On ducks and prayer

Talk to the duck!

Over the years, a lot of the development teams I've led have given me toy ducks. Yellow ducks; blue ducks; pirate ducks; once I was given about 20 small ducks at one time. For years, I've kept a duck on my desk or monitor.

Because I love ducks? No.

There's a famous story in a book called "The Pragmatic Programmer" about a programmer who would carry a rubber duck around and talk to it when he was facing a particularly difficult problem.

Sound insane? I assure you it's not.

Countless times, team members have come in to my office to ask me a question, and it would go something like this: "I'm trying to figure out how to do X, but I keep getting an error. At first I thought that it might be Z, but it can't be Z. I'm pretty sure it's not Y because if it were Y, then...wait...hold on...I think that is what's going on. Yeah! It is Y, so I just need to do ABC and then it will work! Thanks!!"

These are smart people. They tried everything they could think of and were sufficiently stuck that they came over to ask me a question, but in the course of them asking the question, they solved their problem without me saying a single word.

The same thing has happened to me dozens and dozens of times. I will start writing up an email explaining how something isn't working and by the time I'm half way through the email, I end up deleting it because the act of writing the email revealed the solution.

This phenomena is so common that programmers coined the term "duck driven development." In my projects, we started saying, "Talk to the duck!" or "Have you asked the duck yet?" or "Thanks for being my duck."

The psychology of rubber ducks

Why does this happen with such regularity? I think there are several factors in play.

One is a function of how our brains tend to work. After thinking about a problem for a certain amount of time, we get into the mindset that we already know everything we need to know to solve the problem. In a lot of cases, that is in fact true, but the problem is that while we know everything we need to know, we haven't understood it. We end up very easily dismissing certain inputs because we are sure that can't be the problem, or that can't be the solution.

Somewhat paradoxically, very often the less the person (or duck) we are talking to knows about the subject area, the more likely it is that we will reach the solution.

The reason for this is because we realize that in order to make the person understand what we are talking about, we have to explain a lot of foundational premises and assumptions that we have been taking for granted. Very often, it is in those foundational premises where we realize we have made a mistake.

I think another factor is that we want to give the other person as much information as possible in order for them to help us. But this means we have to flip our way of thinking. We must put ourselves into the mindset of the person listening to us. We must ask ourselves, "if I were in their shoes, what I want to know so I could help them?" Again, this forces you to define the problem in much clearer terms, and in that process, we come to a much fuller understanding than we had before.

The aphorism is true, "You never really know something until you teach it to someone else." This act of trying to teach someone else what our problem is, leads, rather amazingly, to the solution.

Relation to prayer

Christianity distinguishes between 4 types of prayer: adoration, reparation, thanksgiving, and petition.

I want to focus on petition.

Thinking about the duck made me realize that I usually go about saying prayers of petition in completely the wrong way.

For example, suppose I am dealing with a difficult person in my life. I may petition God to help me act more charitably to them. I may then offer a Hail Mary or an entire Rosary (some people are more problematic than others) for that intention. Now, that is certainly efficacious and worthwhile, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise. What I do mean to suggest is that there is a fundamental step I was missing.

When I offered prayers of petition, I would always keep Matt. 6:8 in mind. "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him." Obviously, I thought, I don't need to explain the situation to God; He knows what I need before I even started praying! Of course, that's true, but what I should have noticed is that Matt. 6:8 precedes Matt. 6:9, the Our Father.

So, even though Jesus is saying here that God knows what we need, we are still to be explicit about our needs.

Share Between The Paws

This verse then is not meant to suggest that we don't need to "explain" something to God, rather, it is meant to show us that God loves us so much, that “every hair on your head is numbered,” so that he knows our needs before we do.

Now, if this verse isn't meant to discourage us from fully explaining our needs to God, then we would expect to find this kind of "expository prayer" within Scripture. It turns out, that is precisely the kind of prayers we see in the Psalms.

Consider Psalm 21 which begins "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" The writer says "Do not stay far from me/for trouble is near/and there is no one to help."

But the writer doesn't stop his prayer there.

He goes on to explain to God what is happening to him. "They open their mouths against me/lions that rend and roar./Like water my life drains away;/all my bones are disjointed. / My heart has become like wax, /it melts away within me." Finally, through describing his problem to God, he realizes what he must do, "For he has not spurned or disdained/the misery of this poor wretch,/Did not turn away from me,/but heard me when I cried out./I will offer praise in the great assembly;/my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him./The poor will eat their fill;/those who seek the LORD will offer praise./May your hearts enjoy life forever!/...And I will live for the LORD."

From ducks to theosis

It seems to me entirely appropriate that we address God in the kind of expository way that the Psalmist does.

First, because he has given us the gift of reason, we ought to use it. It is not appropriate to demand that God intervene and solve all our problems for us when, very often, he has already given us exactly the tools we need to do so. We may find in our expository prayer that we already know the answer to our prayer. If so, thank God and make your prayer of petition into a prayer of thanksgiving.

Second, Jesus tells us "I have called you friends." We ought to take this seriously. If we were to ask our friend to help us, we would speak to him in a more familiar way and explain our problem to him in detail, not simply say, "help me fix this problem."

By speaking to God this way, it will increase our understanding that He is, incredible as it sounds, our Friend.

Third, as I mentioned above, when we explain things, we must put ourselves into the mind of the listener. Very often, we ask for things that we have deluded ourselves into believing are good for us, because we very rarely like to think of things from the Divine perspective.

It is said that no prayer goes unanswered, rather, sometimes the answer is just "no." This is why Jesus says, "You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

I think that by forcing ourselves to explain our needs to God, and trying to imagine how He hears our prayers, we may, in the end, be able to tell ourselves "no." This can only lead us to understand, to a much greater degree, how true the words of Jesus are, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

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