The Power of Goodness
By Bobby Neal Winters
The other day I went out to have breakfast with a friend at out of our local downtown diners. These are places wherein the 1950s still linger not only around the edges but dead center as well. Every table is furnished with salt and pepper and a container of sugar. Each sugar container has a cracker in it to absorb moisture and prevent clumping. Some of those crackers look like they are left over from the 50s as well.
My friend, having reached the age where he has to monitor his food closely, ordered only oatmeal with cream and brown suguar.
“I still allow myself the cream and brown sugar,” he said with a bit of a smile. “I enjoy what I can when I can.”
For my part, I ordered two eggs over medium with ham and wheat toast.
“Wheat toast,” he teased me. “That’s practically health food.”
He’d directed his remark to the room at large and a patron who was eating alone at the next table enjoyed the remark in particular. It turned out that he was my friend’s pastor and my friend made introductions.
After he’d introduced the other fellow as his pastor, he he introduced me by name and then by vocation.
“He teaches math and the university,” he said.
This can be awkward as some folks seem to feel obligated to disparage my life’s work on such occasions. I have had other clergymen on such occasions tell me how much they hated math. What if I would respond that I hated God? Not that I do, but you get my drift.
This fellow was different though.
“You don’t say?” he said. “You know, even though math wasn’t my best subject, it amazes me.”
“Oh?” I asked. Having been jaded by years of libel, I was unprepared for this graciousness.
“Yes,” he said. “Recently something that happened at my church brought out how surprising math--and people--can be.”
He’d said that he’d been serving the same church for over twenty years and knew every personality in it. It was a church that was full of characters. There were a couple of ladies of the church who were very much in the “church-lady” mold. This is a stereotype made famous by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live, but it didn’t arise from a vacuum.
“These are good, generous people,” he said. “I don’t want you to misunderstand me. But their goodness carried an unpleasant overtone of pride. They were proud that, even though they gave charity, they never needed it themselves.
“I tried working against this in my own subtle way by preaching about receiving gracefully, but, as with so many of my sermons, both subtle and blunt, it went right over their heads.”
Each of the women, it seems, prided themselves on giving more than they took. Indeed, each claimed, loudly, in public, and often, that they gave twice as much as they received. This all begin one day when the two women, Lois and Eunice, were together. One of them, let’s say it was Eunice though it doesn’t matter, found a penny and, not wanting to seem greedy, gave it to Lois.
“I don’t know what would’ve happened if they’d been alone,” the minister said, “but they weren’t. Other people were watching, people who’d heard the loud proclamation of giving back twice as much as had been received.”
The next day, Lois gave two cents to Eunice. The day following that, Eunice gave Lois four cents.
“It became a game with them,” the minister said. “They would laugh and joke. But the power of mathematics is like the power of God. It works in small things.”
After seven days had passed, the amount of money going from one to the other was one dollar and twenty-eight cents.
“It was all in pennies,” said the minister. “They continued to scrape up pennies wherever they could find them.”
At first they had just passed the pennies back and forth in zip-lock bags, but on the ten day one of them switched to 2-liter pop-bottles.
“There were ten dollars and twenty-four cents worth of pennies and it filled the 2-liter bottle almost a quarter of the way full,” he said.
On the twelfth day, the bottle was almost full and on the thirteenth day they had to go to two bottles.
“This took on a nastier sort of tone on the fourteenth day,” he said. “That was the day they broke $100. My congregation is not rich, and $100 is at least a day’s pay to most of them. That day one gave the other $163.84 in four 2-liter pop bottles. I saw the exchange take place. The bottles were from a generic brand of pop, and the look that the one gave the other wasn’t a look of charity.”
I was beginning to doubt the minister a little. In fact, I had kind of doubted him from the beginning because this is an old mathematical chestnut. It’s usually done with standing the pennies on the squares of a checkerboard. You put one penny on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, so that when you get to the twentieth square the stack of pennies was a mile tall.
As he was talking, I’d surreptitiously taken out my smart phone and looked up the physical dimensions of the penny. I’d worked out even the volume of that many pennies and his numbers of 2-liter pop bottles seemed plausible.
But something had to give before too much longer.
“On the fifteenth day,” the minister said, “the pennies weighed as much as Lois’s husband. On the sixteen as much as Eunice’s, and he was six-foot eight-inches tall with a love of ice cream.”
The minister sort of smiled at the last, but then grew more serious.
“They were now beyond their savings and had begun to pawn family heirlooms,” he said. “They no longer met face-to-face but just sent their husbands back and forth with the pennies.”
At this point, I gently broke in.
“So how does this all come out?” I asked. “This couldn’t’ve gone on much longer, much less for ever. What happened?”
He smiled at me in a sad way.
“You are right,” he said. “The mathematics controlled this. It make me think of Calvinism in some way, but I digress. It stopped after nineteen days. On the nineteen day, Lois’s husband was exchanging $5242.88 with Eunice’s husband. It was in 116 2-liter pop bottles and weighed almost 3000 pounds. As I mentioned, Eunice’s husband had a love for ice cream and it proved to be his undoing and he dropped dead of a massive heart attack during the exchange.”
It was at that point, apparently, that Lois’s husband realized he’d never had that much cash as his disposal all at once in his whole life, so he called up his old high school girl friend Tamara, exchanged the pennies for twenties, and headed to Vegas.
“He hasn’t been around since,” the minister said. “Eunice and Lois have been comforting each other over their respective losses. I hope they have learned something about the sin of pride.”
“Or the geometric progression,” I said.
“At least,” the minister said.