The Genesis:3 Project
Joseph said to his brothers, I am Joseph. Is my father still well? But his brothers could not answer him, so
dumbfounded were they on account of him. Genesis 45:3
One of my favorite jokes is about the guy who leaves his beloved cat with a friend while he goes on an extended vacation. A couple of days in, he calls to check in and asks after the cat. “I’m sorry, but the cat died,” says his friend. The guy gets furious. “You don’t do that to someone, dropping news like that all at once. You know I am out of town. Instead you say, ‘The cat is on the roof and I can’t coax him down. Call me in half an hour.’ When I call back, you say, ‘The fire department is here to help, but the cat scampered up to the chimney. Call me in half an hour.’ The next time you say, ‘The cat fell down the chimney, but we took her to the vet. Call me in half an hour.’ Finally, you tell me, ‘We did everything we could, but the cat died peacefully.’ You have to give me some time to adjust to the situation!” The friend apologizes profusely, and the guy says, “By the way, how is my mother?” The friend responds, “Well, she’s up on the roof.”
I have a few very painful memories of my own behavior that I cannot shake, no matter what I do. They are mostly from a long time ago, and I hope that the people I offended have forgotten them, but I know better. Almost always, they are the result of my conceit that other people know my intentions. However, every action stands on its own in the context of the moment, and every person brings her or his own context of the moment to every action.
You have had this experience with customer service representatives. The title itself creates expectations: you are a customer, you need service, the person at the counter or on the phone is going to represent. Almost without fail (and despite “I am going to do my very best to resolve your concern”), the levels of satisfaction with the outcome diverge one from the other.
I once planned a concert with a colleague. It was an innovation for me; he was an expert. The performance was electric. The audience was on its feet. The skeptics were won over in a rush. I ran up to him at intermission, bursting with excitement, and said, “Do you know what you have done?” He looked at me with dark eyes and said, “Yes. I have failed to convince people to fill more than half the seats in this room.”
In college, I was asked out on a blind date. I was not available that night, but I was flattered, and it so happened that I had an extra ticket to a Jethro Tull concert (long story). So, I asked her if she’d like to go. When I went to pick her up at her residence hall, I looked up at the top of the staircase as she appeared. I felt my face fall involuntarily; she could not have missed it. It turns out neither of us much liked Jethro Tull (as I said, long story), but that moment of revelation exposed my expectations and, I am guessing, shattered hers.
When I was in charge of a youth organization, I paid a visit from the “regional office” to an event in a local community. I was there as resource and enforcer; there were rules to be followed. At one point, I said to the advisor, “I am disappointed to see that this and that are not part of the activity.” She said to me, “And I am disappointed to see that you can’t tell how good a time these kids are having being together.”
What could Joseph have been thinking when he revealed himself to his brothers? He did not really believe that after deceiving them and framing them and threatening them he could just say, “Surprise, it’s me! How’s dad?” and they would reply, “Wow! Good one Joe! Dad’s gonna laugh when he hears this one more than the story about the cat on the roof!” Is it possible?
I think the answer is yes, it is possible, and maybe even likely. Sometimes our own optimism (or, for that matter, pessimism) leads us to believe that it is a straight line from intention to outcome. Indeed, imagining how things could go otherwise can be disabling. And when they do go otherwise (as they mostly do) we are left disappointed in others, but even more disappointed in ourselves. How could I have not seen those empty seats, how could I have put appearance above the connection we felt over the phone, how could I have missed the smiles for the regimentation?
I think this moment is one of the most poignant in all the Bible and one of the most insightful. It is repeated between Moses and the people at the Golden Calf, between Jonah and God and, for Christians, in the exclamation of Jesus on the cross, and lots of other narratives in lots of different circumstances. Same place, different planets.
When my fantasy makes me overlook your reality, we both wind up crestfallen. Dumbfounded, really.
Better to think of you than of myself.