I was stuck in traffic, on Jewel Avenue just a ways up the road from home. Four lanes narrowed into two, the off ramps from the Van-Wyke expressway were rerouted and a large man in hard a hat and work boots stood sentinel, randomly halting traffic with his little stop sign. Cars, trucks and buses that normally cruised along this overpass meekly crawled.
I’m ok with traffic in general but not all traffic I created equally. My commute was almost over and I had been standing for over an hour after a tough day. “Why am I not home already?” I wondered as we crept along while an abrasive jackhammer ‘s “ratatatat” rang in my ears. Then there was that guy unintentionally(?) who nudged into me each time the bus lurched forward. I wished I had walked.
I don’t mind road work; I get it, they’re fixing the road (I think?). I mind not knowing why I’m going through all the trouble. If they had done a better job of explaining their purpose, how long the construction would take, why they were digging up the road, or why what was being done was an improvement, I think the ride would be that much easier to bear. I wanted a sense of progress, rational and goal, what I got was an uncomfortable, awkward experience. Such is the NYC DDC (Department of Design and Construction).
I craved feedback. Creative guru Don Norman explained that feedback is a nearly indispensable element of all successful design. Whenever you hear a mouse “click”, see elevator buttons light up or have that spinney-thing on the computer screen, you are experiencing feedback. These tiny elements are reassurances that tell the user something was accomplished. Feedback is quite ubiquitous yet goes unnoticed on a conscious level. Just imagine how unsatisfying it would be if iPhones didn’t make that snappy shutter sound effect each time you took a picture.
We thirst for feedback, that’s why some people keep pressing that elevator button, lean precariously over the yellow line to peer down the subway tunnel or keep checking their phone. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting feedback but we must also realize that our demand for it has grown to the point where we now expect to know exactly how long our traffic delay will be, when our package from Amazon will come, what the weather will be like three months from now in Tel-Aviv or how many calories we burned walking up the stairs (because you don’t trust that no-good elevator button). Those are just the more healthy examples. Here’s the thing, feedback is a wonderful security blanket but we are oversaturated with it and it has ultimately dulled our tolerance for uncertainty to the point where we forgot how great uncertainty is.
These and other forms of unhealthy feedback actually make us less happy. Sometimes the very uncertainty that we are dodging can be a truer, more direct route to pleasure. A study recently showed how subjects felt happier when they anticipated an undetermined outcome rather than when they expected the same stimulus. To put it another way, we are happier waiting for that box of whatever coming from Amazon than we are the moment we have it.
Back to feedback, I wonder if our jones for all that information has hindered us spiritually. Take prayer in the digital age for instance. After praying we’d like to expect to see a light to go off indicating if our prayers were accepted (red for “no”, green for “yes”). But God -as I understand him- is not this bearded old man in an ivory throne room, hunched over his iPhone X, deciding to “like” our requests or not.
Besides, this kind of feedback would gut the whole experience of prayer because uncertainty is a key component. Uncertainty is an important ingredient to belief. When we pray, we need to trust our requests are heard, trust that God is listening, trust that he is behind everything. The thing is, he works on his timetable, not ours and time takes time.
I believe that whatever happens, it’s all by design, done with precision accuracy.
“KAPLOW!” just like that God can upend the status quo but, yeah, God can be demonstrative but he prefers to be subtle. I think he does give feedback just not in ways that we are completely attuned to.
Think of prayer like planting a seed. When a seed is put in the ground nobody expects it to shoot forth from, fully developed. We are not in a Garden of Eden and our reality is that there are no hot loaves of bread growing on trees. Things take time. When we pray or try to do something, remember: we are planting a seed that may not sprout immediately or even in our lifetime.
About 200 years ago, there lived a great man by the name of Rav Aryeh Leib Eiger-he is often affectionately known as “Reb Leibele”. Rav Leibel went to learn from the great Chassidic Rabbi, Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.
There is quite a backstory as to how bold a move it was back then to leave home to learn Chassidus. Suffice to say it did not sit well with many people in Rav Leibel’s family.
After being away for a time, he finally returned home from Kotzk, but not long after his homecoming began, he was derisively chided about his trip.
“Well, you spent all that time in Kotzk, so what did you learn?”
Rav Leibel responded confidently: “I learned that there is a God in heaven”
“That’s what you learned? Any young girl knows that!”
To prove this point, a little girl was summoned and she was asked: “Tell us, where is God?”
Confused, the girl shyly gestured upwards and said: ” In heaven. God’s in heaven”
The challenge concluded: “You traveled all that way to Kotzk, spent all that time with your Rebbe just to learn what a little girl already knew? You could have stayed here and just asked her!”
Rav Leibel replied with stone-cold conviction: “She can say it, I know it! (In yiddish, it sounds even better: Zi Zagt, Ikh Visn!”)
We won’t always know, but we can start believing. I don’t believe in the DDC, but I do believe in God. Our technology is helpful but sometimes it’s just a neat trick to make us feel like we have control when we really have none. There is uncertainty and I’m learning to embrace it. Let’ try to more happily anticipate whatever feedback we get because whatever we get, it’s for the best.