Where does your help come from?

There’s this scene most people don’t seem to remember, right before David goes after Goliath. Saul, king of the whole land, is scared to confront Goliath. But he’s okay with sending this scrawny shepherd boy after the giant. I mean, the kid volunteered. Still, Saul’s conscious must have bothered him just a little, because he offered up his very own personal body armor for David to wear. David gets all suited up, but then complains that he can’t even move because the armor is too heavy. So he strips off all the armor and goes out in essentially his running shorts, to take down the giant that has a whole army terrified. Because he’s going out in the name of the Lord his God, so why should he be afraid?

Most of us, especially in this country with an individualistic culture, are pretty big into self-protection. The thing is, the more I look into self-protection, the more it seems to me like it mostly just leads to either us doing things we regret or else actually harming ourselves – like wearing armor that just makes us sitting ducks and unable to engage.

There’s this graphic novel I read once, called Maus. A son was writing about his father’s experience through the Holocaust. The thing about the Holocaust was that it really wasn’t that long ago, but we’re already rapidly forgetting it. It’s hard to know if more horrible things than the Holocaust have happened, because if we’re already forgetting the Holocaust, you can bet we’ve well forgotten all the horrible things before that. So not to in any way focus on or trivialize that devastating time period, but simply to use it as a case study of living through horror, I’ve been thinking a lot about WWII.

This man who lived through the Holocaust, he was “a survivor.” He would do anything to survive. Anything. It didn’t matter if it meant by him being safe, someone else was suffering. Mind, I’m not trying to criticize. I have no idea what I would do in that situation. It just struck me so much that in the first half of the graphic novel, he was so bent on survival. But that in the second half of the graphic novel, it went on to show how terribly broken this man was, still desperate for survival long after the threat was over. He was miserable and paranoid and bitter and lonely and scared. And I wonder sometimes if we put too much value on survival.

On my Pinterest boards, I’ve begun collecting pictures of people who did thing that may have needed an incredible amount of courage or bravery. I find myself spending a lot of time staring into the faces of people who risked a good deal of self-harm in order to hide, evacuate or otherwise protect Jews facing imminent risk. Not all of these people survived; many did not. And I wonder, who really was better off – the ones who clung to self-protection at any cost, or the ones who would not be ruled by fear and used their position of relative safety to protect others?

As I said, I can make not presumptions of what I would or could do. It’s easy for us as armchair philosophers to muse about noble paths and heroes and character and courage. It’s a little harder when you are looking into what appears to be perfectly normal faces and hearing what it is they’ve done. And often they say, “we just did what any other person in our situation would have done.” And Elijah had a nature just like ours, but when’s the last time you prayed up an end to a seven year drought?

I think about hardship, because I think hardship is always part of life, for some in more dramatic fashions than others. So much so, that I don’t think there is any real thought on my part about avoiding hardship, but rather wondering what you do in the face of it. As I’ve gotten older, the world seems like a more and more scary place. I’m not at all sure that national instability across the globe has gotten worse or not; I suspect I’m just becoming more aware of how broken the world really is. There is a certain part of me that knows that fearing for the disintegration of the civilized world is nothing new; sometimes rumors of, and sometimes it really does happen.

But there’s another part of me that feels sort of like we do all see it, but don’t want to talk about it, like the Emperor’s New Clothes. We know that horrible things can happen. We know that civil unrest can turn into civil wars. We know that prosperity can’t last forever. We know that what goes up, must come down. We know, at a very deep level, that hardship is not just something our ancestors had to go through, as odd as it is to call my grandparents generation “ancestors.” We do our best to turn a blind eye to all the horrible things that are happening, and pretend that we can keep ourselves protected from the horror of it all. But we don’t really want to talk about it, either.

I kind of feel like that is one of the reasons why the Zombie Apocalypse (and it’s cousins) motif is so strong right now. We kind of know something bad is headed our way, but we kind of don’t want to talk about it. With no real name and no real face, we play out in our minds what we would do if our own personal safe little universes crumbled into chaos. How we would be safe, even in a disastrous situation. How we would be strong, not helpless.

And some people take it a little further, and while the “prepper” culture is nothing new, it’s beginning to make in-roads again. Was it just last summer when one of my distant relatives was talking about it? It’s just so fascinating, and yet so sad to me, because the preppers are all about self-protection. All about “I got mine.” It’s not good enough to stockpile food; you have to have the ammo to keep the hungry people coming after your food at bay. What about, you know, taking care of other people, too? Maybe even people who don’t deserve it?

I want to be that kind of person. I want to be that kind of person that meets adversity head-on, and doesn’t say, “look, I took care of me; you take care of you!” but rather feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, comforts the grieving, cares for the hurting and just says, “what? people are important.” How do you prepare to do that?

I am increasingly convinced that the only way you can do that is if you throw away, right now, your notion of self-protection. That self-protection makes you live in ways you regret, hinders you from doing the things you want to do, and causes you far more harm than good.

And that’s an every day challenge, because, oh, how we want to be safe.

In big ways and in small ways, and in high stakes and in low stakes, in decisions we have control over and in situations that are just thrust upon us, we want to be safe.

My current crisis is opening my email and finding I’ve been accepted to a clinical rotation, states away. I have no housing there and no way of finding housing; no family or friends or acquaintances or even a person that knows I exist out there; it will be the armpit of winter then, and everyone knows I don’t do so well with winter. I have no plan, and no idea of how to get a plan. And I wonder what had hold of my tongue when I said it sounded like a good idea and to sign me up. Because it’s a stupid idea.

But the thing is, this rotation is supposed to be at a clinic that focuses on reaching people who most need help: the itinerant worker. The homeless. People you can’t make money off of, but people who most need help. More and more, the still quiet voice inside of me says that’s what I need to do. Not have a good job. Not attend to people far away. But go back home and take care of the forgotten people who need to be taken care of. And this rotation seemed like a good idea, at the time, to help prepare me for that.

At the time. Now it seems stupid. Because I have no plan. I’ve run a household of twelve when I was just sixteen, and just last weekend I helped run a wedding with three hundred guests. Do I ever know the importance of having a plan! This is just risk compounded with a low likelihood of return. My gut response is to run away. There goes my courage in the face of hardship, right out the door, yes sir.

Someone made the point the other day that love casts out fear; it doesn’t prevent it from ever coming knocking. What do all the angels say? “Don’t be afraid!” We know that you are. In truth, it seems that God is frequently asking us to do things that appear to be quite stupid. And to have no plan or clear explanation of how or why. Just have faith, and go. Every ounce of my self-protectionism and my planning says that this is dumb, to the point I struggle to find the words to tell my family that this is where I’ve been placed.

I chose it. I said the words. And now I’m scrabbling around trying to find enough faith to go forward, and I just can’t face incredulous looks on top of everything else. Yes, it’s stupid. I know it’s stupid. I have to go do stupid things for God, okay? Only it’s hard for me to say things like that, because I have a pretty good idea of some of the sorts of things that were justified with claiming God said so. A bunch of horrible wars, among other things.

And at the same time, it makes me feel ashamed. Because here I am, thinking that when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, I don’t want to be one of the people hiding; I want to be one of the people helping. But put me up against an uncertain future involving a 10-week stay in a foreign environment with no plan for shelter? Apparently, I wilt. I am unworthy.

I can’t even see myself past an unexpected car repair bill that was twice as high as I ever thought it might be. I have nothing to offer. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t working.

Wither Does Thou Wander?

I begin to think we confuse simplicity with honesty, or perhaps a better word is authenticity.

What is the allure of the Amish, the plain-clothes people who shun this digital age? They seem to have a simple life, but it’s not the agrarian lifestyle that really pulls people in. What is with the sudden explosion of popularity in “country” themed weddings, by people who have no country roots at all? Maybe we know the Hollywood glamor is full of duplicity and instability, and want to comfort ourselves with the idea that the simple things stand more firmly. What about the hipster-fueled trends toward leather and canvas? A backlash against dubious descriptions of “man-made” fabrics. Even a typewriter seems more honest than a computer – physical input leading to gears and springs and ink and paper, rather than the indescribable “electronics” shoved inside a plastic casing. The so-called Paelo diet touts that it was what our ancestors ate, back when we were still an honest race.

More simple? Perhaps. More honest? The Amish are people like any other people, with all their foibles; trading one pretension for another offers no protection; and painfully deliberate stylization offers no honesty. And even thought the typewriter seems more accessible, should the Zombie Apocalypse come along, most of us are no more capable of making a typewriter than a computer. And the Paelo diet is practically cult-like in it’s insistence there is only one way to eat.

Our school classes made us watch a fairly convincing TED talk that what people really want is authenticity. You can be fake-fake (do a bad job pretending to be something you aren’t), fake-real or real-fake (Disney experience vs. Marvel Studios, I think was the examples he gave), or real-real. Really be what you really are. The talk was presented in terms of on how to monetize things, and we were greatly encouraged to offer an “experience” to get ahead in today’s market, but I think it totally missed the point — a deeper, more elegant point about human nature. We’re looking for the truth.

I’ve always been fascinated by clothing design, and how people can shape their appearance to communicate a different narrative. Later, I learned to appreciate how a different angle or a different setting on the camera could dramatically influence what was presented as happening to the viewer. Now, I find myself with an eye on both myself, and on the culture around me, with the question in my mind: Who are you really, and who do you want to think of yourself as being?

Sometimes we romanticize things. I can rattle off a good deal of professions I can’t help but imagine are more beautiful than they are: a florist or greenhouse, a sous-chef or a baker or a caterer or even the sole proprietor of a small cafe, an herbalist, an artistic painter, an aid worker, a 1950s house wife, a pioneer, a costume maker for a theater, a volunteer fire-fighter — the list goes on, and that was a quick list. I could draw up similar lists for clothes, or living arrangements, or lifestyles. Many other people could draw up many other lists, each different than the others. But our lives don’t look like our lists, so what does this mean?

Some people would say we should be more mindfully pursuing our lists. Maybe. I don’t rule that out entirely. Do we really want our lives to look like glowing screens and poor posture and instagram posts? What would we have to change if we didn’t want our lives to look like that — and what would we have to sacrifice, and is it worth it? But maybe part of the question is, what do those lists themselves tell us we are looking for?

This is quite non-scientific, as I’ve not had the opportunity to look at thousands of authors’ lists. But if I were a betting person, I would bet that most of us are probably writing up our ideas of authenticity. I pretty much drew up a short list of artistic, honest, courageous and dedicated occupations (not each occupation drew on each attribute, but taken as pieces of the whole, I think that’s what you have there). It is not that I am specifically pining, really, for any of those. It’s just that I expose that I think that those attributes are worthy things to pursue, and while I may (or may not) find those things in my daily life, I have a soft spot in my heart for those professions that I think reflect authenticity, or trueness, or rightness, or whichever word you think best captures the idea of us trying to attain a glory we’ve fallen from.

The real-real is too much to attain. We can’t really be who we want to be. And we’re all stumbling around in various states of fake-fake, fake-real, or real-fake, and putting on a pedestal those things that seem, in some way or in some part, to reflect real-real.

I can understand this back-drop to all of our  striving, but I still struggle with the “so, what?” At the end of the day, we still have to live our lives. How are we supposed to do that? I don’t think the answer is “with cheap cliches,” even religious ones.  I guess for the most part, I challenge myself to stop and consider why I like what I like. . .and is it really what I like, or do I just like the pretty picture it paints? What things need to change, and what things are just things to learn not to be self-conscious about, or actually shouldn’t be changed, because it is chasing after something that shouldn’t be chased?

I don’t think there is or will be a definitive answer about these things. I just think that they’re things that should be examined and considered and reflected on. It’s too easy to wake up and wonder how you got there.

I have this deep seated sense that the little things do matter and do add up, and I am concerned that not only do we not pay enough value to the little things, we’re chasing the wrong little things, and excusing it to ourselves as a “safe indulgence” under the presumption that little things don’t matter. Maybe it means we don’t get a break from chasing, and we should pay attention to what we’re chasing — especially with those poisonous lookalikes, such as simplicity and honesty, who we are and who we would like to be, what is really important and what we are just caught up in, or accomplishment and character.