At one point the institutions for which my husband and I worked both offered retirement planning seminars. He dutifully went. I didn’t, but felt the nagging guilt of a neglected responsibility all afternoon. I do believe we have some responsibility to take care of ourselves and the future we may have, so as not to burden our children with expensive care, and so as to care kindly for one another and others as long as possible. Having said that, I’m led to think about the price we pay for the sense of security that comes with careful planning.
You get a lot of points in this culture for being a good planner. If you plan ahead, you can save money on season tickets, get special rates on vacation rentals, have your Christmas shopping done before the seasonal frenzy, and avoid last-minute trips to the grocery store before weekend company comes. Good planning can enhance hospitality and good stewardship. It can enable us to care for those around us more effectively. So let me here offer due appreciation to all the good planners in my life, some of whom have compensated for (or borne the consequences of) my own failures to plan well.
Having said that, I want also to reflect on how admonitions to plan ahead often lead me to puzzle again over Jesus’ suggestion that we “take no thought for the morrow.” It is hard to avoid the challenge those words (and all those lovely lilies and birds of the air) pose to the common wisdom most of us live by. Taking no thought for the morrow seems—doesn’t it?–a little unrealistic. Not to mention scary. And impractical. Possibly a useful guideline for itinerant missionaries in the first century, but not so clearly helpful for us lot who inhabit the suburbs, invite large groups for holiday dinners, and keep track of our multiplying social and professional obligations on devices with names like “oracle” and “palm pilot.”
In his radical way, Jesus does seem to drive to the heart of our most entrenched concerns for our own comfort, safety and well-being. The world has always been a threatening place and fear lies at the very core of most human conflict. We want the security of the womb, the parental embrace, the cave, the castle, the stock portfolio. The need to feel secure drives an astonishing range of behavior, from purchasing household alarm systems to joining clubs, to supporting the mass-marketing of self-help books, to opting for autos with airbags to making war against dubious enemies and allowing our wires to be tapped and our basic privacies invaded in the name of “national security.” We lay aside money for retirement, live among the likeminded, and move to safe neighborhoods. We invest in violence to protect national interests. At our worst, we protect our sense of safety at others’ expense.
But the sense of safety itself may be a dangerous thing. WH. Auden’s disturbing little poem, “Leap before You Look” opens with a startling assertion:
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
And the last line restates the first in a new key: “Our dream of safety has to disappear.” Auden wrote this poem in late 1940 as he considered the implications of a world at war for private citizens who might well be required to forfeit the comforts of disengagement in facing competing dangers to life and freedom. With characteristic bluntness and the curious lilt with which he tended to deliver disturbing news, Auden issues a memorable reminder not to invest one’s sense of safety in the wrong things—not to, as he puts it later in the poem, “consent to live like sheep, and never mention those who disappear.” The poem is a call to courage—not only the courage to resist the evils of oppression and violence, but more basically than that, the courage to recognize our existential situation: that whether we “look before we leap” or not, whether we exercise proper prudence or not, and even if we lock our doors, secure our money in safes and banks, and cultivate a diplomatic neutrality in the presence of enemies, we will have to commit ourselves one way or the other to a course of action that involves decision and risk. To act in this world at all is to step into troubled waters without knowing the depth or the strength of the current.
Literature, from Homer and the Bible onward, provides a long, rich record of those who stepped into those waters, forfeiting common securities for the sake of adventure, in obedience, in curiosity, in loyalty, in response to the call of God. Those are the heroes. The villains can be recognized by, among other scurrilous traits, their appetite for control, their drive to provide for themselves and their own security over against that of the community. They protect their territory, their inheritance, their privilege, their interests.
One of the more interesting recurrent stories about longing for security is the Faust myth. Told and retold by various writers, most notably Marlowe and Goethe, the story chronicles the downfall of a man of great learning who longs, as Paul put it, to “understand all mysteries and all knowledge.” But that desire is his undoing. The dark side of his longing to know is his fear of not knowing—and more than that, his refusal to accept the limits of our condition as beings radically dependent on a God who, insistently paradoxically, invites both our curiosity and our trust. Our condition, the writers remind us who have probed and retold that story as a warning to the power-hungry of their own generation, is one of fundamental uncertainty. All of us face a basic choice between trust and the struggle to know and control. To invest our best energies in the kinds of knowledge that seem to hold some promise of control—that will allow us to stave off disease and death or deflect the enemy’s missiles with “smarter” weapons—risks losing, tragically, the chance we are given to learn the great lesson of love. Knowledge is good; prudence is good; shrewdness is good. Love and trust are the bigger virtues, and better.
The lesson of going beyond common sense and legitimate self-interest, as Jesus teaches it, is deceptively simple: “If you brother asks for your cloak, give him your coat also.” (This is imprudent. It might be unsafe. I might freeze rather than he.) “You shall beat your swords into ploughshares and your spears into pruning hooks.” (And with what, then, shall I defend myself when the enemy comes?) We’re not all David, and Goliath is very large, and his armor thick. It is hard to imagine that the five smooth stones lying in our path might be enough to stop the hostilities where they begin.
Both the biblical story and the vast repository of wisdom literature afforded in folktales and fat schoolroom anthologies return to this theme with abundant clarity: the security this world offers is a delusion. The security God offers is a promise. In God’s kingdom—in the final analysis–he little guy wins. The child pulls the sword from the stone. Angels protect the blind man. The escaped slaves find manna outside their tents. And even in the moment of violent death a song of exultation rings from the throats of martyrs.
Of course poverty and danger and death don’t always shine with such hope. Even as I write people are being held and tortured and too many of us opt not to know or act on their behalf. Children caught in political crossfire are killed. Others are held in cages. The poor die in squalid back rooms, unattended, and unspeakable crimes are perpetrated on the helpless. So how is it not presumptuous to insist on the value of letting go, being vulnerable, accepting insecurity?
Even for us, who live in the relative (and precarious) safety of a privileged nation, learning not to live in fear can be a long and repetitive process, especially as conflicting, well-funded news sources market fear in the form of daily crises. The need for security runs deep, and the deceptive attractions of what the world calls safety has powerful allure. The messages are incessant: if we’re sexy enough (thanks to particular products) we’ll be loved. If we plan carefully enough (with the representative at our local bank) we’ll live comfortably. If we take vitamin supplements, join a health club, and follow the doctor’s orders, that life will be long. If we consent to this year’s military budget, and support Homeland Security we’ll have another year of what we may be able to convince ourselves still looks like peace in our land. These are forms of hardcore “common sense” that compete uncomfortably with biblical wisdom.
Those of us who are believers live in this paradox as we live in all the others Jesus insisted upon. “He who saves his life will lose it. He who loses his life for my sake will save it.” “Let not your hearts be troubled [he said, on the night before his execution]; I have overcome the world.” He sent the disciples off into threatening and inhospitable situations equipped only with sandals and staff—without even (and this hits close to home for some of us) notes for the public speaking they were to do to doubtful crowds: “Don’t worry about what you will say. It will be given to you.”
What if we actually believed the counterintuitive claim that spiritual teachers from Jesus on have insisted upon against all concrete evidence: You are completely safe. You are safe in the arms of God. We sing this, (those of us who are still using the old hymnbooks): “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” “Leaning on the everlasting arms” we are “safe and secure from all alarms.” I imagine that, even if we did keep our retirement plans and our wall calendars, our lives might look significantly different. They would certainly be more conspicuously countercultural. Imagine for a moment what it might be like not to live in fear. We would say what we meant. Kindly, one hopes, but clearly, without fear of reprisal.
We would give away money, things, time, much less guardedly.
We would make our decisions in a spirit of deep attention to the call of the moment, listening and moving with the invitation of the Spirit to act, without second-guessing.
We would plan less. We would let things unfold.
We would behave as children do who know their parents’ watchful eyes are on them—in the freedom of knowing someone will catch them if they fall.
And, to do this, our sense of self would have to run deeper than the self-protective ego that needs and wants and craves. The self (Jung distinguished it from the ego with a capital S) that God loves and preserves from all harm is larger, deeper, more resilient, more mysterious, and more lovely than the ego-personality-time-ridden selves to which we generally confine our attention. Socrates’ “Know thyself” is not such a simple matter. Perhaps it’s not possible here, where our vision of ourselves is clouded, like our vision of everything else, by a glass through which we see darkly. Perhaps it’s sufficient that we are known, better and more lovingly and thoroughly than we can ever hope to know ourselves. That the watchful eye of our heavenly parent is, indeed, on us, and will let nothing touch that immortal part that came into this world on a breath of life and is headed, always, for home.
If we realized, even now and then, how securely we are held, if we could meditate on Jesus’ words not to fear those that destroy the body (including the ravages of disease, the mad gunmen, the night stalkers, the makers of weapons, and all those who compensate for their own fears with threats, humiliation, and violence) we might, now and then, look around and recognize in our worldly habitat a playground of possibilities.
I think of the people I know who live like this with amazement and gratitude. I think of a woman who freely and even delightedly gives away whatever is hers whenever she sees a need because “it’s all God’s stuff.” I think of my outspoken grandfather who, though he stepped on a few toes, spoke timely truths in startling ways, and went on with his day humming, quite detached from others’ defensiveness. I think of a friend whose freedom from self-defeating guilt, shame, or self-doubt gives her a generous creative energy and appetite for life that offers those around her some measure of what our various insecurities drain away. I think, too, of what our nation might be if we expended our efforts on making the rest of the world, instead of just ourselves, secure, asking God to bless everyone—not just America.
It seems to me a self-evident truth that there can be no worldly security where some live in fear. Fear breeds violence. “National security” might be better served by devoting the bulk of our money and efforts to helping others feel safe from our own weapons of mass destruction, and from the global threats posed by our own patterns of waste and polluting consumption. What if we were to trade a bit of our “security” for peace? What if we were to seek a kind of security rooted in the conviction that “everybody does better when everybody does better”? Or in the conviction that in Christ we are members of one body, and on this planet members of one human family, whose security is a matter of utter, radical interdependence? That effort, I imagine, would result in a startling, perhaps alarming shift of focus in everything from foreign policy to habits of consumption to forms of worship.
Security of the kind most of us seek much of the time is a delusion fueled by competition and conviction of scarcity. But real security is not a zero-sum game. It can’t be achieved at others’ expense. And even the inner, personal sense of security we seek in our most private thoughts can only come, I believe, with a widening of heart and consciousness beyond what we have learned to call immediate necessities and personal benefits. In T.S. Eliot’s magnificent final poems, Four Quartets, the speaker returns repeatedly to the theme of radical insecurity, describing, and inviting the reader, to a state of not-knowing that is both terrifying and liberating:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. (28)
That kind of security feels a lot like insecurity. Waiting on God, listening into the silence when we want words, hoping for a sign when no risk assessment offers sufficient information on which to plant our next step, daring to love when love seems self-defeating—these are hard assignments—at first. But there is a habit of mind and heart, attested to by the faithful over the ages, that learns to rest in uncertainty, embrace the silence, and take the risks with downright delight in what looks like foolish abandon. A mind transformed in this way knows that the security God offers is not a promise about what won’t happen, (we’ll be kept safe from plagues, bombs, and sudden poverty) but about what will happen: “though I descend into the depths of hell, behold even there they right hand shall hold me.” The Psalmist appears to have recognized the distinct possibility of descending into Sheol. His comfort lies not in avoiding that disaster, but in knowing God will accompany him even there, and that his loving presence will suffice.
Investing our hope in the security of retirement plans, smart bombs, or even seat belts is clearly hope for the wrong thing. Loving our way of life, or even life itself, in this world, in this body, on these terms, is love of the wrong thing. One reading of these lines suggests that faith, hope, and love, the three great “theological virtues” inhere in the state of waiting that asks not what comes next and how can I prepare for it, but of standing before the Divine Presence in readiness for whatever the moment brings, poised to welcome whatever is next from the Master of Surprises.
A line in William Stafford’s poem, “You and Art,” offers this reassurance: “you live on a world where stumbling / always leads home.” We do. Directionless and uncertain as we may feel, we are led, often despite ourselves and even unaware, toward the arms of a love that will not let us go. Believing that, our insecurities are transformed into the curiosities and surprises of a journey offered for our learning, whose risks are not ultimate, and whose rewards may reveal themselves belatedly and in unsettling ways that take us beyond and behind every small false hope to what we hardly knew enough to hope for.