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Punctuated equilibrium

Sometimes change comes fast

Punctuated equilibrium

(Krieg Barrie)

Third in an occasional series of short short fiction

University of Texas paleontology professor Sam Fister and his wife Sandra both hit 60 with nary a discouraging word. Solid marriage, productive careers, buoyant 401Ks, excellent health, envied house on Cat Mountain all paid for, a grown son gainfully employed.

Sam taught his students that the material world is all there is. He tolerated students who were theistic evolutionists, faithful to Darwin but saying God had started the process rolling. Once every five years a creationist student came along, but a little mockery went a long way.

Over the years Sam started to worry about the continued lack of evidence showing species-to-species transition. But he had written his dissertation under the supervision of Harvard professor Stephen J. Gould, whose theory of “punctuated equilibrium” had everything staying the same for a long time until some geological event led to rapid change, so maybe the gaps weren’t surprising.

Once, at a funeral service for a professor emeritus, some pastor spoke of how questions of meaning bothered more people as they grew older. Sam and Sandra looked at each other and smiled: Not us. Once they went to a neighbor’s wedding where a rabbi noted how earthquakes can suddenly shake our lives. That prodded Sam to contemplate a mathematical equation.

‘Why waste your tumor? What does God need to do to get your attention?’

Their stockbroker son, Sam Jr., called weekly and visited monthly. The calls were short because the messages were always sweet: “Everything’s fine.” Sandra always ended by saying, “We’re glad you’re happy. We’ll talk again next week.”

But one spring Junior ran afoul of insider trading regulations. Sandra told him not to worry: “This will blow over and you’ll be back on track.” But it didn’t and he wasn’t. He ended up with prison time on a plea bargain, and Sam wrote him not to despair: “When you come out everything will return to normal.” But Junior did despair, and when he came out in September, he seemed … changed.

Nice and easy, Sam cautioned himself as he listened to the new Junior tell him about God saving sinners. Keep it calm, even keel, like always. “I hear what you’re saying: You do something for God, He’ll do something for you.” Sam felt he knew about trades like that. He was careful about his health, with cottage cheese rather than hamburgers his normal lunchtime companion. He checked his Fitbit to make sure he took 10,000 steps per day.

The headaches Sam started getting surprised him. His annual checkups had always been happy affairs, but this time his doctor ordered more tests and found a tumor. A quickly scheduled operation got it all, the surgeon said, and Sam felt his life returning to equilibrium. When he told Junior that everything was now fine, the kid’s vehement questioning surprised him: “Why waste your tumor? What does God need to do to get your attention?”

When Junior started talking about Jesus, Sam lost it: “What happened to you in prison? Once every few years a student talks nonsense like that to me, but I expect better from you! Did your brains fall out?”

One December evening Sam and Sandra headed to Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse at The Domain. After ordering, Sam went to the restroom, but when he came out his legs suddenly crumpled. Ten seconds later he woke up on the floor, with a woman looking down at him and asking, “Are you OK?” He stood up, said, “I’m fine,” and ambled back to the table. He said nothing to Sandra.

After dessert they wandered through the mall. A flash mob from some evangelical church was singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but with different words: “You don’t delight in sacrifice. You don’t excuse our secret vice. You want from us a broken spirit, do Ya? Create in me a new, clean heart. Give me now a strong, fresh start. So every breath I draw is Hallelujah.”

Suddenly Sam crumpled again. This time Sandra caught him. She called 911 and soon an ambulance sped them to the hospital. Sam kept muttering a word. She thought he was saying, “How did that happen?” But as she leaned over him, she heard, more distinctly, “Hallelujah.”



  • William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Sat, 06/11/2016 11:55 am

    very good. Yet every time I read an article from Marvin Olasky, whether it's in depth in Puerto Rico finances, or never hitting a home run (on the baseball field), I'm like, "this guy is a writing machine, does he ever sleep???"

    very good Marvin, as always.

  • Xion's picture
    Posted: Sat, 06/11/2016 11:38 pm

    I don't get it. Is the point that God is using a tumor to teach this paleontology professor a lesson? Or is it that a tumor should cause university professors to abandon evolution? Christians who believe in evolution are on their way to heaven. So as wrong as evolution is, I don't see the relevance.

  • socialworker
    Posted: Thu, 06/16/2016 08:59 am

    I don't think evolution has anything to do with the message. He's saying that this professor thought he had it all under control and wasn't facing the truth of an all-powerful creator God until he lost the control he thought he had. Professors in the sciences are just more prone to this misconception.

  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Mon, 06/20/2016 12:43 am

    Hi, I agree that it is a bit difficult to draw out the point of this vignette. And, like others who have responded here, I will try.

    The title of the story is "Punctuated Equilibrium." This theory was Stephen Gould's contribution to bolstering the faltering construction of Darwinian evolution. As the story states, biological life goes on unchanged, i.e., in equilibrium, for long periods of time; then, suddenly, in a relatively short period of evolutionary time, a major change or advance occurs. I believe that Marvin Olasky uses this evolutionary analogy by giving it a spiritual application within the life of his main character, the professor.

    The professor, like biological life forms, resisted change throughout most of his life, preferring and consistently choosing his nonperturbed psychological state of equilibrium. Yet God in his grace upset the professor's carefully balanced cart of apples, and graciously catapulted him swiftly and suddenly into a changed life of belief, just as Gould posited that evolution did for otherwise stable life forms. I believe that Olasky, as a writer who does not believe in evolution, is enjoying a moment of humorous irony by applying an evolutionary theory to demonstrate the existence and persistence of the God of grace who can win resistant hearts in a split second of psychological time. Doesn't this describe the Apostle Paul's conversion? I also know that a pivotal moment of grace punctuated the apparent equilibrium of my sinfully resistent heart to quite suddenly bring me to saving faith in the Son of the Father's love. "Punctuated equilibrium" is a perfect phrase that captures the manner in which God wins many souls.

    The application: that we should not lose heart but continue to pray for those stubborn holdouts in our lives, because in the end, suddenly, God's grace will prevail and our prayers will be answered. Thank-you for this illustration of God's gracious ways, Mr. Olasky.

  • Sawgunner's picture
    Posted: Thu, 06/16/2016 03:42 pm

    These pithy tales call to mind both Paul Harvey and Rod Serling albeit with a definitive Christian content.

  • SueQ's picture
    Posted: Sun, 06/19/2016 06:37 am

    Maybe this is fiction, but after just finishing Os Guiness' book "Fool's Talk" this piece sent a chill down my spine. Yesterday, I went to a Christian support group for people with a similar "problem". I have only been there twice, but it seems that the problem has made us all dig into the Word. There are things about other people that we see as a problem that needs to be changed; in truth, it is ourselves.


  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 06/20/2016 08:55 am

    I get it now.  Thanks West Coast mom!

  • Ruthp
    Posted: Fri, 06/24/2016 12:12 pm

    So, did Sam survive, and, was his tumor not wasted after all? Did "Hallelujah" signify a true inward change? I think so.