When I was in college, I was required to take a class in sociology, as the goal of a liberal arts education is ensuring one is well-versed in topics outside their chosen major. My major was theology, but there I was in sociology class, and found it fascinating, so at the end of the semester went to the dean’s office and signed up for sociology as a second major. Then I went away for the summer to pick up roadkill for the state highway and when I returned in fall for the new school year discovered I had been enrolled in a statistics class, a mandatory class for sociology majors.
I only remember two things from the class – a quote from Mark Twain our teacher wrote on the chalkboard the first day of class, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And a word I’d never heard before, but has stuck with me all these years later. The word tautology, which means a statement that is true by necessity or by virtue of its logical form. For example, if I were to say, “The dog is either brown, or the dog is not brown,” that’s a tautology. In logic, the opposite of a tautology is called a false statement. That’s easy enough to remember. But then there’s a third category, called dialetheism, which asserts that some statements are simultaneously true and false.
So this week, because I had a sinus infection and my mind was mad with fever, I found myself thinking about statements that are simultaneously both true and false. And what I thought was this, that there is a statement that is a great truth and also a great untruth. That statement has five words, and it is this: “There is nothing I can do.”
There is nothing I can do. That is a profoundly wise and true statement. Think how much better and happier, how much saner, our lives would be if at certain moments we reminded ourselves, “There’s nothing I can do.” Ever since my father passed, I’ve been physically and emotionally wrung out. I thought it was because I’d been busy taking care of him, but I don’t think that was it. We all have people in our lives we take care of, but we get a good night’s rest, take an occasional vacation, or go for a motorcycle ride, and find ourselves in a better place. No, I was worn out because for the past twenty years I thought I could fix my father’s alcoholism, it turns out I couldn’t, and the effort left me exhausted.
Have you ever tried to fix someone who didn’t want to be fixed? Have you ever tried to save a marriage the couple didn’t want saved? Have you ever tried to teach someone who didn’t want to be taught? But you kept trying, because you just couldn’t bring yourself to say, “There’s nothing I can do.”
Don’t you hate admitting that? Don’t you hate seeing someone you love live a paltry, pathetic life, and having to admit to yourself there’s nothing you can do to fix it. It is exhausting, if not impossible, to fix any situation when you care more about the outcome than the people in the situation.
In the Gospel of John, there’s a story about a man who had been ill for nearly 40 years, sitting by a pool of water known for its healing powers. When Jesus saw him he didn’t heal him right off. Instead, he said, “You’ve been sitting by this pool as long as I can remember. Are you sure you want to be healed?” I mean, you have to wonder, don’t you? I’ve met people like that, and you have too, who are quite content to remain broken, to just sit by the pool and have people feel sorry for them. So little is expected of them. But if you devote your life to fixing people who don’t want to be fixed, your life will go down in flames right beside theirs. You’re going to be sitting by the pool right beside them, needing healed yourself. It sounds bad to say that, but it’s true. Sometimes the truest thing you can say is, “There’s nothing I can do.”
But as I said, that’s a true statement, and it’s a false statement. I want to tell you about a new hero of mine. His name was August Landmesser. He worked at a shipyard in Hamburg, Germany in 1936, when Adolf Hitler came to christen a warship. So they gathered all the workers, thousands of them, and lined them up in rows and told them to salute Hitler, so they all saluted Hitler, except for one man, who stood with his arms folded across his chest.
I saw a magnified picture of him this week. He’s scowling. Adamant. Everyone else has their arm up to Hitler, except for August Landmesser. Because August Landmesser had a Jewish fiancé. Now he was only one man against a crowd of thousands, and it would have been easy for him to say, “Well, this is awful. I don’t like what’s happening in my country. But there’s nothing I can do.” But he didn’t do that. Instead, he said, “There is one thing I can do. I can express my moral disgust with Adolf Hitler.” And that’s what he did.
August Landmesser. Remember that name, why don’t you. So the next time you see or hear someone doing something awful in your name, and you’re tempted to say there’s nothing you can do, you can at least exercise your moral disgust and fold your arms across your chest and say, “Don’t include me in this. You don’t speak for me.”
Funny thing, that little phrase–there’s nothing I can do. At some times, profoundly true. At other times, profoundly false. We just have to figure out when it’s true and when it’s false.
I’m glad I took that class in statistics. It’s about all I remember from it, that some statements are simultaneously true and false, and the trick is in knowing the difference.