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Figure of Speech

By Gerry Turcotte

 

Placebo buttons

07/01/2015
Gerry Turcotte

How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!
Luke 24: 25

How many times have you pressed the “door close” arrow in an elevator? If, like me, your answer is “several hundred times,” then rest assured the exercise was futile. Government policy, especially as it relates to disability legislation, prescribes the unalterable length of time an elevator door must remain open. The button is there for emergency personnel and usually only works with a bypass key. Similarly, most crosswalk signals no longer function to change the light. But they do make you feel as though you are having an impact while minimizing your impatience.

And don’t get me started on thermostats. Many landlords install dummy thermostats to give the illusion of control, while also ensuring that potentially costly adjustments to climate remain strictly under lock and key. The term for these dastardly objects, as my son recently pointed out, is placebo buttons.

I can’t lie to you. I was a bit shocked to find this out, even though, on reflection, it seems obvious. I’ve never had a door close, or a light change, after my machine gun pushing of the wretched button.

This led me to reflect on other daily deceptions that we either accept willingly, or negotiate without realizing. For example, not so long ago I was studying a map and came across a town that I didn’t know existed.

“Oh,” said my son, continuing with his annoyingly quirky knowledge, “that’s just a paper town.”

“A what?” I asked.

“It’s a town that mapmakers invent to catch people who illegally copy their material. Phantom settlements, trap streets, and cartographer’s follies. If you plagiarize and get caught issuing a map with a town that only exists on Google, then they’ve got you cold! Don’t plan a trip to Goblu and Beatosu, Agloe or Argleton! It’s like dictionaries.”

It turns out that producers of dictionaries similarly make up fictional words to entrap would-be plagiarists. These ghost words are designed as copyright traps. My favourite example of this is The New Oxford American Dictionary’s “esquivalience,” purportedly meaning “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities,” but actually meaning nothing at all. Some of these fake terms become so popular that when they are eventually removed people get seriously upset.

I sometimes feel that people treat faith like a placebo button. When danger lurks or fear rises, we hit that button for all its worth, but as soon as the light changes, we forget it was ever there. Unlike the phantom town on maps, however, faith points to a location that is deeply felt, and for those who open their hearts to God’s truth there can be little as inspiring, as sustaining, and as . . . real.
I think often of the story of Christ on the road to Emmaus and wonder how many of us, if we had the opportunity to walk in stride with Jesus, might fail to recognize him. When our “hearts are burning within us” there’s no need to panic — we should just open our eyes and see what is really there.

Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.