Does Our Past Determine Our Future? (373)

The NPR podcast Invisibilia had a recent episode entitled “The Pattern Problem.” It raised an interesting question: Are we destined to repeat our past patterns of behavior or can we change them in the future? The podcast had two parallel tracks: one was the story of a woman who was the child of addicts and an ex-addict and ex-felon herself. By age 40, she had turned her life around, finished law school, and was now asking the court to admit her to the state bar. The court asked: Will she revert to past patterns by returning to addiction and crime? Or, will her past behavior patterns end? Simply put: Will her past determine her future? In faith terms, we’d ask: Can a person repent and amend their life in a lasting way? Listen to the podcast to hear how it turns out.

The other track was about researchers who believed they could create an algorithm that would predict future behavior. They had a huge data base of children from birth to age 15. They contacted colleagues doing similar research, gave them the children’s data only through age nine, and asked them to create an algorithm to predict what would happen to each of these kids by age 15. The sponsoring team had all the data, so they knew the outcomes for each kid. Each algorithm proposed failed miserably. Even with all the data they had on these kids through age nine, not one team could come up with an accurate algorithm to predict how each of these kids turned out by age 15. Rather than conclude we humans are far more mysterious and unpredictable than they originally thought, the researchers have doubled down and gone back to work believing they’ll eventually find an algorithm that’ll predict everyone’s future behavior based on their past.

Elizabeth Bruenig recently wrote a column about Peter on Good Friday. In it, she ponders the hour that passed that early morning between the second and third time Peter denied Jesus. She writes that to Peter “[that hour] must have felt like an eternity, sitting there in the nighttime firelight, overcome with dread and uncertainty.” She continues: “The majority of us — who Augustine called the non-valde-boni, the not-very-good-ones—live our whole lives in the space of that hour. We hope. We try. We will probably fail. It will happen over and over again. The most relatable Christians in literature are not the subjects of hagiographies, but of the kind of morally ambiguous stories that amount, in the end, to what we call a life.” Oh my! Yes!

We live in an age of algorithms where many people believe there’s a human answer for everything. We just haven’t found it yet. However, it’s our own courage and cowardice, our own mysteriousness and unpredictability that keeps showing up. It’s only when we accept our own mysterious, unpredictable lives that we learn how grace works on non-valde-boni creatures like Peter, you, and me. Bruenig concludes with this: Grace is “like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway.” Our past need not determine the whole of our future, but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we’ll still do some of the same stupid and inane stuff again and again. God’s grace doesn’t perfect us – it saves us.



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