The Qualm Before the Storm

[Note: A little tongue-in-cheek, light fare delivered to the Alpha Chi people at their wonderful Showcase last night]

I want to express my gratitude to the officers of Alpha Chi for the invitation to speak this evening. I’m very honored to have the opportunity, even though on further inquiry I discovered that what they generously called a keynote address was a euphemism for filler noise while the judges are busy judging the presentations. So I am, for lack of a better term, your stand-up entertainment for the next few moments. With that understanding, I will be brief, not brief in the grand sense that many speakers promise and fail to deliver, but really, truly brief.

In the spirit of the moment, and wanting to match proper rhetorical style with the occasion, I want to make it clear from the outset that it’s my intention in the next few minutes to say nothing of any moment, of any great importance or of any particular use. I think we need to know where we stand on this issue so that you don’t begin to listen with any real expectations of anything terrific going on up here. In fact, just to be clear, let’s just say that for the next few moments I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

Desiderius Erasmus

I would like, on the other hand, to match the tone of Desiderius Erasmus, that 16th Century humanist scholar who penned the wonderful book, In Praise of Folly. Allow me to quote a couple of illustrative passages:

Sample 1: “The type of person who is devoted to the study of wisdom is always most unlucky in everything, and particularly when it comes to procreating children; I imagine this is because Nature wants to ensure that the evils of wisdom shall not spread further throughout humankind.

Sample 2: “I doubt if a single individual could be found from the whole of humanity who is free from some form of insanity. The only difference is one of degree. A man who sees a gourd and takes it for his wife is called insane only because this happens to very few people.

[Note: No one laughed at this latter quote. I thought it was hilarious. Either my delivery didn’t match the content or it made people ponder too hard about the difference between a wife and a gourd.]

In that same spirit, you could call this little talk, “The Qualm Before the Storm.”

Qualm is a lovely word. No, it’s not the Princess Bride version of Calm, as in, “Mawwiage is what bwings us togethah on this Cwalm Day.”

Today, qualm means a feeling of discomfort regarding the rightness of a thing. This feeling is most aptly illustrated in the story that’s all the rage right now, the Hunger Games. Some of the characters in this story have qualms. Some do not. When confronted with the hypothetical possibility that in order to survive I, a mere teenager, must perforce kill 23 other mere teenagers, a perfectly legitimate question to ask myself is, “Self—do you have any qualms about killing 23 other teenagers in order to save your own skin?” If I answer in the affirmative, then I have the groundwork for a moral-ethical struggle on a mammoth scale—if I am actually faced with such a dilemma. If, however, it remains a hypothetical issue, I could parlay those qualms into an enormously successful young adult page-turner that then becomes an obscenely successful film in which my qualms can be downplayed for the sake of a couple hundred million dollars at the box office. After all, no one has any qualms about a cool couple hundred million.

What’s interesting about the word qualm is that, regardless of is definition today, during Erasmus’ time it meant a feeling of faintness, perhaps from a fever or sickness. As in, “Are you okay? You don’t look so good.” Answer, “No, I believe I have a qualm. I need to sit down and have a glass of ….” Well, it had better not be water in the 16th century as you were likely to get cholera or something, and then where would you be? Well, you’d be back a few centuries further when qualm in Old English meant Death, Disaster, Plague, even Utter Destruction, as in, “Dude, I totally pwned on that Call of Duty match. I mean, like, Total Qualmage!!!”

Now, we’re not here to go into how we get from Total Qualmage in Old English to the contemporary caffeine-free, ‘I have qualms about speeding in a school zone.” I am only here to suggest a very simple idea: Qualms, even the weak sister, milk toast, Disney-rated variety that we have today, are in fact very good for us.

Qualms are good for us in the simple matters of practical life. It’s only natural to have qualms before making any kind of big decision—such as choosing a major, buying a house or a car, contemplating a life partner for marriage, selecting the proper shoes to properly accessorize one’s outfit. These are big decisions and it’s only natural that something inside us sort of gasp and say, “Hold on here just one minute! Am I doing the right thing? What if someone else has the same pair of shoes? That would be a complete disaster! ”

The Qualm Before the Storm.

Qualms are good for other things not quite so dramatic. For instance, diet. If I have eaten Mexican three times this week, pizza twice and chili dogs at least once for breakfast, I may register a qualm or two before visiting the ice cream dispenser in the Deacon Jones Dining Hall. A properly placed qualm in that case might just save my roommate’s life.

Qualms can be useful in matters of faith as well. For instance, a qualm or two might be helpful before we misappropriate whatever we hear in the marketplace of belief. I vividly recall a particularly powerful message in Vacation Bible School about faith the size of a mustard seed that gives one the power to move mountains. Afterwards, we went to McDonalds for lunch and in the restroom there I devoted myself diligently to trying to move the garbage can with faith alone…. They had showed us just how big a mustard seed was and I was certain I had that much faith or more. Only it didn’t seem to work on the garbage can. Maybe it only worked on mountains. Anyway, I left the restroom crushed and convinced that I lacked any faith worth mentioning. Major Qualmage.

When you Google "Simony" you will find this lovely picture of Simonists in Hell.

In the culture today, and just as much or more in our Christian subculture, we are asked to believe a great many things. And many wonderful and good folks take those things as they are, dished up with brightly colored sprinkles and slick presentation, and they go back again and again to the ice cream dispenser of commercial Christendom … without a qualm, without a thought, without a moment to pause or reflect on either the quality or the truth of what is being peddled. In Acts Chapter 8, Apostles Peter and John had qualms about a man who offered them money for the power to give spiritual gifts to the masses. Peter’s response to that man was both gentle and understanding. He said, “May your money perish with you!”

For more on this topic, Google, “Simony.”

In conclusion, I could tie a nice little positive bow on this, quote something about clinging to “that which is good,” “if there’s any virtue” and all that … but that would ruin the tone of my talk. You’ve heard those things many times before and can quote them by heart, and if you would like me to pause for a moment of silence so you can do that right now I will.

Instead, I will conclude by saying this: Respect the Qualm. Love the Qualm. Embrace the Qualm. Accept the Qualm. Praise the Qualm.

Because you never know when you will be called upon … to select the right pair of shoes.

Thank you.