COMMENTARIES ON MURPHY'S LAW

NOVEMBER 15, 1998
R.M. FEWKES

Murphy's Law: "the principle that whatever can possibly go wrong will."

Captain Ed Murphy of the U.S. Air Force had no idea in 1949 that when he gave utterance to his now famous law in reference to a malfunctioning strap transducer with faulty wiring--"If there is any way to do it wrong, he will"--that he would gain a kind of provisional immortality. I say provisional because practically no one knows that it was Ed Murphy's law to begin with, and there are at least a zillion Murphys in the English speaking world. Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionary says the origin of Murphy's Law is unknown. Unfortunately, they didn't know George Nichols, who was kind enough to let Arthur Bloch , author of Murphy's Law and other reasons why things go wrong, in on the secret. Bloch has now published three volumes on Murphy's Law and made a good deal of money from it. Poor Murphy never got a red cent. Yet another proof of Murphy's Law!

The variations and corollaries of Murphy's Law are truly vast and infinite in terms of their application to the vagaries of human existence. There's Household Murphology, Office Murphology, Medical Murphology, Econo-Murphology, Psycho-Murphology of Everyday Life, Socio-Murphology, Cosmo-Murphology, and Meta-Murphology. There is no realm of human existence where something could not go wrong. There is no such thing, however, as "Applied Murphology", meaning that when you try to use Murphy's Law based on past observations of how it has operated, it won't work." For example, if you go out and wash your car with the express purpose of making it rain, it won't. That's because "If Murphy's Law can go wrong, it will." In other words, "Murphy was an optimist." Or consider these corollaries: "Things go right so they can go wrong." "Where there's a will, there's a won't." "The chief cause of problems is solutions." "The difference between the Laws of Nature and Murphy's Law is that with the Laws of Nature you can count on things screwing up the same way every time." Not so with Murphy's Law.

All of us are familiar with the operation of Murphy's Law in our own lives. By definition you never know when it's going to manifest, but when it does it can be pretty darn irritating. Here are some examples of Murphy's Law at work in everyday life. Many of them, I am sure, will ring true in your own experience: "The telephone will ring when you are outside the door, fumbling for your keys. You will reach it just in time to hear the click of the caller hanging up." "When the plane you are on is late, the plane you want to transfer to is on time." "If you throw anything away, you will need it as soon as it is no longer accessible." "When you try to prove to someone that a machine won't work, it will." "If you understand it, it's obsolete." Standing in line at the supermarket you observe that "the other line always moves faster", until you change lines and discover that "the slowest checker is always at the quick check-out lane." I've noticed the same law at work whenever I change lanes of traffic. As soon as I move over to the faster lane it immediately becomes the slow lane.

Here are some more Murphologies, such as Hadley's Laws of clothing shopping: "1. If you like it, they don't have it in your size. 2. If you like it and it's in your size, it doesn't fit anyway. 3. If you like it and it fits, you can't afford it. 4. If you like it, it fits and you can afford it, it falls apart the first time you wear it." At income tax time, "when an error has been detected and corrected, it will be found to have been correct in the first place." In the machine shop or garage: "after an access cover has been secured by 16 hold-down screws, it will be discovered that the gasket has been omitted." At the office, "vital papers will demonstrate their vitality by moving from where you left them to where you can't find them." Or,"If you file it, you'll know where it is but never need it. If you don't file it, you'll need it but never know where it is." When writing a letter the best way to inspire fresh thoughts is to seal the letter." Something like that happens when writing bills and you discover the enclosed check outside the sealed envelope. I do that neat little trick all the time. Here's another one I'm quite familiar with: "A clean tie attracts the soup of the day."

Next we have the Hurry Up & Wait Principle: "If you're early it'll be canceled. If you knock yourself out to be on time, you will have to wait. If you're late, you will be too late." And, of course, we are all familiar with the Politicians Rule: "An easily understood, workable falsehood is more useful than a complex, incomprehensible truth. Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand wrong answers." Then there's Murphy's Law of Government: "If anything can go wrong, it will do so in triplicate."

Here's one of my favorites, Rev. Chichester's Laws of church attendance: "1. If the weather is extremely bad, church attendance will be down. 2. If the weather is extremely good, church attendance will be down. 3. If the bulletin covers are in short supply, attendance will exceed all expectations." I have a couple for church weddings. If the bride and groom have written their own marriage vows and have not given the minister a copy they will discover ten minutes before the service that they have mysteriously disappeared. Or you learn five minutes before the wedding begins that the organist has not arrived because the bride never contacted the organist to begin with.

More often than not the manifestation of Murphy's Law is an expression of the truth, "to err is human,...to blame it on someone else is even more human,...but to really foul things up requires a computer." Apparently YK2 (Year 2000) is going to be a real test and trial of how bad computers can really foul things up. It remains to be seen. Arthur Bloch comments: "Whether failure is due to hardware, software or Tupperware, ultimate responsibility must always rest with people, both because we built the stuff in the first place and because we are the only ones with a stake in how things turn out."

Bloch notes that "of all creatures, we are the only ones capable of error--which sets us apart from animals, computers and everything else." Besides being "the first life form capable of knowing ourselves", says Bloch, we are also the only creatures "capable of kicking ourselves." Sometimes all we can do is laugh at ourselves if only after the fact. "Whether we suffer from regret (over things we didn't do)", reflects Bloch, "or remorse (over things we did), every once in awhile we will smile when things go wrong just because smiling is more important than things. And for this outlook, if for nothing else, we can thank Murphy's Law." He concludes his observations about human error with this zinger from Mae West: "To err is human, but it feels divine."

Murphy's Law is as old as history, as ancient as human experience, a demonstration of the unfortunate fact that human intentions and purposes run awry of the world, and that the world was obviously not created for the sole purpose of fulfilling human intentions and desires. Things fall apart, accidents happen, people forget, purposes clash, illness strikes, change is inevitable along with death and taxes, it rains too much or too little, a draught or a flood, we lose things, our children make the same mistakes we made and some we never thought of. It is not an easy life, but life is still the greatest gift of all.

Murphy's Law raises questions that have disturbed theologians, philosophers and people in general for centuries: "Why do bad things happen?" Especially to good and innocent people. The little things that thwart us we laugh or shrug off, the big things that devastate and knock us for a loop we curse and we cry out of our grief and our anger, and then after a time we smile again and reclaim the gift of life as our own.

The apostle Paul was no stranger to Murphy's Law, though he probably might have preferred to call it Paul's Principle. You will recall from the reading from II Corinthians that Paul catalogued at length the various trails and tribulations he had endured in his work as a Christian missionary. It seems that everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for old St. Paul, yet still he carried on with his chosen mission to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. We may not always agree with Paul's theology, but we have to admire him for his pluck, resilience and determination. In the course of his work and travels he was imprisoned, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, lost at sea, robbed, betrayed by false friends, suffered cold and exposure, barely escaped the clutches of the ruling authorities in Damascus who wanted his hide.

That Paul might in part have brought some of these dangers upon himself by his at times cantankerous and overbearing nature he does not consider--but that they are a constant reminder to him of his human limitations and shortcomings he readily admits and welcomes as trials sent by the Lord to keep him humble before the grace of God. "I shall therefore prefer to find my joy and pride in the very things that are my weakness; and then the power of Christ w ill come and rest upon me....for when I am weak then I am strong." There is a danger here of a martyr complex running away with the ego--look at all my trails and tribulations, and gee, ain't I humble--but Paul, at least, is well aware of this. He admits that to boast about such things is bordering on madness except to demonstrate that one can endure an awful lot of bad things happening and still rejoice in the gift of life.

Why do bad things happen? That very question is the title of an excellent church school curriculum for 5th and 6th graders. The course has eleven units and each one begins with the statement, "Some people think bad things happen because..." and then goes on to show the various answers that have been given in different times and cultures and religions.

Some people think bad things happen: because people or the gods did something wrong in the very beginning (Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge, Pandora opening her box and letting loose the furies in the world, Lucifer or Satan falling from heaven and leading humanity astray). Or because you were bad in a past life and are reaping today the fruits of your karma.(Hinduism) Or because of wrong thinking about the nature of existence (Buddhism and Christian Science). Or because we upset the harmony of the universe and disturb the balance and flow in the natural order of things (Taoism and Ecology). Or because of the struggle of good and evil forces, or because of fate and predestination over which we have no control. Or because that's just the way the world is, but we can rise above the negative things and go on loving, caring, searching, wondering in spite of pain and suffering and loss. More important than the question of why do bad things happen, a question with many answers, is how can we make good things happen? The course concludes on that note, and likewise this sermon.

We should not look upon the operation of Murphy's Law as deliberate design on the part of God or Nature to punish us for wrong doing or to thwart our personal happiness. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Natural laws do not discriminate, neither do the unnatural laws, be they Murphy's Law or the Devil's Work. When Murphy's Law manifests it does keep us humble, reminding us of our humanity, glorious but flawed with marvelous imperfections.

We should look upon Murphy's Law and its thousand and one derivatives as an opportunity and challenge for the human spirit to endure and carry on. Smiling is more important than things. And so is loving and caring and sharing and making good things happen in a world waiting to be surprised by joy. And besides, there are many good things happening in the world every day in spite of Murphy's Law, and we need to remind ourselves of that fact from time to time. In fact I would wager that there are just as many things that go unexpectedly right as things that go wrong and that we cannot take full credit nor blame for either condition. Murphy's Law is so often counterbalanced by Mercy's Law, unexpected good fortune and blessing that comes like a gift of amazing grace. All life, wherever it occurs, has an element of unpredictability and surprise to it, and whether we cry or rejoice over what comes our way we know in our heart of hearts that life truly is the greatest gift of all and our deepest prayer one of gratitude and wonder.