We all keep lists. Some of us write them down. Others have them stored in their heads. Lists are important. The Austrian neuroscientist Walter Kintsch has spent a lifetime exploring how we acquire knowledge and experiences, the mechanisms people employ for this and how lists are crucial in enabling us make sense of the situations we encounter. Next time you make a list remember you are entering the world of neuroscience.
In the last Bridge magazine I opened a survey of useless lists that people have kept. Looking at the results it seems that people enjoy doing things that appear to have few life-changing uses. I can understand why someone getting a train to the City needs to memorise the timetable, but do I need to know every Wimbledon tennis winner? A friend of mine seems to think that this is entirely normal behaviour and cannot fathom why others do not join him in memorising the winner, their opponent and the set-difference.
Perhaps the lists we make can teach us something? When I was an undergraduate studying Geography a lecturer of the time was a leading proponent of ‘behavioural geography’. This is the view that people rarely do that which is the most economic, maximised financial return or number crunching possibility. Life is more nuanced than that. Life is like list-making: it needs making sense of in nuanced ways.
The lecturer would tell the story of his family climbing a hill (it is what geographers do – take their families on hill walks). They could take the ‘economic’ route straight up to the top. It would get them there quickly with minimal expenditure of effort. The return down the hill would be even quicker so would allow for efficient use of time. This would maximise effective use of every moment of the day.
How many of you have gone straight up a hill?
He asked his study group ‘how many of you have gone straight up a hill, especially if you have a bunch of children around you?’ The answer was that none of us had. We would meander, stop to look at something to one side, detour without realising it as we talked, walk fast then wander slowly.
The lesson I learnt? Life is more than economics, numbers, values, efficiency or maximised use of time and is far more about how we live our lives and what we bring to the World. My lecturer would ask a second question: ‘do you climb hills alone, or with others?’ Walking alone is quicker but we belong together and bring value to one another – even in our detours and seemingly useless moments of life.
What does the useless lists survey of recent weeks tell us? Very few people have kept a list of when they cut the grass. Most respondents kept a list which they knew was completely useless.
What sort of lists do people keep? Here’s a sample of responses:
- Car mileage when filling up at the petrol station
- Photos used in calendars
- Hair cutting regime
- Date of the first cut of rhubarb each season
- Record of tomato growing
As we look at the World around us there seem to be a huge number of lists forming. They aren’t about cutting grass or the date of tomato growth. They are about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Are they on ‘my’ list? The lists that I refer to are about people, purpose and identity.
- Lists of refugees and lists of migrants
- Lists of EU countries and lists of countries not in the EU
- Lists of reasons to be in the EU and lists of reasons not to be in the EU
- Lists of hours of overtime worked and lists of those who, apparently, refuse to work
- Lists of GDP and lists of cost-savings Lists of who is ‘acceptable’ in our lives and lists of people we find unacceptable
- Lists of what we want our own ordered worlds to be like and lists of what would disorder them and throw us off-beam
The list of all lists?
There is one list that trumps all others. It is the most fundamental list that gives meaning to everything else: “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." Jesus, Luke 10:20
When I realise that my name is in the Book of Life, stored in heaven and the page is ready for opening on my arrival I am offered something. I am given the freedom to take a marker pen to the lists I have been creating and which have locked me in. Lists that were precious and precarious become irrelevant, adapted or I find that they can be started afresh.
Who I am, who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ in my list, what it means to have an ordered personal world… all my lists take on a different meaning and purpose because I find my name written in red on a list written by Jesus Christ.
I am on His list