Friday, December 01, 2006


(News-Herald, November 30)Humans love to make stuff up. We spend about 80% of our lives making stuff up and then acting as if that made-up stuff is Really Important.
I’m not just talking about silly garbage that you can catch on cable channels like E or in magazines like People, where millions of people convince themselves that the color of Britney’s boots qualifies as Real Important.
We create objects, make up customs, invent a variety of activities that we invest with great amounts of time, care, and worry. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of distracting ourselves with stupid stuff like brand name t-shirts.
No, I think we humans have an interest in something larger, better, more infinite. I think we are repeatedly drawn to that 20% of life that is Something True, but we can’t quite figure out how to get there. So we make widgets.
We make widgets because we believe that the widgets, somehow, open up a door to what is real and true and important.
Sports are a widget, a big useless endeavor that has no deep and lasting value. Yet, somehow, in the middle of some of the strain and sweat, we can find something true about human strength and spirit and effort. Music is another widget, a pattern of sound that can beautiful and moving or cold, heartless plastic. We keep at that widget because there is something in it about beauty and humanity.
Money is a widget, a made-up construct that for some comes close to the truth because it opens a door on power and control. Even religion can be a widget, human beings’ made-up way to get closer to the truth of God.
We love our widgets; we each have our set of widgets that we think are most important, and our own deep-held beliefs about how those widgets should be groomed and cared for and preserved. Lots of us lose sight of the true thing that the widget is supposed to lead us to, and we become pre-occupied with the widget itself. We become devoted to the made-up foolishness that we humans do so well. Once upon a time this was called idolatry; nowadays we call it addiction or obsession or commitment.
Human history is filled with stupid widget arguments. Can a woman be a priest? Should a king be allowed to divorce? Should native Americans be allowed to run casinos? And what about that designated hitter?
There are times when events cut through the widget haze. After death or tragedy, people usually realize that a whole lot of things just aren’t important. Facing Really Bad stuff gives us great clarity, and we see the widgets for the artificial trivialities that they are.
But it never lasts. The clarity fades, the fog rolls in, and we get all excited about stupid stuff all over again.
It would be easy—and many have done it—to dismiss that 80% of human experience and activity, to say “It’s just a bunch of widgets. It’s stupid. I’m not going to pay attention at all.” And lots of people, many rather cynical and cranky, kick the table over and do so.
That’s where it gets tricky. Because behind every widget is a person who really believes in that widget. That person has invested some of their hearts and souls and spirit in the widget. The widget itself may well be stupid, fake, and artificial. It may be completely worthless. But the person who stands behind it is not.
Your three-year-old brings you a pie plate full of mud, announcing in a voice filled with pride and love that this is the world’s best apple pie. Now, you know a mud pie when you see one. But you take the pie, treat it like it’s made of gold, maybe even take a little muddy taste.
The pie has no value. It’s mud in a pie plate. But because that child has put heart and soul into it, you treat the pie with kindness and respect and love, because that’s how you want to treat the child.
Same thing with widgets.
Widgets are empty, hollow constructions, but we pour parts of our hearts and soul into that empty container, and it is impossible to smash the container without hurting the heart that some living person has poured into it.
So there is one of the great challenges of life—to not become so distracted and hoodwinked by the widgets that we waste our time on foolishness, and at the same time not to run roughshod over our fellow human beings. The greatest irony of all is that, sometimes, widgets, through no one’s intentions, are the best tool we have for touching each other.

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