the Prayer Paradox

Back then, when I was still a little boy and my mom tried her very best to raise me into a fine Catholic boy, I was taught that prayer works. If you needed something and you prayed for it, God would provide.

Of course -little boys being little boys- I quickly discovered this wasn’t exactly how I thought it would work. I prayed for loads of things that I never got. I even prayed for other people, who didn’t get what I wanted them to get. Mom -being a mother- had a quick answer: I hadn’t prayed enough. So I prayed more and when that too didn’t work, I was told that maybe I had prayed too much. You can overdo such a thing you know.

Now, with enough trial and error the child will -given time- succeed in approximating the correct amount of prayer to such a level of precision that any reference to one of the above arguments will picture God as a nit-picker. And since He isn’t, my mom needed a third argument. Preferably one that wasn’t quantitative.

‘Maybe you didn’t pray the right way.’ Whole new world there. For some time that world kept me busy wondering whether I had really meant what I prayed for, whether I had really concentrated enough, whether I had really, really believed it would work ’cause without faith, nothing works.

Until I realised that the trinity too little, too much, wrong way was one unsolvable mystery. No matter what you did or didn’t do, the idea that you had done at least something wrong to warrant God’s unresponsiveness could always, under all circumstances, rationally be maintained. Post facto, that is. It’s no wonder I stopped praying altogether and never took it up again. I console myself with St. Augustine’s words that ‘singing is double praying’. But that’s not the point.

Recently I realised that sets of after-the-fact explanations that -as a whole- form a perfect, unassailable ready-for-use rationalisation of what you already believed, occur more often. They’re fill-in exercises, templates if you want, and they are not particular to religion. ManagementSpeak™ is full of them: ‘I should have phoned this customer more/less/better.’; ‘The company didn’t communicate more/effectively/on a more abstract level with it’s employees.’; ‘This process was watched to closely/not precisely enough/not effectively.’; ‘We should have delegated more/less/thoroughly.’

We have no idea why customers take a particular decision. If we ask them, they’ll give a socially acceptable answer, especially if the real reason reflects badly on us. They’re pretty much like God. When you don’t know why customers -or God- act the way they do, you cannot influence them and that’s scary. ManagementSpeak™ -like lots of religions- give you the answers. Nobody knows if they are true, but at least this type of self-blame gives you the idea you can influence the world, or you could have done so. Your fate is in your hands, not in the hands of some unpredictable variable like God or your customers. Sleep tight, sweet dreams!

Meanwhile, ManagementSpeak™ heaven turns into employee hell. An ideology of ready-made, fill-in rationalisations intended for beneficial self-blame can just as easily be applied to others when things go their unintended ways. In companies that invariably means: employees. There is no way an employee can defend himself, unless by applying his own version of ManagementSpeak™ and starts blaming the boss back. Whatever the outcome of that, one result is already fixed: everyone believes ManagementSpeak™ reflects reality. Everyone knows they can always blame others, provided they’re apt at using ManagementSpeak™ well enough. l’Enfer, c’est les autres.

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