Some Thoughts about Heaven

The book of Hebrews talks about how this world is not really our home, about how we are wanderers who are passing through on our way to a better country, a Heavenly one.

As wealthy and non-persecuted Christians, we form a distinct minority among the historic community of Christians… while there may be some exceptions, suffering is a present and notable reality for most people across most of time. Contemporary American culture is a painkilling culture which tries to use distractions to mask the reality of suffering, but historic Christianity has taken a different approach.

One of the things done in historic Christianity, in part in response to suffering, instead of trying to make everything be perfect on earth (which is what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes put a lot of effort in to, coming to the conclusion that “Everything was meaningless… under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:11) — without involving God, everything is meaningless, and the attempt to make a life without suffering is vain), is instead to place a major emphasis on Heaven, and on hoping for what we will have in Heaven.

There was one believer who was being tortured in China, inside a container of water through which electric shocks were run. In between the shocks, he asked his torturers, “How much? How much are you getting paid for this?” He was able to patiently wait through the pain, knowing that he was going to be paid an eternal reward in Heaven; his torturers eventually gave up in frustration.

Heaven is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of Paul’s words about how God can do “immeasurably more than we all ask or imagine.” It will have wonders far beyond our current ability to fathom, and, as Lewis wrote in his introduction to _The_Great_Divorce,_ any detailed description we can write must be highly speculative. Paul and John barely scratched the surface in their writings about Heaven, and they both had detailed visions of Heaven (which I have not). But there are some things which are available for us to look forward to in Heaven, and even they are amazing…

Here are some of the things which I am looking forward to in Heaven:

  • We will see God face to face, and develop with him the most full and intimate relationship which we can have.
  • We will be freed from the now unending struggle with sin and temptation. We will no longer, in a spiritual sense, shoot ourselves in the foot.
  • Evil will no longer impede the action of good. It will be like, after all your life walking with a heavy load on your back, having that load taken off and being able to dance freely.
  • God’s redemption will be complete. This will mean, among many other things, that things will be better than had there never been a Fall.
  • More will be said of this later.
  • As to God’s specific redemption — God who has manifested his power by choosing the weak to shame the strong, the poor to shame the rich, the foolish to shame the wise (I Cor. 1:27 and context) — I would like to quote another chapter of “The Way of the Way”.

    XXXIX Heaven

    The blind will see God’s face.

    The dumb will sing praises to him.

    The deaf will listen to the eternal song.

    The lame will dance for joy.

    Those convulsed by spasms will rest in perfect stillness.

    The leprous will feel God’s touch.

    But all this is dwarfed by the shadow of the wonder beyond wonders.

    Sinners will be made holy.

  • We will be in community with all of the saints across all of time… with Mary, with Paul, with Peter, with John, with Abraham, with Moses, with Elijah… We will be able to speak with the many giants whom history has paid scant attention to but who are great heroes in God’s Hall of Fame… with everyone. We will be reunited with loved ones who have passed away. With all of them we will be able to slowly develop close friendships.
  • A child once described Heaven as one big, long hug… We will be able to hug and kiss and tickle and chase and roughhouse with the other saints.
  • Perhaps one of the greatest treasures we will have in Heaven will, apart from God, the angels, and the other saints (for God and all that there is will, in a very real sense, belong to us), not be so much in what we have as who we become. We will become perfect in virtue, fully united with God (and yet even now we are of one spirit with the Father (Rom. 6:17)), and we will have great joy in God and in who we will be even if there were no other blessing to Heaven.I’m not sure how to express this adequately… Much of Western thought has sought to create happiness by the control of external circumstances — what possessions you have, how other people treat you, and so on and so forth. And indeed, those things have a great impact on day-to-day mood swings. But other philosophies (ergo, many Eastern, and for that matter at least some of Western — ergo, the Catholic ascetic tradition)) have sought another route, that of changing internal circumstances. When Paul says that he has discovered the secret of being happy in every circumstance, he doesn’t give something which will radically alter external circumstances to what he would like. Rather, he says that it is what he has in Christ that makes him happy — if that may be called internal (I am using clumsy wording to try to avoid conveying the impression that God is just a part of us), with due respect to the fact that God is more than us and exists independently of us, it is internal circumstance, who we are in relation to God, that can make us happy.

    God is not, ultimately, God because he lives in Heaven, or because he is omnipotent and omniscient, or because he created “Heaven and earth, … all things visible and invisible”… A malevolent deity could theoretically have all those attributes and still most definitely not be God. He is God because he IS. Those other things are consequences of who HE IS (which capital letters are what the sacred Hebrew name ‘Yahweh’ means).

    And we will be children of God, conformed to the likeness of Christ, ever changing from glory to glory.

  • We, as Christ’s bride, will be united to him. Christ, who gave his life for us as his body and bride to make us holy, has been keeping himself pure for us, and will make us pure for him. Then we will be united with him, and it will be like a wedding night.And — this thought struck me over the summer — we aren’t the only ones who are eagerly awaiting that time. Christ is, too.
  • God created us as persons, with both an individual and a community side. In this fallen world, societies have usually quashed at least one of these sides — this is collectivism and individualism respectively — and often at least part of both.In Heaven, we will be made perfect in both our individual and community sides.

    On the individual side… For me to become more like Christ does not mean that I should speak Arimaic and Greek, create yokes and other wooden items, and wear first century clothing. It means that I should speak English and French, study mathematics and pursue my other interests, and wear twentieth century clothing. Imitating him more closely, becoming more and more the person he wants to be, means in some ways becoming more and more clearly distinguished from any other person — just as, the more and more an object comes into view, clear lighting, and good focus, it looks more and more unlike any other object. So, by becoming more and more like Christ, I will become more and more unique and distinctive, more and more the one single person God wants me and no one else to be.

    On the community side… It means that we will all be united with God, perfectly and seamlessly integrated. It means that we will be brought completely into moral and spiritual connection. It means that we will have close and intimate relationships that (even though husband and wife can now become one flesh, which will not be possible then) we know only the slightest hints of here. It means that there will be perfect order. As a body, we are not a conglomeration of cells of different species, but rather cells of one single organism that all bear the one single and universal genetic code — the genetic code of true life.

    To bring them together… We are different parts that will make up one single pattern together with God. We are like the different parts of one single body — for if you take one of those parts and cut it off from the body, it will die and cease to be itself; united as a part of the body, it is both every bit as much integrated as it could possibly be, and every bit as distinguished from the other as it could be. (In this regard we are both unlike a drop of water returning to the ocean, which becomes united only when it ceases to be a drop — which is how the Hindu faith pictures a spirit being united with God — and like a drop drawn from the ocean, which becomes its own entity only by ceasing to be a part of what it was before.)

  • I have a lot of interests, and if I had a thousand lives to live, I would be quite able to find interesting things to do in each one. I have chosen primarily to study mathematics, but I would very much enjoy studying languages… or medicine… or writing… or…In Heaven, there will be time and opportunity to cultivate each of those possibilities in as much detail as I want. And this is equally true of the interests of other people as well.
  • We will be able then to drink freely from the wellspring of Truth. Now, we see darkly and through a glass; then, we shall see fully, face to face.
  • “In my Father’s house there are many rooms…” It is difficult for me to imagine that the dwelling-places prepared for each of us in God’s mansion are not specially and uniquely prepared for each person, and that we will not perhaps at least have some creative power and choice in what is put in the rooms (but even if we don’t, it will be good and perfect).
  • In Eden, man was given the power to create. That ability has been twisted by the Fall, but we can still create incredibly beautiful materials now. I can’t wait to see what creation will be like in Heaven.
  • An acquaintance, who is a musician, talked about what it will be like to spend thousands and thousands of years working at perfecting melodies.
  • Role play is an enjoyable recreation now, with a fallen creativity and imagination and nothing created except in the imagination… in whatever forms it may take in Heaven…
  • The Second Coming will be the last chapter in one story — the story of the Great War, which began when the highest angel set himself against God and a third of the angels joined him to become dragons, worms, serpents, demons, and devils, which has been unfolding throughout all of history, with the Incarnation as its central event, in which every person has a role, and which will close with the total defeat of Satan and all his minions and the perfection of the saints to be united with Christ. But it will also be the firstchapter in another story, a story greater still, a story in which we are “ever changing from glory to glory”, a story with an infinitude of chapters, a story which not only words but knowledge and imagination utterly fail me to describe.
  • In Eden, man saw by lights God created. In the New Jerusalem, there will be no lights, for the Lamb himself will be their light. (Rev. 22)
  • In Eden, man was given a natural, physical body. In the New Jerusalem, men will be resurrected, and their bodies will be resurrected to become even more glorious, even more wonderful — supernatural, spiritual bodies.
  • In Eden, man was created in the image of God, and in the psalms, men are even called gods. In the New Jerusalem, the redeemed will share in the divine nature. (II Peter 1:4)

Two Decisive Moments

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”

I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.

Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.

It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!

What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!

Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.

An Orthodox icon of the Resurrection.
An icon of the Resurrection.

Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.

Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!

Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”

Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.

That is a decisive moment, but decisive moments are not some kind of special exception to Christian life. Christian history and the Christian spiritual walk alike take their pace from decisive moments. I would like to look at the decisive moment in the Gospel reading.

In that reading, the people who have gathered to listen to Jesus went beyond a “standing room only” crowd to being so packed you couldn’t get near the door. Some very faithful friends of a paralytic did the only thing they could have done. They climbed on the roof and started digging through it. I suspect that the homeowner didn’t like the idea. But they dug in, and lowered him, hoping this teacher will heal him.

Jesus saw their faith and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And people were shocked—there was a very good reason for this! If I have two friends, and one owes the other money, I can’t tell the first one, “Your debt is forgiven. It’s wiped clean.” That’s not my place. Sin is not a debt, or a crime, or even a disease. It’s worse. And Christ told a man who owed an infinite debt to God that his slate was wiped clean and his sins were forgiven. And the reason people were saying, “This man blasphemes! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” was that they understood exactly how significant it was for Jesus to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Maybe they failed to recognize Christ as God (it is very rare that anyone but the demons identified him as the Son of God), but they were absolutely right when they said that Jesus was saying something that only God had the authority to say.

They were murmuring, and Christ knew why. So he asked them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Arise. Take up your mat and walk.'” Everybody knew the answer, that forgiving sins was an infinitely weightier matter, but Jesus was about to give a lesser demonstration of the exact same authority by which he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” He said to the paralytic, “Arise. Take up your mat and walk.” And the paralytic did exactly that.

That is authority. That is the authority that commands the blind to gaze on the light of the Transfiguration, the deaf to listen to the song of angels, the mute to sing with God’s angels, the lame to dance for joy, and what is greater than all of these, command you and me, sinners, to be freed from our sins.

Great and rare as the restoration of one paralytic may be, everybody knew that that was less important than the forgiveness of his sins. The story of that healing is a decisive moment.

But it’s not the only decisive moment, and there is another decisive moment that may be much less rare, much less something we want to write home about, but is profoundly important, especially in Lent. I am talking about repentance.

When the Holy Spirit convicts me of my sin, there are two responses I give, both of which I ought to be ashamed of. The first response is to tell God that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Now of course I am not blunt enough to tell God, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” (Perhaps it would be better if I did.) What I say instead is something like, “I can see where you’re coming from, and I can see that you have a point. But I’ve given it a little thought and I’d like you to consider a suggestion that is much better for everyone involved. Would you consider this consolation prize?” Now again, perhaps it would be better if I were honest enough to simply tell God, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” Not only is it not good that I do that, but it is spurning the grace of God.

When a mother takes a knife or a sharp pair of scissors from a little boy, this is not because the mother wants a pair of scissors and is too lazy or inconsiderate to go get her own pair: her motivation is entirely for the child’s welfare. God doesn’t need our repentance or our sin. When he commands us through his Spirit to let go of our sin, is this for our sake or for his need? It is entirely for our own benefit, and not something God was lacking, that we are commanded to repent from sin. And this has a deeper implication. If God convicts us from our sin and asks our surrender to him in the unconditional surrender for repentance, then that is how we will be healed from our sin: it is the best medicine chosen by the Great Physician, and it is out of his mercy that the Great Physician refuses all of our consolation prizes that will cut us off from his healing love. Repentance is terrifying at times; it is letting go of the one thing we least want to give over to God, and it is only once we have let go that our eyes are opened and we realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” The more we understand repentance the more we understand that it is a decisive moment when God is at work.

The second response I give to the Holy Spirit is even more an affront to the decisive now in which the Lord meets me. I say, “Well, I think you’re right, and I need to repent of it, only now isn’t the best time for me. I’d like to deal with it at another time.” Here, also, things might be better if I were at least honest enough to acknowledge I was telling God, “Your timing is far from perfect.” God lives outside of time, and yet he has all the time there is. There is never reason for him to say with a sheepish grin, “I know this really isn’t the best time for you, but I only have two minutes right now, and I’m going to ask for you to deal with this now even though this isn’t the best time.” When he comes and tells us to repent, now, the reason for that is not that some point later on we may feel more like repenting and that is a better time; the reason is that by the time I am struggling against God’s Spirit I have already entered the decisive moment when I can choose either to be cleansed and freed of my sin, or keep on fumbling for the snooze button while God tells me, “Enough sleep! It is time for you to arise!”

Let us repent, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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The Blacksmith’s Forge: An Extension of Euclidean Geometric Construction as a Model of Computation

Models of Computation: The Church-Turing Thesis and Geometric Construction

The Church-Turing Thesis posits that the equivalence class that includes the Turing machine, and is also the basis for modern digital computing, is the most powerful model of computation. And it hasn’t been proven, but when people have checked out other models of computation, every one has turned out to either be equivalent to the Turing machine, or become lesser.

Quite probably it may be impossible to construct some useful computer by this model; quite possibly for that matter its greatest usefulness may come through simulations by digital computer, in which case its simulations will automatically not exceed Turing machines or digital computer by its power. However, even if is a failure at scaling some of the highest peaks, it seems an interesting and provoking possibility to explore.

Standard Euclidean geometric construction is a model of computation. It is not usually presented as such, but you start with a diagram and all that may be inferred from it, and you have two tools, a compass and straightedge, as well as a pen or other implement to draw with. And the solution to a construction is to come back with an algorithm that will go through computational steps that start with its initial state represented in a diagram, and use your three tools to create the desired end result.

Both models figure into the model of computation discussed here, but the model of computation is different.

The model of computation described here is like a blacksmith’s forge. I have read that one of the first things a blacksmith makes, is a pair of real tongs. And a blacksmith is not just turning out nails and other things for other people, but tools used in the forge. The core insight here is that a blacksmith can create tools, much as a computer programmer may make customized tools for their own work. This is at its core a geometric model of computation, with a more obvious debt to geometry, although the tools should be sufficient to implement a Turing machine. One person made the interesting suggestion that it is applying recursion to geometric construction.

The blacksmith’s forge

The main tools the blacksmith’s forge works with are as follows; the first three are taken from geometric computation:

  1. A compass, that can be used to draw circles.
  2. A straightedge.
  3. A marking implement.
  4. A jigsaw. The geometric plane is conceived not to be one point thin, but a uniform distance thick. When the blacksmith’s forge has constructed the closed outline of the shape, the shape can be cut out.
  5. Pins, equal in length to two or more (whole) times the thickness of the plane. If one pin goes between two shapes one on top of the other, and the shapes are not otherwise constrained, they will be able to pivot around the pin with respect to each other. If two or more pins go through, then the two positions will be rigid in how they are joined.
  6. Pieces cut out with the jigsaw, possibly joined by pins.

Idealized Physics in the Blacksmith’s Forge

The blacksmith’s forge has an idealized physics. The pin and jigsaw are parts of this idealized physics, but another part of the physics is that pieces do not tip over: any number of stackings that would immediately fall over in the real world are assumed to simply stand upright, the pieces resting on top of any other piece immediately beneath them for some positive areas. There is friction, and pieces pushed to where one entity crosses another, for instance, will immediately stop moving if they are no longer being pushed. Items touching each other can be pushed past each other, but only so far as they are pushed. This does not exhaust the physics, but if you think of the physics of ordinary geometric construction, you should be close to the mark.

Three Classic Problems

Trisecting an Angle

Consider the following diagram:

That is half of it. Take another one, rotate it by one notch and pin it to the bottom one, and you have forced equality for the angles between adjacent arms:

Take this constructed device, rotate it so point A is at an angle’s vertex, B is in the angle’s clockwise side, and expand or contract the accordion-like device so that C is at the angle’s other side. Angle DAB is now one-third of the (trisected) original angle.

Doubling the Cube

Consider the following modification of the previous diagram:

Take a circle, and draw a concentric circle at twice the radius. Then place the constructive device so point A is at the center, and expand out or collapse in so that B is on the initial circle. Then collapse or expand the device so that it is on the the new “double radius” circle. Point E will have a distance to the center equal to the original radius times the cube root of two.

Squaring the Circle

Cut out two circles, and a tall, thin rectangle. Put the circles snugly and squarely so that the line between them and the rectangles is perpendicular to the rectangles’ long dimension. Put pegs through the circles’ centers through the perpendicular rectangle, and mark (A) both the first circle and the rectangle where they meet. While holding the first circle squarely, push on the outer circle until it wraps the long rectangle around the first circle, and mark on the tall rectangle where it touched the circle’s mark.

You now have a distance marked out on the tall rectangle that is 2π times the radius of your circle. Getting the square root of π is not terribly difficult; you can draw two subsegments of a line segment, one equal to the original circle’s diameter in length and one equal to circle’s circumference, and then draw a long line segment perpendicular to the first segment starting where the two meet. Take one of the corner-like squares above, place it so that it touches both endpoints of the line segment, and while continuing to hold it tight to the ends of the segment, move it so its inner corner lies on the perpendicular line segment. The distance from that point along the line segment to the center is equal to the square root of π times the length of the original circle’s diameter:

(And though this would be laborious, I see no reason why such calculations could not emulate a Turing Machine.)

You’re Using Extra Privilege!

I am indeed using extra privilege, but may I point something out?

There is a bit of a historical difference between now and ancient Greece. We now have a number of branches of mathematics, and though there may be likes and dislikes, it is something of an outsider’s question to ask, “Which is right: real analysis or modern algebra?” There is a general sense that as with board games, if you want to play chess you play by the rules of chess and if you want to play go you play by the rules of go.

The three questions neatly and easily answered are the standard three famous problems which it was subsequently proven to be impossible to construct with Euclidean geometry. And these were not simply mathematical chess problems; I don’t know the stories for all of them, but legend has it that there was a plague killing many people and an oracle stated that the plague would be stopped if a cubic altar were built that was twice the volume of an original cubic altar. This was not one where people only used Euclidean construction because they decided they could only play by the rules of Euclidean geometry. This was a “by any means necessary” matter, and it should be understood as much. The attitude of “This is the set of rules for this particular game” is anachronous; people would be very glad to have an extension to Euclidean construction that would allow solution of at least one of these problems.

And it is not clear to me whether this is any sense of useful model of computation. (I personally think, out of my second master’s thesis, that the human brain can do things no Turing-approximant style of computers can do. Some people have said, “A year spent in artificial vision is enough to make one believe in God,” and there are some basic things, like making sense of an I can read book, that most humans do well but are so far insurmountable to computers; one writer wrote of an embodied AI robot “Cog,” “The weakness of Cog at present seems to be that it cannot actually do very much. Even its insect-like computer forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects, and Cog is clearly nowhere near having human intelligence.”

But I think this model of computation is interesting, whether or not it proves useful.

The Administrator Who Cried, “Important!”

Revisited after some time

Someone said that a memo is written, not to inform the reader, but to protect the sender.

There is something wrong when employees receive so much allegedly mandatory reading material that if they were actually to sit down and read it as told, they wouldn’t get other work done. And it is entirely inappropriate to demand that people without significant legal acumen claim to have read and understood a contract. Really, contracts are rightly understood only if you understand the tradition surrounding how they are interpreted. That means that unless (or possibly even if) you are a lawyer (or else a hobbyist who may not legally be licensed to practice but who is fascinated at learning how law works), you don’t understand the contract. This is, incidentally, why there’s the website (“Terms of Service – Didn’t Read“).

That much I still believe. However, I believe there was some nasty pride in expecting the business world to meet what I consider reasonable. The normal way of dealing with things is to not read, or to read just enough. And that is why in my first job with over a quarter inch of daily allegedly mandatory reading, I should just have listened to a colleague gently tell me that I didn’t have to read that.

I’ve worked on humility a little bit since then.

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Once upon a time, there was a new employee, hired fresh out of college by a big company. The first day on the job, he attended a pep rally, filled out paperwork concerning taxes and insurance, and received a two page document that said at the top, “Sexual Harassment Policy: Important. Read Very Carefully!”

So our employee read the sexual harassment policy with utmost care, and signed at the bottom indicating that he had read it. The policy was a remedial course in common sense, although parts of it showed a decided lack of common sense. It was an insult to both his intelligence and his social maturity.

Our employee was slightly puzzled as to why he was expected to read such a document that carefully, but soon pushed doubts out of his mind. He trotted over to his new cubicle, sat down, and began to read the two inch thick manual on core essentials that every employee needs to know. He was still reading core essentials two hours later when his boss came by and said, “Could you take a break from that? I want to introduce you to your new co-workers, and show you around.”

So our employee talked with his boss — a knowledgeable, competent, and understanding woman — and enjoyed meeting his co-workers, trying to learn their names. He didn’t have very much other work yet, so he dutifully read everything that the administrators sent him — even the ones that didn’t say “Important — please read” at the top. He read about ISO 9001 certification, continual changes and updates to company policy, new technologies that the company was adopting, employee discounts, customer success stories, and other oddments totalling to at least a quarter inch of paper each day, not counting e-mails.

His boss saw that he worked well, and began to assign more difficult tasks appropriate to his talent. He took on this new workload while continuing to read everything the administration told him to read, and worked longer and longer days.

One day, a veteran came and put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Kid, just between the two of us, you don’t have to read every piece of paper that says ‘Important’ at the top. None of us read all that.”

And so our friend began to glance at the first pages of long memos, to see if they said anything helpful for him to know, and found that most of them did not. Some time after that, he realized that his boss or one of his co-workers would explicitly tell him if there was a memo that said something he needed to know. The employee found his workload reduced to slightly less than fifty hours per week. He was productive and happy.

One day, a memo came. It said at the top, “Important: Please Read.” A little more than halfway through, on page twenty-seven, there was a description of a new law that had been passed, and how it required several jobs (including his own) to be done in a slightly different manner. Unfortunately, our friend’s boss was in bed with a bad stomach flu, and so she wasn’t able to tell him he needed to read the memo. So he continued doing his job as usual.

A year later, the company found itself the defendant in a forty million dollar lawsuit, and traced the negligence to the action of one single employee — our friend. He was fired, and made the central villain in the storm of bad publicity.

But he definitely was in the wrong, and deserved what was coming to him. The administration very clearly explained the liability and his responsibility, in a memo very clearly labelled “Important”. And he didn’t even read the memo. It’s his fault, right?


Every communication that is sent to a person constitutes an implicit claim of, “This concerns you and is worth your attention.” If experience tells other people that we lie again and again when we say this, then what right do we have to be believed when we really do have something important to say?

I retold the story of the boy who cried wolf as the story of the administrator who cried important, because administrators are among the worst offenders, along with lawyers, spammers, and perhaps people who pass along e-mail forwards. Among the stack of paper I was expected to sign when I moved in to my apartment was a statement that I had tested my smoke detector. The apartment staff was surprised that I wanted to test my smoke detector before signing my name to that statement. When an authority figure is surprised when a person reads a statement carefully and doesn’t want to sign a claim that all involved know to be false, it’s a bad sign.

There is communication that concerns the person it’s directed to, but says too much — for example, most of the legal contracts I’ve seen. The tiny print used to print many of those contracts constitutes an implicit acknowledment that the signer is not expected to read it: they don’t even use the additional sheets of paper necessary to print text at a size that a person who only has 20/20 vision can easily read. There is also communication that is broadcast to many people who have no interest in it. To that communication, I would propose the following rule: Do not, without exceptionally good reason, broadcast a communication that concerns only a minority of its recipients. It’s OK every now and then to announce that the blue Toyota with license place ABC 123 has its lights on. It’s not OK to have a regular announcement that broadcasts anything that is approved as having interest to some of the recipients.

My church, which I am in general very happy with, has succumbed to vice by adding a section to the worship liturgy called “Announcements”, where someone reads a list of events and such just before the end of the service, and completely dispels the moment that has been filling the sanctuary up until the announcements start. They don’t do this with other things — the offering is announced by music (usually good music) that contributes to the reverent atmosphere of the service. But when the service is drawing to a close, the worshipful atmosphere is disrupted by announcements which I at least almost never find useful. If the same list were printed on a sheet of paper, I could read it after the service, in less time, with greater comprehension, with zero disruption to the moment that every other part of the service tries so carefully to build — and I could skip over any announcements that begin “For Married Couples:” or “Attention Junior High and High Schoolers!” The only advantage I can see to the present practice, from the church leadership’s perspective, is that many people will not read the announcements at all if they have a choice about it — and maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in that.

As well as pointing out examples of a rampant problem in communication, where an administrator cries “Important!” over many things that are not worth reading, and then wonders why people don’t believe him when he cries “Important!” about something which isimportant, I would like to suggest an alternative for communities that have access to the internet. A web server could use a form to let people select areas of concern and interest, and announcements submitted would be categorized, optionally cleared with a moderator, and sent only to those people who are interested in them. Another desirable feature might let end receivers select how much announcement information they can receive in a day — providing a discernible incentive to the senders to minimize trivial communication. In a sense, this is what happens already — intercom litanies of announcements ignored by school students in a classroom, employees carrying memos straight from their mailboxes to the recycle bins — but in this case, administrators receive clear incentive and choice to conserve bandwidth and only send stuff that is genuinely important.

While I’m giving my Utopian dreams, I’d like to comment that at least some of this functionality is already supported by the infrastructure developed by UseNet. Probably there are refinements that can be implemented in a web interface — all announcements for one topic shown from a single web page, since they shouldn’t be nearly as long as a normal UseNet post arguing some obscure detail in an ongoing discussion. Perhaps other and better can be done — I am suggesting “Here’s something better than the status quo,” not “Here’s something so perfect that there’s no room for improvement.”

In one UseNet newsgroup, an exchange occurred that broadcasters of announcements would be well-advised to keep in mind. One person said, “I’m trying to decide whether to give the UseNet Bore of the Year Award to [name] or [name]. The winner will receive, as his prize, a copy of all of their postings, minutely inscribed, and rolled up inside a two foot poster tube.”

Someone else posted a reply asking, “Length or diameter?”

To those of you who broadcast to people whom you are able to address because of your position and not because they have chosen to receive your broadcasts, I have the following to say: In each communication you send, you are deciding the basis by which people will decide if future communications are worth paying attention to, or just unwanted noise. If your noise deafens their ears, you have no right to complain that the few truly important things you have to tell them fall on deaf ears. Only you can prevent spam!

Read more of Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary on Amazon!