Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dependent vs. Independent

"Amen, amen I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."  (John 12:24; Jesus in the King James Bible, penetrating into the heart of man, for whom even in the beginning it was not good to be alone)

Americans have always taken pride in their "rugged individualism"...their independent spirit. Indeed as I've journeyed forth from my standing as an American first and foremost, to now one more in balance with who I am as a Christian, I've found myself at odds at times with those individualistic tendencies.

There is a strong strain in American life that resents (or scorns) the idea of dependence. This feeling makes it easier to want to get rid of grandpa when he becomes incontinent, or your wife when she becomes disabled, or your unborn child when the ultrasound shows a strong likelihood of trisomy 13. One thing that I really don't like about that strain of culture is what it does to families, extended families. I have heard of people hosting foreign exchange students from Vietnam or other cultures, and of the student's extended families pitching in to help them as much as they can. They pay for the student's education, their computer, anything they need, because they're a family and that's what families do.

Our culture seems somewhat broken and disconnected; ironic considering we fancy ourselves living in the age of connectivity.

I am reminded of a fable, which actually reminds me of Lewis' The Great Divorce, in which the new arrivals to Hell are deposited in the center of town, and the older inhabitants are perpetually moving to the outskirts to get away from other people, other people (unlike oneself, of course) always being responsible for the disagreeable and quarrelsome character of the place.

Once upon a time there was a man who wanted to be independent.

At first he lived in a city, but every morning the street-sweeper would come by, saying, "Hello there!"  That rankled the man who wanted to be independent, for he knew that without the street-sweeper the streets would shortly grow so clogged with trash that no cars would be able to make it through.  "I want to be sufficient unto myself," said the man.

So he moved to the suburbs, he and many another.  But one day he heard the rat-tat-tat of jackhammers outside.  It was the water crew, working to repair a broken main.  "Hello there!" said the chief.  But the man who wanted to be independent frowned.  He saw that as long as he had town water he was dependent on the men who fixed the water-mains, and upon the workers at the sewer plant and the reservoir -- the thought was too horrible.  "I am the cause of my well-being," said the man.

So he moved to the country, where he could have his own well and grow his own food.  But one day the axle on his plow cracked, and he had to get a new one from the blacksmith.  "Hello there," said the blacksmith.  That again was too much for the man who wanted to be independent.  He left the farm and moved into the woods, setting hand-made traps for small animals, gathering berries and roots, and sheltering himself from the elements with sticks and thatch.  "I need no one now," said the man, filthy and ragged and single-minded as he had become.  But whenever people would move closer to his woods, the man would pick himself up and move further away, further north, into more and more forbidding lands, first wilderness, then the tundra, ever praising himself for his independence.

Finally one morning an Eskimo canoe forced him off his haven near the shores of Baffin Island, about as far north as anyone alive ever goes.  He picked up and started walking, inland.  He was old now and not always in his right mind.  It seemed to him that he walked on for days.  "Couldn't be," he thought.  "Need food."  But instead he kept walking, walking, past the tundra, past any signs of life, even a scrap of lichen clinging to an icy stone, finally past stones jutting from the ice, on into a landscape that was all ice, like the interior of many a misnamed Greenland, and then past ice itself into nothingness as far as the eye could stretch.  His feet ached, but he was urged on anyhow, and for the first time in many years he felt the loneliness he lived.

"I knew I should have saved that compass," he muttered.

Finally after years of walking, beside himself with worry that he had lost his way and would never escape this strange geological formation, he saw about five thousand thousand miles away a shadow in the shape of a man.  "At last," he thought.  "I can at least ask directions.  No point overdoing things."  So on he walked.  When you have been walking straight out of your physical life into the other world, to walk another five thousand thousand miles is no great deal; but to the man who wanted to be independent it seemed endless.  "Maybe he'll leave before I get there," he thought.  "Maybe he has another appointment.  Wait, wait!"  But the shadow did not move, neither towards him, nor away.  And in his madness the man who wanted to be indpendent imagined the shadow might be that of a beautiful woman, perhaps that of his own mother.  "Mama," he cried out.

At last he reached the spot.  The shadow was as shadowy as ever, more the silhouette of a man than a man in reality.  But the shadow could speak, and that was something.

"Hello there!" cried the man who would be indpendent.

"Hello yourself," said the shadow.

"You don't know how glad I am to see you!" said the wandering man.  "I must be lost.  I left the shore because of a canoe -- never could stand the things.  I wanted to be independent," he said.

"Fancy that," said the shadow.

"Well, a little conversation after so many years does my heart good," said the man.

"So they say," drawled the shadow.  A wisp of smoke came from him, probably from a kind of cigarette.

"But what are you doing here?" asked the man.  "Do you know the way out?  How do you manage when there's nothing for miles and miles?"

"Used to serve a Fellow," said the shadow.  "Had to thank him.  Hated it.  Got out.  Came here."  The shadow flickered for an instant with a kind of red light, more like a memory of light than a light in truth.

"But now, the two of us, we're together, we can make a go of it.  Just you and me.  Set up for trappers maybe, or prospectors.  This could be gold country -- another Klondike!  We can be independent all the same.  What do you say?"  And the man was on his knees, pleading.

"I say what I said to that Fellow then.  I say what I always say.  This universe ain't big enough for the both of us.  Now get lost."

"But where should I go?"  The man wept.  "Which direction should I take?"

"Go to hell," said the shadow.  "Go north.  Every direction in this place is north."

Now...balance the above fable as well as our notions of rugged individualism with the following meditation:

Meditation XVII
by John Donne


PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.


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