Murphy and Me

Posted on January 15, 2015


“From checking on a shoelace to falling in love, you keep things under control.”  Del Amitri (Life is Full)

I still subscribe to a newspaper.  I mean an actual newspaper that gets delivered to the house every morning.  My main reasons for continuing this practice are 1) I like to read my comics and my bridge column while enjoying my breakfast cereal, and 2) I like my daily Sudoku, crossword, and jumble.  The front page news stories I usually already heard about yesterday.  The carrier usually manages to get the paper somewhere in the vicinity of the driveway.  That means that it could be in the driveway or slightly off into the grass or shrubs.  The sprinklers are on a timer and water the lawn early in the morning.  This is usually not a problem as I generally hit the gym early in the morning so I can grab the paper out of harm’s way before it gets wet.

On a recent morning, I had slept in a little so by the time I was going out to get the paper, the sprinklers had already done their thing.  If you are thinking that my paper was wet, you and I would be on the same wavelength.  However, it was not.  It was lying in the center of the driveway.  I was happy about this, but it also struck me as odd.  You see, I have this old friend, Murphy, who asserts that if something can go wrong, that it will.  And we’ve been friends for a long time so he has had some impact on my thinking about things.

Murphy and Joel Osteen have opposing views on what we should expect to happen for us.  Joel would assert that I should expect the favor of God which would include finding the best parking space open when I need it.  Murphy would expect just the opposite.  I am happy in those times when Joel is right, but am not disappointed when Murphy is.  I had no expectations to the contrary.

Have you ever noticed, that when you want to hit a red light so you can check on or reach something, that’s the time you make all of the lights on green.  But if you are in running late, you get plenty of red lights.  I also have a theory that the probability of a photocopier jamming is directly related to the urgency of the operator.  Never show fear to a dog, pain to a dental hygienist, or urgency to a photocopier.

A couple of paragraphs back, I told you Murphy was my friend, and I meant it.  For example, I will never have any compulsion to gamble.  I was once at a corporate event in Las Vegas where the casino had given us a private room for our group to learn the games.  I was standing at the craps table studying the odds of the various bets.  Making the calculations in my head, I went, “that’s a bad bet, and that’s a bad bet, and that’s a bad bet, and that’s a bad bet.”  To expect that you were going to win, would be to assert that you would have some sort of “luck” that would beat the odds.  My friend Murphy would never have let me hang on to such an assertion.  Thanks very much, I think I will just keep the $5 chip you gave me.

My Christian readers may be wondering what this says about my spiritual state and my theology.  After all, as Christians shouldn’t we expect God’s favor?  First, let me say that I do enjoy God’s favor, and I am very grateful for the blessings he has poured into my life.  His mercy and grace to me have been tremendous.  However, His favor does not generally come in the form of making the lights if I have allowed myself to run late.

Second, I think there is an interactive process at work here.  There is the old joke about the man caught in rising flood waters praying for deliverance.  An emergency vehicle comes for him and he declines saying that “God will rescue me.”  As the waters continue to rise, a boat comes and he again declines rescue saying, “God will rescue me.”  As the waters rise and he is on the roof of his house a helicopter drops him a line.  Again he asserts, “God will rescue me.”  Eventually, the man drowns in the flood and meets the Lord.  The man says, “Lord, I always trusted in you.  Why didn’t you save me?”  The Lord responds, “I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter.  What more did you need?”  This is a fallen world, and sometimes, the flood waters rise.  God is sovereign, but that does not mean we get to abdicate are responsibilities.

Scripture tells us to “wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14) and that and “the battle is the Lord’s” (1 Sam. 17:47).  Scripture also suggests that there is a time to cry out to God and a time to take action.  When Moses led the Israelites to the Red Sea, “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on” (Ex 14:15).  The Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians warned against idleness to the extent that he “gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’”  God has his part and we have ours.

The well-known serenity prayer commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr begins with “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”  Modifying this for my present purposes, I would offer, “God, give me the grace to accept with serenity those things outside of my control, the discipline and courage to take appropriate action on those things I can and should control, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

There are two errors that we can make here.  Both have to do with agency.  By this I mean one’s ability to act on one’s own behalf.  The type one error is to try to control things that are beyond our control.  This would include trying to control things that should not be ours to control (e.g. trying to over-function for an under-functioning partner).  I can’t control the weather[1], and I can’t control my partner.  The type two error is to not take responsibility for those things that are within your control.  In this category, we could include allowing for those things that are outside of your control but that you could have reasonably anticipated.

This is where Murphy could be your friend, too.  There are many things in life which are beyond your control, but which you could reasonably anticipate and allow for.  A common example would be traffic.  Murphy will rarely give you a pass for being late due to traffic, particularly for a route you drive regularly.  Yes, it can be variable, but you know the typical variability.  Yes, it can be worse when it rains, but you already know that too.  The only way our friend Murphy is likely to cut you any slack on this one is if (hypothetically speaking) a truck hit the overpass at I-15 and Carroll Canyon and you were stuck on I-15 for 2 hours in the middle of the day.

How about relying on other people to hold up their end on things?  In the immortal words of the Gin Blossoms, “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.”  Sun Tzu would assert that you need to take into consideration the characteristics of the other person.  Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior (Lucy is always going to pull the football away before Charlie Brown can kick it).  Even with the most reliable people in your life, there can still be misunderstandings and miscommunication.  Murphy will tell you, you need to follow up.

Is Murphy suggesting you need to be a control freak?  Well, yes and no.  Usually when we talk about a “control freak,” we mean someone who is trying to control people and things that are not yours to control.  This is more about taking ownership for the things that are within control and planning for things that had a reasonable possibility of going amiss.

Don’t shoot the messenger.   My friend Murphy isn’t the reason things go wrong, but merely an observer.  And though he is not always right, we do have to give him his due.  Assuming he might be right, can avoid a lot of problems.

[1] Apart from my ability to make it rain by washing my car.  Yes, the California drought is my fault because I don’t wash it enough.  The Temptations once sang, “I can make it rain whenever I want it to.”  Pretty simple really.  Just wash the car.

Posted in: Agency