Consider a psychological experiment done at Maastritch University in the Netherlands. The subjects were split into two groups and hooked up to a device that would deliver an electric shock. Both groups would receive twenty shocks. The first group was told that all of them would be severe, while the second group was told that seventeen would be mild and three severe.
Imagine you could choose which group to be in. Which would you pick?
Cue the Jeopardy music. My logical mind thinks this through very carefully. “Okay, let’s see. I can choose to be jolted with twenty severe shocks, or three. Hmmm. Tough choice.” Okay, times up. My decision is made. I’ll join the second group and take the three shocks. Final answer.
Seems logical, doesn’t it? If I’m going to be shocked 20 times either way, why wouldn’t I choose the group with less overall intensity?
It turns out that our reaction to an experiment like this is dictated by more than just the sum of the voltage. There’s another variable at play that is more powerful than the jolt of electricity. It’s the variable of uncertainty. It’s a variable that I didn’t really give thought to while the Jeopardy music was playing.
The results of the experiment showed that those with less chance of receiving a severe shock were more anxious than those guaranteed to be shocked severely. Their hearts beat faster and they sweat more profusely. Getting three shocks spread out randomly over twenty was more stressful than getting blasted twenty times in a row. Ironically, we feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur.
Harvard psychologists Dan Gilbert, in reflecting on this finding, summarized by saying, “…when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.”
In my plodding pilgrimage, I recently drifted back into a rut that I believed I had left behind long ago. It was frustrating to find myself rehashing a pattern that I thought had been broken. I wanted to believe I was beyond this – wiser, more mature, more disciplined. But here I was again, revisiting this barren terrain. When I saw it for what it was, I was discouraged. The shadow of hopelessness was growing long.
Then God spoke to me. Not in audible voice, but in whisper - multiple sources echoing the same theme; converging “coincidences.” He reminded me that hope is what sets me apart as a Christian. Hope is an anchor for the soul (Hebrews 6:19). A certain future infiltrates the present and changes my outlook. The swells of discouragement cannot pull me from my mooring.
In a previous post I talked about the entangled snare of twists and turns that is the course of my life (A Plodding Pilgrimage). This rut revisit certainly felt like a pretty significant zig (or maybe a zag). But hope is the assurance that this course does have a certain destination, and the destination is good. In 1 Timothy it is described as “the life that is truly life” (I Timothy 6:19). So this is the hope – that God can use all these twists and turns to get me closer and closer to real life.
And if that’s where I’m heading, all these set backs are surmountable. With hope I am never stranded in the present. Even if the electrodes suggest otherwise.
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