Back in Week 3 of the NFL season, as the bookbag-shuffling and laptop-closing cacophony began to drown out the last few minutes of a late Friday afternoon class and the students near the front (successfully) conspired to shut me up with ordinary water-cooler talk, they asked me about the Buffalo Bills/New England Patriots game that weekend. I told them: "This game scares me. Really scares me."
Uproar! With two minutes to go, all of a sudden a flat, distracted, party-anticipating crowd of freshmen were paying attention. WHAT?!?! How can you say that? The Pats are favored by 9 points. Tom Brady. Bill Belichick. It's the Buffalo Bills. "Trust me," I replied, "The Patriots can easily lose this game." When they demanded to know how I could possibly think such a ridiculous thing, I pointed to the clock. "It's 3:15. Do you want me to keep you after or would you rather I explain it next class after the game?" They agreed with smug assurance, then came the riotous blur as they bolted for the door.
As things turned out, unfortunately for me, I was completely correct and the Bills scored a shocking upset. I say unfortunate because that meant I had to explain myself and do so in a way that taught a lesson appropriate for a freshman class in the Humanities college. Which meant I had to spend the next day prepping for a class I hadn't expected to have to prep for. So, after a little genial sports-talk-radio ribbing, I got them to ask me, "How the heck did you know that?"
To which I replied. "I didn't. What I knew was that there was something you didn't know, and I took a chance that what you didn't know would have an effect on the outcome."
"Whenever," I continued, "You make an argument grounded in human behavior, or on a model of human behavior, there is always some aspect of the behavior unaccounted for, or some element of the model missing. ALWAYS." I took them through a history of attempts to rationalize human nature and showed them how many of them worked, and really well, almost always, until they confronted a situation where almost didn't work. I told them about the Nobel Prize-winners who constructed an awesome model of options pricing, and who started a company based on that model and made a fortune for years. Until one day, they went bankrupt.
What's interesting, I said, is that we can call "That part of human nature we don't understand" pretty much whatever we want so long as we recognize that it's there. Is it 'God's Plan for us'?" Sure. "The mystery of human consciousness"? Why not? "A tangle of electrical impulses in our neurons so complex we can never hope to unravel it"? Fine. "Magic"? Maybe. Just know that whatever model you choose, there's a part you don't understand.
In this case, I concluded (an hour later, I'm summarizing) that what I saw were the Bills mysteriously overperforming for reasons I didn't understand. And the Patriots, even though they were winning, underperfoming for reasons I didn't understand. So I took a chance that one or the other mysteries, or both, would operate to have an effect on the outcome. And I guess I was right. Or lucky.
So flash forward 11 weeks. Another Friday, more restless book shuffling. How about Pats/Broncos? they asked. "Oh, take the Pats," I declared confidently. But Jack! they objected, what about all that Magic and Mystery stuff you told us last time? Everyone's talking about Tebow Time and pretty much everything you said then.
"Ah ha," I replied, "But once you know what the missing element is, you can, as the stockbrokers say, price it in. Add it to your model. Since everyone knows about it, now we can account for it."
Of course, I was right again. Damn it. So I go to class and they were all chirping, like, "Of course you were right again. Damn it." I consoled them by pointing out that it was my job to be right, then added, seemingly parenthetically, "Know what? I LOVE Tim Tebow."
Uproar! Again!! Over the din I heard a rather loud four-letter word, so I said, "Whoa whoa whoa. What's that? Why?"
"Because I HATE Tim Tebow," came the reply.
"Well, hmmmmm," I professorially pondered. "Tell you what. Rather than me asking you why you hate Tim Tebow or you asking me why I love Tim Tebow, how about if I ask you why I love Tim Tebow?" It took them a while (again, I'm summarizing) as they went through all the obvious arguments of profession and confession that have been so heatedly expressed in all the talk about Tebow these last few months, until finally they dug it out:
I'm a scholar of literature and Tim Tebow is a great story. Whether it's "God's Plan for us" or that "tangle of electrical impulses in our neurons so complex we can never hope to unravel it," the impulse to explain ourselves to ourselves through storytelling seems to be an enduring and profound human need. And one way or another, Tebow touches that.
I emphasize that: One way or the other. Because at this point, it doesn't matter if you love Tebow or hate him or whether his team wins or loses. If you love him and he loses, hate him and he loses, hate him and he wins or love him and he wins, it's going to be a great story.
And let me admit candidly, when he started out, I hated Tim Tebow. Not a lot. I generally don't hold athletes' worldviews against them in terms of rooting interest. I could hardly root for Curt Schilling and the Red Sox if I did. I just didn't think Tebow merited the attention. But at some point he, or his team, or God's Plan, or random variation, or those neurons, something or somebody somewhere made me surrender to the story.
Resistance was futile. I was assimilated.