In praise of holy dithering

OPINION | Greg Clarke
Eternity #69 May 2016

Dithering tends to get a bad rap. It’s condemned as time-wasting, distractedness, lack of ambition and focus. But that’s just typical of our misguided, pedestrian human approach to things. In the more fabulous world that God created, it turns out that dithering plays an important role. It’s the approximate, unpredictable, background buzz of things that holds all the important stuff in place.

Dithering brings stability. Dithering makes things smoother. That’s what I have learned from a recent brief foray into the world of computer hardware.

Apparently, many computers work better if there is a good deal of background vibration and white noise around and about them. A bit like a newborn trying to sleep, they startle easily if things are too quiet. Better to turn on the vacuum cleaner, just like every nurse told you when you left the hospital with your newborn.

This is profoundly counter-intuitive. We are more likely to try to ensure things are as settled, orderly and predictable as possible around our precious machines. Not that I’m suggesting you start to shake your laptop up and down a bit to improve performance, but perhaps at least as a metaphor, this unexpected physical truth has a good deal to teach us.

Attacking a problem head-on is not always the best way to come to a solution. The simplest solution is not always the most enduring one. You have to shake things up a little bit to keep things going.

Attacking a problem head-on is not always the best way to come to a solution. The simplest solution is not always the most enduring one. You have to shake things up a little bit to keep things going. The best way to keep your balance is to keep moving. This dithering metaphor keeps on giving!

A friend told me about a water company that was trying to sell its products. The problem was that its products were, um, water and sewerage. How do you spice up the sales pitch for that? Dither about it a bit, and see what emerges. It emerged that there hadn’t been a platypus sighting in the Yarra River for over a decade. Why?

Because no one cared about the water quality; they threw in their rubbish, dumped chemical waste and thought nothing of it. But the public did care about the platypus. They wanted to see it back. Nineteen years after the programme commenced, there’s now a blog where people record their platypus spottings (platypusspot.org) and learn about water conservation. The goals of the organisation – water awareness and conservation – were achieved by the background noise about the platypus, when their direct marketing approaches had failed.

How do you get the baby to sleep? Vacuum around it noisily. How do you get people to care about water? Make a loud public noise about the platypus. The way forward isn’t always obvious.

Theologians might get sweaty over this one, but perhaps dithering is a good metaphor for the way the Spirit of Christ sustains the world. In several parts of the New Testament (such as Colossians 1:17 and Hebrews 1:3), we are told that this Spirit not only created the world, but also upholds it in an ongoing way. The image and word of God dithers around our precious lives, disturbing us just enough to get us back on the straight and narrow, ruffling our feathers so we re-adjust our plumage properly.

I like it that the word dithering emerges from the Middle English verb “didderen” which means “to tremble”. Trembling before the Lord really does make your life more secure. The trembling feels uncomfortable, perhaps unsafe, but is, in fact, the very thing that is keeping your life on track. The Holy Ditherer is around and about, helping you to keep your balance.

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