Collapsing into Detail
I think about problems spatially. I often find myself producing graphs or diagrams or drawings that, in my mind, make everything perfectly clear only to show them to someone else and be shocked by their confusion. Even abstractions get turned into pictures for me. This is especially true of the work I am now doing as a New Testament scholar (am I allowed to call myself that yet?). Most of my day is spent with my face 12 inches from the latest book or article I need to read, and that work is written in turn by someone who has been 12 inches off the surface of something else. And so on.
PHD work is detail work, and detail work can be quite dangerous at times. For one thing, the closer and closer you zoom in the more and more danger there is that you will forget all the layers you moved through to get there. For me, this is particularly evident in my personal bible reading. Its a lot harder than it used to be to just read straight through something. This can be a good thing, but alas, it also has a lot of pitfalls. This was brought to my attention recently from an unanticipated direction.
I spent the last week traveling through Iceland with my dad and brother, both of whom are pretty nuts about geology. I found myself learning all kinds of interesting things about the rocks around me, but in so doing I found myself right back where I was in the office: 12 inches off the surface. Now rocks are nice to look at, I think, at any distance, but one effect the tight focus had on my trip was that I found it harder and harder to just sit back and take in the big views. (This had nothing to do with my traveling companions; I think I was so wired up for that sort of thing it was inevitable.) I kept getting distracted by the questions in the details, and as a result missed out on some stunning vistas. Actually, I shouldn’t say “missed out” because I certainly saw everything around me, but there was a nagging sense of detailed questions (“Why is that rock just so?” “Where did this little shoot of lava come from?”) that added a particular stress to the whole experience.
I had some inkling that this was happening while I was there, but it really hit home when I was able to go through my pictures. I found myself looking at some and thinking, “Was I really there?” Of course of was! but I think I might have had a better time if I had been more aware of what was happening to my thinking, and deliberately enjoyed the best of both worlds.
In a round about way I am trying to say this: detail is incredibly important but shouldn’t make us forget whats going on in the big, wider world. On the other hand, the wider world is only what it is because of all the intricacies that make up its warp and woof. It seems though that my tendency is to collapse all my thinking down into the details, and this is something worth guarding against.
It seems to me that this is true is almost every area of life: relationships, religion, politics, identity, whatever. A good example of where keeping things in perspective helps is in dealing with the recent news flowing out of the United States. In many ways I am grateful to be abroad (I currently live in Scotland) during such tumultuous times because I have a much better sense, I think, of the big picture than I would have at home. The drone attacks, the NSA scandal, the supreme court rulings, and much more all seem, from one particular point of view, to be massive happenings.
I don’t say “from a particular point of view” to minimize any of those particular issues, but merely to point out that in the wider scheme of things (human history, global populations, etc.) they are really only a small piece, even if they exert a lot of influence over global events. I find it very easy to collapse down into the detail of what is happening right in front of us, and this can be very discouraging. I find myself asking, “Is there any future for the Kingdom of God in all of this?” Of course this question is born out of faithlessness, but also out of being overly preoccupied with the immediate events. I think the big picture view reveals a much more encouraging story.