June 15, 2014
How do you value-sort your goals? When you think, “I will do this (whatever it may be),” on what basis do you label your chosen goal ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘sensible’ or ‘foolish’? And what if your chosen goal is, so far as you can determine, ‘bad’ and ‘the best available’ ? What then?
One of the disciplines of aging grows out of this dilemma. There have been several days this week in which my ‘work’ has entailed grappling with this reality: I can think what I want to do, I can think what I should do, and I can think what I can do. However, I cannot easily decide a plan of action since what I can do has little (or no) relationship with want and should at the given moment. I can only do what I can with what I have where I am. (If only I hadn’t said that so often—and so publicly!—and in print!! Words often come back to bite us! Sigh.)
Doing what we can with what we have where we are lies at the core of resiliency.
In most circumstances when we refuse to act out of this reality, we have rejected the only proactive option available. We have chosen nothing over something because we do not like the something that lies within our reach. Limiting choice to the want and should is acceptance of a toxic dualism in life management. Refusal to do what we can do on the basis that it is neither what we should nor want to do becomes, in the end, a choice of death not out of necessity but rather a reaction to the ambiguous, ambivalent uncertainty that lies at the very foundation of life itself.
Now: this truth in story.
After years of wandering, God’s people had reached the boundary of the Promised Land. God called a solemn assembly and confronted his people with a dramatic choice. “Today,” God said, “I lay before you life and death. Choose life.”
This choice was not as easy as it might appear. Choosing life entailed dealing with reality as it was, not as they wished it were, or (privately) thought that it should have been if God had managed things properly.
In some respects, sitting on the river bank was appealing—there was no apparent danger to this option. God’s people could look longingly at the land (and life) they wanted, the promised but not yet possessed. They knew this land held grapes and honey; the scouts had brought them evidence of this. Certainly they wanted more of the grapes and honey they had tasted. However, the scouts had reported as well that the land held walled cities and hostile people and that battles were a certain part of the future. God’s people wanted to enter the land—they wanted what they knew was possible in that Promised Land. But the problem with their “want” was plain to see: what God’s people wanted was not available on the side of the river where they were camped.
God’s people were also clear about their responsibilities. They knew that, in obedience, they should “take” the land. But at the moment, all that they could do was cross the river and enter into all the risk and danger that lay on the other side.
The reality of doing what they could do with what they had in the situation in which they found themselves was in one sense an absurdity. They could wade the river—men, women, children, desert wanderers all—they could pick themselves up and move on, on into a rich and dangerous unknown. That was all at that moment that they could do where they were with what they had.
This can-do option of entry held a powerful ambiguity of promise and risk. True—Yahweh had promised victory, but victory by definition entailed battle. Further (carefully noting the fine print) in promising victory, Yahweh had not promised a fatality-free conquest. What if—in victory—one of the fallen soldiers among God’s people were a friend—or a family member—or oneself?
And obedience itself (the should-do) had become an ambiguous matter. The God that at Sinai had commanded “You shall not kill,” was now orchestrating a plan which required God’s people to kill. Granted that the target of the potential killing was God’s enemies and the enemies of his people, but that distinction did not help much in clarifying the issue. Could one of God’s people be at the same time God’s enemy? (Their own history suggested uncomfortably that that could be so.) And could one of God’s enemies be at the same time God’s friend? (History indicated as well that that too was possible. A lot of strange things had happened on the long journey from Egypt to Canaan).
Who wants to grapple with such paradox and contradiction in figuring out what obedience looks like? This option—what God’s people should do—carried a frightening possibility of uncertainty and potential dispute with Yahweh Himself. To be one of God’s people and a part of God’s triumphant plan, ah, that would be an adventure with a marvelous ending. However, adventures are tricky things: to reach the triumphant ending, there is the uncomfortable matter of wading the river, facing a new, hostile world in the process of occupying the Promised Land.
That wise Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, became a great authority on the matter of adventures. One of my can-do’s this last week was to review Bilbo’s own great adventure and to think about what he learned. Sitting tiredly with an old book was neither what I wanted to do that day nor what I should have been doing according to my schedule. Nevertheless, the experience taught, and I learned again about the advantages of doing what I can.
At the beginning, you may remember, Bilbo held a decidedly negative view of adventures of any sort. Adventures, in Bilbo’s opinion, were nasty disturbing uncomfortable things certain to make one late to dinner. But one day (leaving his breakfast unfinished!!) without quite knowing how it happened, Bilbo found himself outside without a hat, a walking-stick, money or even a pocket handkerchief, off on an adventure with all its inconvenience and risk. Bilbo’s adventure (he titled his story There and Home Again) required a long uncomfortable journey, terrifying danger, friendships with strange people, real and terrible beauty and joy, and real and terrible loss. But at the end, as Gandalf noted, Bilbo was not the Hobbit he once was, and his opinion of adventures was quite different.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.*
At the end of that quiet afternoon, I was able to come home again into an inner shalom, a place of meadows green, of a familiar long-known truth: to choose to do what I can with its limitations and uncertainties is to choose life, and that, without exception, comes to a good place in the end.
See you next week.
* J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. P. 323.