by Becky De Oliveira

D. Christopher Kayes, a specialist in organizational behavior, wrote a book called Destructive Goal Pursuit that focuses on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, finding there insights about the dysfunctions that are common in goal-setting. He identifies a problem he calls goalodicy—a combination of goal and theodicy—a philosophical term he coined to describe the actions of people who hold onto beliefs even when all evidence contradicts the validity of these beliefs.

Research has shown that gamblers and investors have a lot of trouble weaning themselves from putting money into losing prospects. Organizations with established goals tend to stick with them, going in the same direction regardless of consequences, rather than changing course. Kayes refers to this “escalation of commitment to a failing course of action.” He cites research indicating that the greater the insecurity a group feels about their chance of achieving the goal, the harder they’ll try. The more likely they consider failure to be, the more entrenched they become in their particular set of behaviors. As they observe their surroundings—say the weather—they will interpret conditions more negatively than they really are, almost searching for further evidence to suggest the likelihood of failure. Indicators of likely failure cause the group to put even more effort into achieving the goal.

I can see destructive goal pursuit so clearly in other (often well-intentioned) people. Maybe they are those seeking unity for the church—and seeming to push it ever closer to discord. Those who want to make America great—but whose rhetoric seems to weaken the very values of inclusion, acceptance, opportunity, and democracy that have made this country great.

Can I see it in myself?

One thing I really do believe—that might qualify me as a bona fide delusional—is that the majority of people are trying to do the right thing. They have different ideas about what the right thing is—and different driving forces. And they sometimes do destructive things—probably without flat-out intending to.

I use my grandma Elsie as an example. She’s been dead now for several years, and she was my grandfather’s second wife. They married before I was born, so I always knew her as my grandmother. And she was a rigid and hypercritical person. She worried about everything—whether my clothing indicated that I was a schizophrenic, whether it was a sin for my brother to eat pizza, whether naming my youngest son Jonah was theologically suspect since Jonah was not a wholly positive Biblical character, having elected to disobey God.

“Oh, I just love you so much, Becky,” she’d say from time to time, without warmth. She was hard to love until I became old enough to understand something important about her. Her only son, Bob, died in a motorcycle accident when he was only 16 years old. They found a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. In my grandmother’s Adventist universe, smoking was a big sin—possibly a barrier to salvation. She was not at all sure Bob would be in heaven—but, but on the off chance that he made it, she wanted to be sure she was there as well. She could not afford to put a foot wrong. And I think she did love me—all of us—but her love for her son and her fear of losing him forever was so much stronger than any other emotion she was capable of feeling or expressing.

She probably told herself that she criticized us in order to help us, to make sure that we were in heaven. She probably figured we’d thank her. And to be honest with you, should I see her again, I will thank her. I think she did the best she could. Her capacity was limited—as is mine in other, different, ways. I understand her now. I sympathize. And I still think it’s the wrong way to live. But why? What’s wrong with having heaven as your goal? Well, nothing. Unless having heaven as your goal makes you so unpleasant and judgmental that you compromise the image of God you’re projecting to other people.

We have unbelievable challenges to face as the rhetoric in our country and our faith group seems to grow ever more bitter and divisive. What is the best way to live out our Christian faith?

I would not presume to tell you what your priorities should be—or which hill you should die on, if any. I would only suggest that you remember to check in with yourself about your goals and activities to make sure they really reflect the things that are most important to you as a disciple of Christ. I’m not suggesting you allow yourself to be driven by fear or that you become timid or cowardly. As people of faith, we have every reason to be bold. Live boldly in the knowledge that what you do can make a tremendous difference to other people. Isaiah 54:2 reads, “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes” (ESV). This seems like a good place to start as we consider how to make a difference in a big, complex, beautiful, awful, wonderful, tragic, depressing, and exhilarating world. A big tent. Strong stakes. Lots of people inside. What can we do to bring meaning and joy and self-worth and courage to the people around us?

The three rules of mountaineering: It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks. The first rule of Christianity: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV).

Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

 

1 D. Christopher Kayes, Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mt. Everest Disaster (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 46.