No safe paths

‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world.’

So says Gandalf, as he prepares to leave Bilbo and the dwarves, who are about to enter Mirkwood. Bilbo wished for another way, a way around the dark and sinister-looking forest. But even the very long way around the forest–hundreds of miles out of the way–isn’t safe. And so it seems for us,  in a time of political uncertainty, social unrest and moral conflict–not to mention the constant threat of terrorism: there are no safe paths.

So little of our world is like the Shire and so much of it is like Mirkwood. But few are the Gandalfs in our world, warning us not to leave the path. It seems to me that we have forgotten what the real dangers are. Suffering and death are not the real dangers: they will come anyway; they are a part of life. The real danger is that of spending all our time and effort in avoiding suffering and keeping death at a distance. In so doing, I think we miss so much of what life is about. Too much concern with safety and comfort is perilous.

Gandalf understood this, perhaps. Tolkien seems to have grasped it, anyway. I am afraid, however, that we who live without hunger and fear are too easily persuaded to prize safety and comfort unduly. It is hard, when we are concerned for our children and our way of life, not to believe that safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. Two things ought to be said, though. The first is that I believe in safety: I make my children sit in car seats and wear seat belts, I don’t let them wander, and I probably protect and comfort them to a fault. Even so,  I cannot protect them from skinned knees and broken bones, or from disappointments or failures. And even the comfort a mother can offer does not take the pain away. But they are remarkably resilient. They recover. And they’re not afraid of trying again when the first time was painful or even disastrous. I think of my 5-year-old daughter’s constant cartwheeling. She improves gradually. Sometimes she bangs a foot or ankle, or her arms give way and she crumples to the mat. But she gets up, always, and tries again.

So–and this is the second thing–there’s nothing wrong with valuing safety and comfort. The danger is that the concern for our own safety and comfort, so natural and understandable, begins to shape our attention to the world in ways we are no longer able to see. Then, we fail to move beyond the confines of our safe, comfortable world. We become blinded to the way in which our safety and comfort come at the expense of others’ basic needs. It doesn’t have to be so, obviously. But it’s pretty hard to know how far my comfortable life, and the products and privileges that make it so, would not be possible without the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and power that keeps millions of people in poverty. My having more than enough cannot be completely unrelated to others’ lack.

Let me be clear, though: I am not inviting you to join me on a guilt trip. I eat meat. I drive a car, even sometimes for pretty short trips. I buy snacks for the children that are packaged in too much plastic film. I don’t always recycle everything I should. I drink coffee from Starbucks and even occasionally let the kids eat McDonald’s. I live in the middle-class world and I won’t pretend I don’t like my safety and comfort as much as the next person.

What frightens me, though, is the idolization of safety and comfort. Comfort is no longer a privilege, but a right, and safety as basic a need as hunger. None of us are wholly safe, and we don’t even realize the dangers that threaten us. What we will pay for safety or false security–that worries me. And the expectation of comfort so common in the children of the middle class (like mine)–that worries me.

It’s the lights of the fire and the smell of elvish food that ultimately lure Bilbo and the dwarves from the path through Mirkwood. Were they enticed by safety and comfort? Perhaps. And they almost get eaten by spiders, and they’re captured by the elven king, and they nearly lose their way entirely. Staying on the path is hard, and you don’t even have to believe that it’s the “narrow path” of being a disciple of Jesus to know that that’s true.

Our lives are a journey. There is a path. It leads through dark forests. We will not always be safe. We will not always be comfortable. But what we need is not more cushion and more protection. We need courage. We need hope. Because, really, there are no safe paths in this part of the world.

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not this again

It is, I confess, one of those days. Unfortunately they are all too common these last few months. You know, the days when it all looks and feels pretty bleak, no matter what the weather. The sun is out today, actually, but it doesn’t matter. I know that the world is full of people whose lives are desperate and perilous in ways I can’t imagine, that hunger and thirst and terrible loss are the daily reality of so very many people in the world.

And I am sitting somewhere warm and reasonably comfortable. I have family and friends. I am not hungry or in danger. I can say to my daughters and sons when they are afraid at night that there’s nothing to fear–and I know that it is true. They’re safe, and they’re loved, and they have enough to eat and the opportunity to get an education and to play sports. Privilege. Luxury. Not only that, but the assurance of a strong faith and a hope that is in God and not in any of that stuff that makes life easy for the educated (a PhD, no less) white girl from the suburbs.

It’s all good. And yet, the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Misery. For no reason. Everything shouts at me: be glad! But I am not glad. Or, rather, even though I know with an absolute certainty that somewhere inside there is gladness and hope, I cannot for the life of me find it. I can say to my soul, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me? / Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

Probably those two verses–or is it only one verse?–are the only reason I made it from 22 to 32, when there were so very, very, very many days like this. And here they are again, both the days and the bit of Psalm 42 (and 43) that got me through them. So, I guess I will say, with some frustration and petulance, “Not this again!” But that won’t be the end. It never is.

Eventually it will be that other thing again, that hoping and smiling thing, that thing that is not-depression. The joy will find its way to the surface of my consciousness and I will not only realize that the sun is shining, but I will feel its warmth and see how bright and beautiful the snowy landscape appears, bathed in its light.

And I will say again, with proper feeling: Deo gratias.