Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Do it right

I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies today. I always use the Toll House Recipe; lots of sugar, lots of fat, lots of chocolate. The cookies turned out just fine. How can you go wrong with such splendidly sinful ingredients? But last week, I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies, too. And they were superlative. Puffy, not flat and spread. Ecru, not tan. Why? Why was one different from the next?

I followed the same recipe. I used the same ingredients. Baked them in the same oven at the same temperature for the same amount of time. I was even one more batch experienced at baking when I made this week's batch. Wouldn't all of that auger for a return to glory, the perfect cookie?

It occurs to me that raising children can seem analogous. It would appear that the same ingredients are involved: same genes, same womb, same family. Yet the results vary widely. But we know why that is, don't we? The ingredients aren't exactly the same. There's no generally accepted "right" recipe for raising fine individuals. And, though siblings are similar, they are not chemically and structurally identically.

For that matter, neither are we--the parents. Who can claim to be the same person s/he was three years ago? Experiences change us. The mess of neurons and chemicals otherwise known as our brain changes, dependent on our physical and emotional health (or is it vice versa?) Occasionally, even
we change us. The variables in the equation are endless and almost unknowable.

Some days I find myself acting as though life is a game: success is simply a matter of making the right moves. If I carefully consider my actions and motivations, if I take into account all of the variables involved, the reactions others might have, the location of the sun, what kind of sleep all involved got . . . . If I carefully consider these variables, shouldn't I be able to control the outcome?

The notion that I cannot do so is unacceptable to most of us. Oh, we God-fearing folk talk a good talk about knowing that all good things come to us through grace rather than through our own humble yet noble actions. Lutherans pay obeisance to the notion of freedom gained through the gospel, not law. Last time I checked, though, we are only human and constantly beset by the concept of our own importance looming largest on the stage of life. Obeisance can be a meaningless gesture when placed beside the star of the show.

If we give in to this strange idea that we have little control over how life turns out, what then? Well, it seems damn scary to me. It means that there may not be a heck of a lot of difference between me and the homeless man who often hangs out at the corner of Harlem and the Eisenhower. What if he followed the rules, too, and never added too much flour? What if he went to the right schools, had parents who loved and cared for him? What if he worked hard and helped those less fortunate than he during his good years?

There is something hard and stony in us that rejects this. Most of us, after a few glasses of wine, will confess that we can't abide the thought that we are not, somehow, somewhat in charge of our own destiny. Seems like the admission leaves us flying on the trapeze without a net. Yet how else can we view life? It is patently obvious that we are NOT large and in charge.

Well, ok, maybe
I am large . . . . :-)

But I'm definitely not in charge of anything. I can't even make a perfect cookie, let alone a perfect child or a perfect me. And today, that definitely leaves me uncomfortable. I know the comforting answer of my faith. I know grace. But what about the man hanging out at the corner of Harlem and the Eisenhower? Where is his grace? Why is he hungry and cold while I am not?

Sometimes, I think we seek comforting answers at the expense of those who need comfort.