Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday, the Monty Hall Paradox and a New Advent

Like many of you today, I engaged and survived "Black Friday!"  I was up and out amongst the crowds at 5:30 AM and walked out of one store with a cart overflowing next to a late middle aged couple donning their Santa Hats.  Everyone was cordial and seemingly getting what was on their "Want Lists"  without much hassle or turmoil.  In short, we all won! 

It is easy at this time to curse the secular drive for sales and the hyped glitz, but I strive to still see a deeper reason for the season to counter "Grinchness!" Watching people caught up in all of the deliberation of one item in one hand and an equal amount of deliberation focused upon another item in the other hand.  "What is the right gift for whom, is it the right size, the right color, or even the right present for so and so?!"  It was amazing to  observe the weighted debate streaming through the persons mind.  "Do I take item number one or do I take item number two?!"  was playing a game of tug-of- war between the persons ears.  Watching this internal emotional debate,  I was taken to a new insight that I just came to view and understand earlier this very week!  It has its very own name, "The Monty Hall Paradox!"  Until now, I had never known of it, even though I was a viewer of it every time I watched "Lets Make a Deal!"  when I was younger and the host Monty Hall reigned supreme with daytime housewives daily.  

The Discovery Channels program entitled "Mythbusters" of which I must confess a regular viewership, tested out this very problem upon its suggestion by a written solicitation by a fellow viewer.  The case study and problem is:

A host, (Monty Hall)  challenges a contestant to choose between three doors/curtains with the hope of finding a new car.  The contestant perhaps chooses door/curtain #1.  At this point, Monty reveals one of the other doors/curtains (lets say door #3) that he knows does not have the car, but a goat/booby-prize behind it.  The challenge is then offered to switch from the original choice of door/curtain #1 and perhaps move to take door/curtain #2 with a hope of a better chance!  The question is, "Is it better to switch or stay with the origianal choice?!"

The Paradox actually entails two levels to test.  One is the psychological/emotional pressure that heighten anxiety in the contestant to make a pressure decision that offers winning and the gain of a valuable prize (a car) opposed by the possibility of being publicly embarrassed by walking away with a new goat!  The second level to be tested is the statistical weight of wisdom of switching versus the innate drive to 'stay pat' on the original choice.

The Mythbusters crew invited 20 unknowing people to participate in the pseudo game show scenario and found that all 20 candidates chose to 'stay pat' with the initial choice, even after seeing the goat behind the door that was revealed in the second phase of the problem.  The assigned "Win" door was also randomly shifted between each of the 20 venues to assure consistency in the paradox scenario that would play out over seasons of being a part of "Lets Make a Deal!"  The basic rational of contestants was of a sense of security in the first intuitive choice,(door #1) and that it was only a 50/50 chance of getting it right after door/curtain #3 revelation of a goat.  It was a feeling that the emotional tension and pressure of anxiety drove most contestants to a stressed quick rationale and a push to a default of "staying pat".

The statistical test however reveals a dynamic that the anxiety pressure allows to slip by in the decision making process.  Originally at the first choice of a door/curtain, the odds are 1 in 3.  After the reveal of the goat door/curtain, the challenge to switch is then offered.  If you are overwhelmed with the pressure and anxiety to "get it right" and stay with the original choice of door/curtain #1, your odds stay 1 in 3.  If you overcome this desire for stasis and switch, you gain the odds to 2 in 3.  In hidden reality, the host has actually offered you a favor and upping your odds by showing you that another door is also bogus.  However he is also banking on you becoming overwhelmed by the emotional pressure to stick with your original choice and letting the statistical odds beat you more times than not!  Actually, when the tests were shown on a grid of 100 cases when one person always switched and another person always "stayed pat", the visual data was overwhelming in favor of the person who made the hard decision to change, be flexible and make the switch!  So what?!!!

This Weekend is also along with Black Friday, the start of an entirely New Advent Season when it comes to the Church's Liturgical Year.  In many regards, It's New Years Eve for the Church!  The themes that accompany this season of Watching, Preparing, Vigilance, and Joy remind us of a need to look at ourselves and to prepare for the coming of a King, the Messiah, just as people of the Old Testament longed for, and the many stories of those who proclaimed that desire for a savior and the need for something new!  We will hear of John the Baptist and being a "Voice Crying in the Wilderness to repent and become prepared for the coming of the Messiah!"  We will hear also of a young devout maiden that is visited with a tremendous invitation to become the surrogate mother of the Son of God, and her humility in accepting this bestowed gift of Grace and future sorrow.

Amid the swirl to buy this, acquire that, cook this, visit here, all a part of the activities of the season, maybe we need to stop and see what are the things we are weighing heavily in our heads, hearts and overall in our lives; door #1- no, door #2, no wait!-door #3, but no!-I want #1, #2, no-#1, I DON'T KNOW WHAT I WANT OR NEED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Along the way, somewhere, someway, somehow by someone, a door will be revealed of what is not the right choice.  NOW, are you willing to switch, let go of what is not working for you in your life, your heart, your family, your work, your relationships, your health, your frenzied mind, and are you willing to switch to a better choice to reorder your life, your health, your relationships, your decision making processes, your peace of mind and soul?  The odds are with you if you will step out in faith and try a new thing.!

Mary the to-be mother of Jesus did!  Joseph the Carpenter betrothed to Mary Did!  Shepherds in a field tending their flocks by night did!  Three Wise Kings from long distant kingdoms did! Statistically, so should we if we want to be inheritors of a New Kingdom or Grace, Peace, Love and Joy!  We get this time of year once more to make our Spiritual New Years Resolutions!  We get to make another choice as to how we are going to order our lives!  Will you "Stay with what isn't working so well, or just well enough?!" or are you able to make the thoughtful, prayerful and faithful choice to try something different, better, healthier, more fulfilling and soul-filled?!" It shouldn't be about beating odds, but desiring a new Advent of spiritual presence in our lives that can prepare us for the coming of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!  What a Deal!

Blessed Advent Everyone!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Only Four Kernels!

     Having served in the Virginia Tidewater area of the Chesapeake Bay area for nearly 14 years as an Episcopal Priest, I heard multiple times the story of how the actual first Thanksgiving took place on Berkley Plantation up the James River and not in Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.  Even the date difference seems to authenticate the "First Prize" to the Virginians given that their settlement dates 1607 in Jamestown to Plymouth Colony's 1620.  Even Old St. John's in Hampton, Va. (Originally known as the settlement of Kechoutan) where I served as Associate Rector originated in 1610 and has celebrated its 400th Birthday last year!
     Anyway, the story goes that after a severe winter and bouts with brackish water to drink, malaria due to mosquitoes, and the total learning curve how to survive the new wilderness that challenged their visions of quick wealth, treasure, and financial gain, they were humbled to meager levels.  Additional setbacks came from attacks from local native Indian tribes.  It seemed a bleak outlook for the fledgling settlement.  There was even a shift for a while to the end of the Virginia Peninsula to regain stability and health and a retry attempt to then settle the area near Jamestown permanently.

     In the midst of the severe winter they had to endure, some of the gentile members thought it below themselves to work as common laborers doing the meager chores and tasks to support the colony.  As things got even worse and with the depletion of what stores they were able to stock, things got very dire!  It became the rule that "No Work - No Food!"  and at the lowest part of the winter siege, the daily ration was 4, that's right, only 4 kernels of corn per day!  Half of the population didn't make it to Spring.

    A friendly tribe of Indians came to their aid and began to teach them proper agricultural methods, as well as basic survival techniques and practices that enabled times to become more pleasant and survivable.  By the roll of time to the next fall, there was a harvest to be gathered and the colony was poised for a much better transition for the coming winter.

     With a spirit of Thanksgiving, a shared banquet of  the bounty took place at the site of today's Berkley Plantation overlooking the James River.  As they all gathered to feast, they were quickly brought back to a sober reality of the year past when they viewed at each place setting, 4 kernels of corn.  The sacramental symbol that was present in those kernels not only summed up a year of loss and death of loved ones, of hard labor and effort on behalf of those who survived the year, but also a joy of thanksgiving for new friends and relationships that mentored them into a status that was hopeful for their future.  After the prayerful pause and reflection, the feast proceeded with much joy and celebration.

      I share this story at a time when many would say that we are going through "Tough Times" in our communities, our country and in the world's context.  I to some extent, I agree!  Many are out of a job, many are separated from loved ones, and there is an over arching sense of scarcity that presses our senses that yearn for abundance.  We don't like sacrifice and loss or pain and suffering.  It comes even though we try to stave it off from our lives.  But I also know that God's Grace does enable those who desire to stick with the plan, abundance will and does come around again. 

     I am saddened that there actually will be people in this world that will not even have 4 kernels of anything to eat this coming day or week or on Thanksgiving Day.  We must surely do as we are able to try and turn that scenario around as soon as we can.  We must all "work" to lesson that plight. I also know that the level of that hunger is far greater than I alone can solve or meet the magnitude of need. 

     As a starting point, I offer the following idea:  As your family gathers around a table that groans with the weight of harvest that you have worked very hard to provide, place 4 kernels of corn at each place setting of your family and guests, share the story of those first Thanksgiving Day recipients, and then vow to move from that day and to make a difference in your daily endeavors from then on to enable someone else in this world to know what it is like to have a daily meal, a crust of bread, a bowl of soup, a drink of clear drinkable water; and then act to do something about it within the coming year.

Happy Thanksgiving to all and may your travels to be with loved ones be safe and covered in God's most Gracious Mercy!