Think with a Pencil (for Dad)

Each semester, I sympathize with students who have to take my biology course.  Instead of just accepting their fate, and settling down in  the land of Eukaryota, they fidget in their seats, hoping to survive the battle without troublesome preparation,  anxious for the ordeal to end.  I feel their pain: that’s exactly the way I used to view algebra word problems.  You know the ones:  If Sukey leaves point A at 9:00 a.m. and walks at a rate of 5 miles per hour toward point B, how long will it take her to catch up with Flueky, who left point A at 7:00 a.m., walking at a rate of 3 miles per hour in the same direction?  My response to that question :  “Who cares?”

I never had a teacher who could get me  excited about the journeys of Sukey and Flukey, but I did manage to attain a “competency” in math- a “B” student.  Once in a while, I would take my math troubles home to Dad, the engineer.  Inevitably, he would make me show him how the teacher had explained the problem;  then he would sigh, “Well, that’s the LONG way around, Deb.  Learn to think with a pencil.”  This would send me into spirals of anxiety, because, in my mind,  the teacher was the expert.  I’d have bet my meatloaf  that she’d never heard of “thinking with a pencil”.  Just how was that done anyway?

Eventually, I arrived at my own conclusions about “thinking with a pencil”.  It involved writing down what was true, and working from there.  Whether it was math or chemistry or English composition, I started with the “knowns” and worked out the other variables until the problem was solved.  Granted, my answers weren’t always correct, but the process was reliable, and it got me through college.  It did  more than that though;  it taught me to value truth.

I realize now, that those problems were the easy ones:  numbers stay put;  chemical reactions follow physical laws; and there is a format for writing essays. Just do your homework, and many of these subjects will become comprehensible.  But what do I do when the sky has fallen on me?  When the solution is hidden from me?  One would think, given my history, I’d have applied the “Think with a Pencil” plan, and been off to the races, but that’s not the way it’s played out.  I don’t know which truths to consider.  I contort  my thoughts, searching for answers, but never find them.

Clarity does not come by wrestling with unanswerable questions, but from contemplating accessible truth. After all,  God never answers Job’s question “Why me?”  And Job admits, “I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me , which I did not know.”   Peterson translates “have declared” as “babbled on about”, and it strikes me that I do a lot of babbling- and a lot of worrying – about things beyond my  control.

So, has Dad’s principle failed me?  I don’t think so;  I don’t think I’ve been considering truth at all.  Moreover, my working  axiom:  It is of utmost importance that my immediate problem be solved”  is faulty.  It is not my immediate problem, but my deepest one that needs attention.  And the solution lies in searching out  the deep wisdom and knowledge of God- the deepest truths.

Maybe even writing them down….