Vail Daily column: Does curiosity shape your life’s story?
World War II code-breaker Alan Turing’s curiosity made his tomorrows more vital than his yesterdays. This mathematical genius’ story unfolds in the movie “The Imitation Game.”
In it, Turing runs laps around his laboratory peer group. His intellect proves threatening to some British military superiors. The film depicts Turing taking breaks from his top-secret think-tank. He loves to run all-out. As he sprints, Turing invents mind games about how to break the German’s secret code. Its puzzle aroused his curiosity to solve it.
Intellectually, Turing ran circles around those stuck in military routine. Curiosity goaded him. Turing’s mind rarely stood still. His tragic story reveals an eccentric genius whose audacity breaking German codes offended rote-thinking British military officers and lab colleagues.
The story unfolds in 1939 when the British Intelligence Agency M16 recruited Turing, a Cambridge math wizard. His orders to crack Nazi codes, including Enigma, verged on the impossible. This code machine had a myriad of numerical variations that the Germans scrambled each midnight. This meant British code-breakers had to scrap every 24 hours what they had deciphered the day before.
British mathematicians felt like legendary Sisyphus who pushed the fabled rock uphill. Almost at the summit, it rolled back down. Alas, Sisyphus had to start over again and again and again.
Turing was almost kicked off the elite code-breaking team. He sounded vain, was hard-to-get along with and acted insufferable. His know-it-all demeanor caused frosty relationships with peers and bosses. “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said,” taught management consultant Peter Drucker. Probably saddled with Asperger Syndrome, Turing missed what his enemies left unsaid.
He and the military brass didn’t mix well. Working to crack Enigma’s code, Turing saw himself a pioneer. This word’s original meaning pictured an advanced army guard; soldiers who prepared the way for comrades before a battle started. Pioneers went ahead of the main army. They repaired roads and rebuilt bridges in enemy territory.
Turing fits this pioneer metaphor. He scouted intellectual territory the curious dare scope. Because pioneers are comfortable with future uncertainties, they invariably clash with military and religious traditionalists.
Turing distanced himself from colleagues, much like biblical Joseph separated from his older brothers. He riled siblings who detested how Joseph interpreted dreams. He came out on top. Tired of put-downs, the brothers “ … hated him and couldn’t speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37:4). They sold Joseph to slave traders headed to Egypt.
Atheistic Turing, a practicing homosexual, didn’t conform to what established authority required. Sadly, he committed suicide at age 41 after the British government forced him to endure chemical castration to change his homosexual identity.
Like Joseph, Turing’s creativity soared and rattled established custom. This caused trouble in military and religious cultures tied to traditionalism. Both groups thrive on regimentation, order and adhering to rigid moral codes. Such methodical practice builds enormous social stability. Clerics and generals know their roles and dare not deviate from them. Everything is written down in fat code books. Promotions come to those who stay within bounds and rarely ask questions that rattle authority figures.
What do Turing’s critics lack? Curiosity.
Reviewing “The Imitation Game” movie, Michael Gerson — former President George W. Bush’s speechwriter — tells why conservatives don’t embrace Alan Turing types.
“ … As ‘the Imitation Game’ argues,” Gerson writes, “a society often benefits from allowing space for nonconformity. This presents a challenge for conservatives. A broad adherence to social convention is important for a just and stable society. But there is clearly some tie between human progress and the rejection of social and intellectual convention. The existence of norms is essential to social cohesion; the creative violation of norms is essential to social advancement” (The Washington Post, “The Imitation Game’s’ Lesson for Society,” Dec. 22).
What if the military and organized religion quit acting like protectionist societies, guarding the past from changing? What if their stories showed them as more than custodians of crusty tradition? What if curiosity thrust them into the future — dwelling not on past repetition but what will occur?
In a book “Secrets in the Dark,” Presbyterian cleric Frederick Buechner imagines where creativity might lead Christ’s followers. “Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away — the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost, too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place,” concludes Buechner.
Easier written than done, right? Jesus’ curiosity caused the military/religious machine to roll over him, similar to how it snuffed out Alan Turing’s life. It’s safer for our life stories to stick with popular plots that tradition dictates. When tempted to resist reform, remember people like Turing and Jesus whose curiosity propelled their stories into the future and made our lives richer for it.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.