I have a friend, far outside of science, who once told me that my blog posts are like sermons. He didn’t know at the time that my father had been a minister (in the United Church of Canada). Dad wrote and preached hundreds of sermons over his career, and I was there to hear quite a few of them. And actually, my friend was right: in some ways my blog posts are like sermons. They usually try to make a small but meaningful (to me) point; that point is (I hope) more often an attempt to build up than to tear down; and I often try to make my point via some kind of a story – a parable, Dad might have called it.
Dad loved to tell and to hear stories, and that meant I often heard the same stories over and over again through the years. Shortly after his death, though, a friend of the family (coincidentally, and importantly, also named Doug) told me one I’d never heard. It seems that when younger Doug was a child, Dad was visiting his family and chatting with the grownups when younger Doug committed some now unremembered bit of misbehaviour. Younger Doug’s mother, with a bit of a raised voice, said “Dougie, stop that!” – at which point my Dad (the older Doug) sat bolt upright, froze, and stopped talking, just for a moment. I suppose he figured that he, not the younger Doug, had been caught doing something wrong.
Dad probably had, in fact, done something wrong. Not right then, I mean, but something previously that his subconscious knew about and that tripped his neural “uh-oh” circuit. Just like scientists aren’t just scientists, ministers aren’t just ministers – both we and they are people. And because we’re people, with all the frailties and failings that implies, not one of us goes through life in a state of perfection. Over Dad’s long life, though, along with what he did wrong he also did an enormous pile of things right – which is why the younger Doug’s story makes me smile.
It’s is a story, and a lesson, I’m resolved to keep close to mind. I and everyone I deal with, in science and outside it, will mess up at some point. What matters is what comes next: apology, atonement, attempts at repair; and ultimately, a moment’s act set in the context of a life’s work.
© Stephen Heard September 4, 2017