.) A person like this will have very stressful decisions to make and will have to enforce boundaries almost all the time if any semblance of sanity is to be maintained.

As Greg mentioned, another one of the J curve phenomena is that there are 10 times as many counselors as there were in 1980. The center is not holding for many Americans. Here are some of the stressful contexts where decisions must be made for most Americans: job (includes coworkers and activities related to work), spouse, kids (with all the activities, medical concerns, etc.), community, vacation, bills, maintenance and repairs of home-car-etc., school, exercise, prayer, church, friends, etc… all of these require time, decisions, commitments, locations, problems, cares; all-in-all, they all involve a certain degree of stress.

The effect of all of this is that we are worn down physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. We are “hyper-living.”

So what do we do about it? Greg closed with two of the four responses we can have to this.

1. “Live awake and with hope, for the second coming is at hand.”

J curves do collapse themselves. The system will hit its max and then come back down. The question is what will the effect be? We do know that we are to live each day as if the Lord may return. The Bible frequently reminds us to stay awake and to have hope because for followers of Christ, the second coming is Good News indeed. It is an end to the chaos and destruction we witness in this life.

2. “Identify ‘the Widening Gyre’ as a spiritual warfare issue.”

Second Tim. 2:6 reminds us not to be ignorant of the schemes of the enemy. Chaos is a scheme of the enemy against the order and peace that God desires for the world. We cannot be fully alive and all that God wants us to be if our lives are better described by chaos than by peace, deliberation, and purpose.

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Topics: Simplicity

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