alculus does not make sense to me. It never has. I remember showing my instructor my midterm and asking him, “Can you look at question 3 and tell me what I did right?” Even when I got something right, it made no sense. If I had worked harder, it might have turned out differently. But I didn’t work at it. I never learned it. Almost forty years later, all I remember is the feeling of confusion. But Calculus is not the only thing that does not make sense to me.
One summer I stood in a long line at a Deli. As I waited I took a few strings of penny licorice out of the jar on the counter and ate them. This was in 1982, and the licorice did cost a penny a string! As I paid for my snacks, I said, “Here’s three cents for the licorice.” The teen-aged girl behind the counter exclaimed about my honesty. Why would I pay for something I could have eaten for free? It never occurred to me to take the licorice without paying. Stealing candy does not make sense.
Calculus and shoplifting fail to make sense in very different ways. Calculus is too complicated. Shoplifting is different. It does not make sense to me, but I understand it exactly. It does not make sense because I cannot fit it into what I know about who I am and what I want my life to be.
Each human being has a project. In fact, we all share the same project. This project is to navigate the world in the best way we can. Each of us proceeds with the aim of being and doing certain things but not others. We aim to do the things that make sense to us and to avoid the things that don’t. We navigate the world in light of our commitments and assumptions about what is good to do or to be.
The assumptions by which we navigate our lives include more than what we believe. They include our desires or our loves. It is not only what I think is true that will affect how I pursue the best life. It is also what I most want. What kind of person do I want to be? That question reveals my deeper desires. Augustine wrote that when it comes to our moral and spiritual well-being, what we want is actually more important than what we believe: “For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves.”1 The root of moral and spiritual failure, Augustine thought, is that our loves are disordered. Our moral failures are not a result of our loving bad things. Rather, we love good things, but we love the less important things more than the most important things. Whenever I am honest, I recognize that I sometimes act in this way.
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