The Dangers of Diagnosis: A Parable
Click above for my recording of this post. Or better yet, try reading it aloud yourself. In the words of Kierkegaard, “My dear reader: If it be possible, read aloud!”
There once was a family that moved into their grandparents basement after the father lost his job due to downsizing. Excited to be close to family and let the kids play with grandma and grandpa every day, they eagerly unpacked and created a home within a home. The house was built on a hill, and with the downward slope the basement had windows looking out to the backyard. It even had it’s own external door, straight from the basement to the back yard. This was great during Spring, Summer and Fall, when the kids would race outside to play and track mud back inside (rather than having to re-enter from the first floor where grandma would scold the children for the brown streaks and footprints which would signal chaos, a breakdown between the clear separation of inside from outside). That very wall of separation, so neatly maintained upstairs, and which was present downstairs for most of the year, threatened to crack and crumble during Winter.
Indeed, the cracks were already there, but the parents didn’t realize it until waking up after one of the first truly wintery nights and being surprised when the bottoms of their feet touched cold floor upon getting out of bed. With no coffee pot downstairs, the couple would have to pass by that external door to get to the stairs leading up to the first floor and arabica’s wakening. Passing by that door on that first morning after the first wintery night, the father felt cold air on his skin, looked around in alarm for the source, and noticed for the first time a sizeable crack at the top of the door. Actually, it was more of a small crevice than a crack; nothing observably broken, the door just didn’t align with the frame, leaving no more than a 1/4 inch gap. It really didn’t look like much. Six months had gone by since they moved, and no one had noticed. But when the father pointed this out to the wife, they both agreed it needed to be fixed, and soon. Temperatures would only continue to drop, and a slightly rude awakening would quickly turn into sleepless shivering nights.
So the father asked around for a recommended contractor, called the most reputable company, and asked for their most reputable repairman. A repairman arrived in short order, and while he sized up the door, the father sized up the repairman. He looked to be about 70 years old, with white, wiry hair sticking out from his head in every direction, and also sticking out of his ears and nose, which were also quite large. His equally large, calloused hands kept pulling up a pair of baggy jeans as he crouched down to inspect the floor and then stood on his toes to peer through the crevice to the backyard where the kids were playing hide ‘n seek. As he scanned the entire frame of the door with his eyes and felt around it with his thick fingers, the father noticed black lines from dirt in his fingernails that looked dirtier than all the mud the kids constantly brought inside. Every once in a while the old man would pause, bring his face in close to the door, and let out a nasally “Ayup.”
After about five minutes of this the man turned to the father and said, “Not to worry. We can absolutely have this fixed and get you guys warm and cozy in a jiffy. Just need to apply a little insulating spray. I can go get it from my truck and be out of here before you can say inside-outside-upside-down.”
“Amazing, thank you so much, that is a relief,” said the father. “We were worried it would be a much more costly and time consuming fix like replacing the door and frame.”
“Well, now that you mention it,” said the man, “there is a chance you might need more than some spray foam. I’ve seen this happen before to these old houses and know a thing or two about what causes these gaps to appear and how to really fix them.”
“What does that mean, ‘really fix them’?”
“Oh I’ve explained how to really fix that problem to more customers than there are blades of grass in your yard, and every time the customer still chooses the cheap and easy fix. So I didn’t want to bother you and worry you with the other solution.”
“But what other solution is that?”
“Oh, you really don’t want to hear about it. It’s better you just don’t know, because in order to give you the really solid solution I have to first give you the really sordid problem. But if I show you the real problem, and then you decide the real solution is too expensive and will take too long, all that will do is make you worry about how well the insulating spray will work. Then you won’t sleep, because you keep worrying, and then you’ll be right back to where you would be if I didn’t fix it at all, shivering and sleepless.”
“Well, if that’s really what you think is best,” the father said. “We just want this fixed before winter comes. What would you do if this was your house?”
“Well, if it were my house, I wouldn’t worry about a crack like that in my basement. I don’t spend much time down there in the winter. But you know, my wife would worry. Yes, she’d probably nag and ask me over and over again when I’m gonna get around to fixing that cracked door and tell me some proverb about how car mechanics always have broken cars and home repairmen always have broken homes. Then we would probably argue, I’d get mad at her nagging, and she’d get mad at my getting mad, and complain about how we’ve never been to marriage counseling like I promised her 20 years ago. Yep, that’s probably what I would do if this were my house. Sorry to go on like that, that’s probably not the answer you were looking for. So, what’s it gonna be?”
Quote from Thomas Oden
“Soon you realize that it is not you who are interpreting the parable but the parable that is interpreting you.”1
What comes to mind from your own life when you read this parable? How might this parable interpret your life if, in the words of John Dominic Crossan, you had “a willingness to be parabled”?
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Parables of Kierkegaard, edited by Thomas C. Oden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. ix.