Who Knew?

Advent 2

Every writer at some point wonders, Will anyone ever read this?” November is National Novel Writing Month in the United States although it is an international event now. Known by the acronym NaNoWriMo, its purpose is to beat the odds and help aspiring writers get busy writing the next great novel. Local groups meet to encourage each other as do online bulletin boards and guest critiquing of posted works. Begun in 1999, the percentage of those who attempt to write their novel has steadily grown while the number actually completing the suggested fifty thousand words has declined.

The probability factor of those who want to write a novel compared to those who complete the fifty thousand benchmark of NaNoWriMo is not surprising once one considers just exactly what probability is and its impact on our lives. Urban slang has reduced the root word “probably” to “prolly” but the meaning is still the same – “almost certainly”. The desire to write a great piece of work is common to most people, probably because fame is a well-known dream of the masses. Whether it is “prolly” to you or not, at some point you may have thought you had a great story. You “probably” did or do. The “probability” of you writing it, though, is minimal at best.

This series is about the concept of grace and you might be asking why we are talking about writing a novel and probability when we should be discussing grace. The reason is simple. The probability of you receiving and recognizing grace today is about the same as those who will complete their writing dream for NaNoWriMo. In 2012 that number was eleven percent. As most people join the novel writing movement, the number who will be successful declines, due to the laws of probability. The same might be said of those receiving and recognizing grace.

Probability is usually discussed from four different perspectives – Classical, Empirical, Subjective, and Axiomatic. There are four weeks in Advent and each week we will approach the concept of grace from one of these perspectives. You may be wondering about the connection between grace, a concept generally thought of in theological terms, and probability, a concept holding a great position in the field of mathematics.

The Classical approach to probability is really rather simple and is usually introduced to most of us in formal education. The classical example concerns the rolling of a pair of dice. As long as the dice are not weighted or otherwise altered, such an activity is considered fair or unbiased. There are six possible numbers that could come up (“outcomes”), and, because the dice have not been altered so as to enable someone to cheat the process, each one is equally likely to occur. This means that there are six possible outcomes and each one of the six numbers has an equal chance of appearing. So we say each of these outcomes has probability 1/6. Since the event “an odd number comes up” consists of exactly three of these basic outcomes – there being three odd numbers and three even ones, we say the probability of “odd” is 3/6, or 1/2.

The classical perspective has the advantage that it is applicable and easily understood for many situations. It is not perfect, though, as the University of Texas math webpage explains. “However, [the Classical perspective] is limited, since many situations do not have finitely many equally likely outcomes. Tossing a weighted die is an example where we have finitely many outcomes, but they are not equally likely. Studying people’s incomes over time would be a situation where we need to consider infinitely many possible outcomes, since there is no way to say what a maximum possible income would be, especially if we are interested in the future.”

A Classical approach to grace is similarly flawed since the amount of compassion and consideration given to another is often based upon that which we ourselves have most recently received. More on that later this week but do consider this. If you are having a bad day, how gracious are you when someone else’s bad day infringes upon yours?

The aspiring writers who complete their writings are those who have been encouraged and mentored. After seventeen years, NaNoWriMo has proven the advantage of having a support system. The tribe a writer gathers around him/her often determines their probability of success. This is true for most endeavors, not just writing.

“No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” Ernest Hemingway was not just speaking of writing but of the grace in living, the grace we extend to others and in turn, receive ourselves.