Don’t Be A Copycat

I was a teaching assistant in graduate school for a while, and one of the things I used to do was collect and grade the homeworks. I would work on a scale of zero to 2. Two was you made a good effort at all or most of the work. One was you made a bad effort at all the work, or you made a good effort at only a part of the work. Zero was you didn’t hand anything in or you really didn’t do anything. Zeroes were very rare for me if someone handed anything in.

We had a weekly seminar-type lab on one class on machine design that I would direct. One of the students, a kind of smooth-talking character, came up to me and asked if he could go to the bathroom. Sure. A little later, I had to go to a secretary’s office to make a copy. The copy machine was limited to faculty, and you had to have a key to use it, so I was working with the secretary to make some copies for the seminar. Just then, this same student comes to the doorway and asks if he can make a copy. It was pretty strange, because everybody knew that students couldn’t use that particular copy machine. The secretary gave a “no”, and the student left.

So anyway, I collected the homeworks at the end of the seminar like I usually do, and later that evening started to correct them. I finally got to the homework of the student who came looking for the copy after he asked to go to the bathroom. It was literally a photocopy of another student’s homework, name and all.

I took my trusty red pen and wrote across the top, “You’ve got to be kidding!” ZERO. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe he had the guts to do it, not just handing in a photocopy of another student’s homework, but after actually asking to use a photocopy machine right in front of me!

There’s nothing more aggravating, nothing more frustrating than copying. Copying takes the greatest growing opportunities in life and crushes them. And it’s obvious. There’s a tell-tale sign of copying. It’s not that people come to the same conclusion, or get the same answer to a question, or take up the same method or style. All of those things are necessary. Everyone should have a conclusion, an answer, a style or method, and if those are any good, you’re going to have similarities. No, the tell-tale sign of copying is when the UN-necessary things are the same. The same nonsensical wording, the same confusing side calculation, the same pointless ideas, the same misspellings. It’s in those UN-necessary things that copying is made plain and obvious. And the first thing I always think as my heart sinks, is, “You’ve got to be kidding! Zero.”

I remember a story that was shared when I was studying engineering. Some American auto engineers had gotten a hold of a particular part in a foreign car. This part was made eerily like a part that they had designed in their own car. They knew that it was a copycat. How did they know?

The American engineers had gone through a re-design of their part some years earlier, needing to change some of the locations of holes in the part. But, it was expensive to change the machines that made the parts. So, what they did is, they left the old holes in the parts, and added the new holes in afterwards. So, basically, the American parts had a bunch of holes in them that did nothing and didn’t interfere with the new design. Useless, unnecessary holes. And the foreign part? It had all the holes, too! “You’ve got to be kidding! ZERO.”

Where we are in Ecuador, there are lot of bugs and there are no glass windows, everything is open air. That means that bugs come into homes and other spaces like churches too. And there are flies that are really drawn to sweet things, like wine. On a hot day, when you put out wine in a glass or cup, you get a swarm of flies gathered for a party. That is where that square cardboard thing that is used to cover the chalice cup at the Mass comes in handy for priests. Because it is necessary. But that cardboard thing, called a “pall”, has somehow become an important thing in Masses everywhere even where there is no bug problem. It’s still used and put over the chalice like some necessary ritual, when it is unnecessary. There are some priests who regard the thing with more reverence than they have for altar boy who brings it over, and many seminarians have suffered some torture or other over the years over the right use of the pall. That’s an easy call: copycat. “You’ve got to be kidding! ZERO.”

Then there’s the bells at the Mass, and the types of vestments, and, well, you know where I am going. Copycat. ZERO.

The Pharisees were the people in the Gospel who got the hardest time from Jesus. Whitewashed tombs that looked pure on the outside but had death on the inside, people stuck in external ceremony, or, especially, copycats who “for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.” (Mt 15:6) “You’ve got to be kidding! ZERO.”

See, Jesus knew everything about the Passover celebration because it all had personal meaning to Him in His life. He related it all to His whole life day by day, and over time in His mind He pruned out the unnecessary and completed what it was. He knew exactly what to do at the Last Supper, because He knew what everything really meant in it, without any unnecessary bells and palls. That way, He could authentically reveal it to everyone, give it its fullest expression, and make it a whole new thing. That is being truly authentic. That is holiness.

My point is this. In our life, God does not want us to be copycats. In our families, in our work, in our friendships. Especially in our religion. He does not want copycat love, He does not want copycat work, and He doesn’t want copycat religion. He doesn’t want to say to us, “You’ve got to be kidding! ZERO.” He wants us to trust Him and not be afraid to be authentic to Him and ourselves in all we do, in the middle of all the opposition to it and all the popular currents and the humiliation and failure that can go with it. He wants our fingerprints with His on our love, on our work, our prayer, on all that we do.

Being authentic is all God wants, it is good enough.

Don’t be a copycat.

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