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I profess not to be any great writer.

These are the ponderings

of a poor man's mind.

  • Nate Barker

Pardon My Pendulum

Updated: May 2

Boring sermons lead to great discoveries.

The story is told that in 1582, while listening to the monotone of the priest in the Cathedral of Pisa, my friend and yours, Galileo Galilei noticed something above his head. No, it wasn’t Mary descending to bless the service…it was the chandelier. The light breeze in the huge space caused the lights to swing ever so slightly. Galileo, suddenly transfixed, began to use his own pulse to time the swinging motion. This simple observation would lead to his insistence that the pendulum could be used to correct the defects in clocks of his day. The pendulum was on its way to becoming the star of the next three centuries helping business run…well like clockwork…and reminding husbands that they were late for dinner…again.

Ah, the pendulum, ever swinging from side to side on its graceful course. Reaching extremes and yet still passing through the meridian at just the right moment. The perfect arc of the weighted arm carving through time and space like a giant meat slicer. Moments and minutes served up in portions of bolognaesque yummy goodness.

Just like its predecessor the hourglass, the pendulum has become a type of chronological metaphor for our lives.

“Like the swinging of the pendulum…so are the emotions, opinions, definitions, actions, theologies, perceptions, understandings (so on and so forth) of our lives.”

If we are honest we tend to move like the pendulum; a contradiction of lived out actions. Today we’re ticked off by the person in the office gossiping about a co-worker. Tomorrow we find ourselves spilling the beans about our husband being late for dinner (“And he blamed it on his watch!”). Yesterday when the stock market was up, we were feeling pretty good about that investment in Global Hi-Jak Group, but today, after the executive made off with millions on an inside deal, we’re looking for a building ledge.

It’s hard to move through life with a balanced approach.

For some of us we like the pendulum because we know that it will keep on swinging (okay, air friction and gravity slow it down and stop it eventually but let’s pretend we live in a vacuum…..take a deep breath).

The movement of the pendulum allows them quick movement in their lives. They can be a switch hitter or become like the character in the Josh Garrels song that says “Whose side am I on? Well, who’s winning?”. As long as they can navigate through life without swinging too far one way or the other, they’re okay. Who wants definition anyway? After all it’s so hard to…define.

For others, we snuggle up to the pendulum because we love the arcing swing that brings us to a point of discernment. We’ve been to the mountain top and we’ve received the guru’s words. We know we stand in the right and we’ll “protect our 90% with our guns” (same song as above). From our perch we look out across a valley, past a little man with his arms outstretched, towards our polar opposites at the other end of the swinging. We smile at our good fortune in the right (or on the left) as we coolly unpin and begin to lob grenades of “truth” towards the dissidents.

And let’s not forget the third group of pendulum people. They’re not trying to be two places at once or camped out in an amplitude of assumption. These are the people who strive to live in the middle, constantly ducking this annoying thing that keeps swinging over their heads. These people claim to not live on the pendulum at all. They are just unhappily located beneath its swinging arm. Like a neighborhood in the flight path of an airport, they must suffer the fact that one must embrace the painful noise of truth at the center. “If the pendulum must swing past the middle”, they say, “then all paths must lead to the center.” Therefore, equilibrium in life is achieved where they stand. A oneness with the polarities can be achieved. Mechanical equilibrium, is after all, the state in which the sum of the forces, and torque, on each particle of the system is zero (boy that makes me sound smart - smart enough to copy that definition word-for-word from the internet).

So, where’s the right place to be on this pendulum?

Well perhaps this question is best answered by the pendulum itself. You see the pendulum can have a dark side. Edgar Allan Poe told us all about it in his horror tale, “The Pit and the Pendulum”. This fictional account of torture during the Spanish Inquisition is perhaps one of the most gruesome uses of the swinging arm. This is demonstrated perfectly by a defining moment in 80’s television history from our old friend MacGyver (Click the link! You gotta watch it! It's pure MacGyver Gold!).

You see, your planted place on the pendulum arc can cut you in half if you’re not careful. Once you’ve positioned yourself anywhere along its trajectory you’ve marked yourself in the worlds eyes. Others see that place, trap you on it and begin to slowly lower the blade. Of course, they see themselves at one zenith of the pendulum, safe from harm. It’s others that are always in the path of the blade.

How cynical we (I) have become! Pointing fingers at others who have been judge, jury and executioner, never noticing the pendulumatic blood on our own hands (yes, I made up a word). The grand tradition of “being in the right” does not lose face with us. It is always easier to assume that we have the high ground. We sit in a place of positioned privilege on the great arc of time and space judging the world around us.

What we fail to notice is how much our own position on the pendulum has shifted over time.

The slippage or climbing on the path happens so slowly that from our vantage point it seems like nothing has changed. We’ve always thought what we’ve thought. Believed what we’ve believed. Known what we’ve known. Life on the swinging arm can almost seem static, fixed in place.

Like Galileo, we measure the pendulum with our own pulse. Assuming our heartbeat is the heartbeat of the world. The problem is we fail to recognize the person sitting next to us with their own distinctive rhythm. They too are watching the swinging arm and measuring its momentum. A few seats over from them sits a person with a pulse so slow it makes you hold your breath for the next beat. Three seats over sits someone with a heart condition whose pulse races. Four seats over sits someone younger. Next someone older. On and on, person after person with their own unique throbbing, brought to life by the experiences that have made them.

We can’t deny that we all find ourselves on different pendulum points. Look around. There are opinions, conversations, debates, arguments, factions, fights, battles, wars. Each one most likely caused by seeing the world at slightly differently angle than our neighbor.

If we don’t come to terms with this universal condition called life, we are destined, again and again, to cut others open and let them bleed for the positions that they’ve taken. Their unique pulse transformed from something that gives life to some horrific thing. The point isn’t to get rid of the pendulum…but to realize we’re all on it.

Think of Galileo sitting there in the Cathedral of Pisa watching that swinging chandler. I’d like to imagine he performed one more experiment before the sermon ended. Slowly, he reached out his steady hand to the wrist of the person sitting next to him. Gently placing his fingers over their radial artery, he noticed their unique time signature. When this unassuming person turned their head in shock, Galileo simply smiled, pointed to the swinging lamp above them and said, “Non è forse bello?”.

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