The Freedom In Forgetting

The elephants at Belfast Zoo were rocking. As soon as we turned the corner and saw them, we had to laugh. They looked like they were grooving to their favourite tunes on invisible headphones, and we started trying to figure out what song could make elephants dance like that. The game stopped, though, when we read the sign: these elephants had been rescued from captivity and hard labour. They had spent years working in logging camps and circuses, and had gotten used to being chained up whenever they were not working. The rocking had nothing to do with dance music: It was a coping mechanism, because for much of their lives, they couldn’t do anything else.

The backstory explained a lot, except this: The chains are gone now. The elephants live in a generous enclosure at Belfast Zoo, with plenty of room to move around and do whatever it is that pachyderms like to do best. And yet they rock in place, just as stationary as if the chains still held them. Over time, the chains had achieved more than their purpose of holding the elephant’s legs. They had somehow reached much deeper, locking their minds in captivity as well. And we all know that elephants never forget. Even after many years of relative freedom, the massive animals still live in self-imposed bondage, restricted only by their own habits. Their prison came with them in their heads, even though the actual chains on their legs were broken long ago.

I shouldn’t be too hard on the elephants, though. How many times have I, like them, been stuck in the grip of events long past? How often does my own mind rock in the ruts of past tragedies, broken relationships, personal mistakes and failures? Sometimes, rocking in my invisible chains is more comfortable than exploring unknown freedoms. But it won’t get me anywhere. I can catch myself thinking that a change in the weather is all I need to fix whatever is wrong in my life – a better environment, a different location, the removal of difficult people, the removal of the chains I’m tired of wearing. But the elephants teach me that I actually need much more than just the external freedom of happy circumstances. Even if I somehow get everything I want, I won’t be able to enjoy the freedom of it if I’m living under the constant weight of guilt, regret, sorrow, and broken habits from the past. The fact is, people living in the very best of circumstances can still shuffle through life in invisible chains that are heavy enough to crush them. Yet hope remains: even though we invented the chains when we ran away from him, our Creator has crafted the key. At the cost of his own life, he has shattered the powerful chains of the broken past and won for us the incredible freedom of being able to forget the past knowing that all that is wrong can be forgiven and all that is broken can be restored. The question for me, and for us, is simple: will I step into the wild, unpredictable freedom of trusting and following my Liberator, or stay in the stationary, steadily rocking comfort of my own memory?

The apostle Paul had the right idea:

“…one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

I Lost My Independence. And I’m Happy About It.

I lost my freedom and independence on the 9th of May, 2004. It was a sunny day in Virginia, and we were celebrating: Jessica wore a beautiful white dress and we hired tuxedos, a horse drawn carriage, and a chocolate fountain for the occasion. The pastor who gave the message told us that in one sense, the day marked a death. Not a physical death, but a death of our two independent lives which were now being joined together to create something new. He was right. In the fourteen years since that day, neither of us have had the freedom and independence we enjoyed before. In fact, over the years we’ve found three highly effective ways to limit our independence even further: their names are Daniel, David and Rebekah.

These days, people talk as if any situation that limits our options is a prison to be avoided at all costs. Absolute freedom to do as we jolly well please whenever we jolly well please to do it is the happiest situation any human can find themselves in, according to the chattering heads on the telly. Now, I’ve got nothing against freedom or options or any of that, but I’m here to say that the deepest and happiest experiences of my life have come as a direct result of choices to willingly give up my freedoms and limit my options. For example, the choice to commit myself for the rest of my life to one women was certainly limiting. There are billions of women in the world who are now off limits for me, billions of possible options which I now have no freedom to choose. Yet it is precisely this limitation which has given me a new kind of freedom that I never could have had as long as I kept my billions of options open: I now have the freedom to love one person with my whole heart – no reservations, no conditions, no hesitation. And unlike the billion options, which remain static and shallow, my freedom to love this one woman actually deepens and expands with time as we learn and grow together.

Similarly, our three independence-limiting offspring make many choices difficult or impossible. It’s hard to go to the cinema as a couple these days, and school schedules now shape our life in ways we thought we had left behind with childhood. We can’t travel to Paris on a whim or even go to the park without needing booster seats. But these lost opportunities are the walls surrounding a fruitful garden growing with a bounty of happiness. The walls may limit the size of my world, but I don’t mind. Many of the most delicious fruits need time and security to grow. These fruits don’t do well in the wild country where a million options rove freely, trampling anything that begins to take root. The wild country is a desert of rolling tumbleweed-people, too afraid to settle down to anything because there might possibly be something better over the next hill. No thank you. I’m happy to shut those noisy options outside and stay in my place where I can watch our sacrifices of time, effort, money, and lost opportunities grow into healthy, laughing people who constantly steal my heart and then fill it up until it bursts with pride and delight.

And it’s not just the family. I chose a job, and gave up the option of many other careers. We bought a house, and tied ourselves down to one little piece of land sprouting weeds and flowers. Yet with all these limitations, I’m not afflicted by the fear of missing out. After all, what’s the point of having thousands of choices unless we actually use them to choose something? I say with Chesterton; “leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself.” The freedom of having open options was never meant to be a goal in itself. Trying to keep this sort of freedom is like trying to keep your plate empty at a feast because you don’t have room to try everything. Life is a feast, and our time is limited even if our options are many.

As for me, I’d give up every choice in the world to see the smiles I saw at breakfast this morning.

Why Nothing Matters If There’s Nothing But Matter

The longest selfie stick in the history of humanity was 4 billion miles away from home when it took a picture of us. The photo is now famously known as “the pale blue dot”, because it happened to catch our planet as a point of brightness floating in a ray of sunlight. Astronomer Carl Sagan had suggested that NASA take the picture with their Voyager I probe, and he eloquently described the result:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Certainly, the sight of our entire world as nothing more than a point of light gives us pause. Being confronted with our own size is somehow sobering, and Sagan is quick to interpret this feeling for us by telling us what our tiny-ness means for us as humans:

“Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves….The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning….If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Sagan assures us that we are insignificant specks whose only hope of finding meaning is if we can create it for ourselves. He was not the first to say such things (Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, had popularised the same idea a hundred years earlier), but he lent the idea his powerful voice. Sagan speaks so well, in fact, that even when he slaps humanity down to size he is able to do it in a way that makes finding our own meaning and significance sound noble and wise and courageous. Or so it seems – until you stop to think for a moment about his claims: if we really are what Sagan tells us we are, than what possible significance and worthy goals can be achieved by the inhabitants of a speck of dust in a soul-less empty accident of a universe? The very idea that there is such a thing as actual “significance” or anything that qualifies as truly “worthy” for the inhabitants of dust motes floating in cold, uncaring nothingness is nonsense. He could have been honest about this, at least. He could have told us plainly that nothing we do actually matters, and never will. After shooting our significance in the heart, he might have at least acknowledged the death with a decent burial instead of trying to do CPR and tell us there’s still hope. In doing so, he gives himself away: he can’t actually live with the results of his own thinking.

And neither can we. If Sagan is right, than there is ultimately no such thing as inherent value for humanity. He has decreed for us that the only value a human can have is the value we assign to ourselves. Of course, he highlights the positives; speaking of the glories of tiny humans banding together to find some purpose for themselves beyond inevitable dust-mote despair. But he might have been considerate enough to at least mention that his idea also has a darker side: If we can assign value to ourselves, we can also un-assign value to ourselves. We can pick and choose, determining that some humans are valuable, while others are disposable. And we can do so using any criteria we like. We can even do it democratically – if enough of us collectively agree that some humans are disposable, who can stop us? This is Sagan’s gift of convenience to pragmatic politicians: Are elderly humans costing the health system too much money? Encourage them to dispose of themselves through euthanasia. Are humans with genetic differences complicating the education and social welfare systems? Encourage parents to test and dispose of these “imperfect” people before they are born, through abortion.

The implications could go much further (and probably will), but it’s interesting to note that this system only works one way. As long as we are using it to justify the de-valuing of lives, it runs smoothly and rolls easily over any obstruction. The trouble only begins when we turn the machine around and try to use it to assign positive value to life. Suddenly, we find that the engine has fallen out and we are left to push the monstrosity alone. The obstinate sticking point for this political dream machine is that it insists on going only one way, and then insists on going all the way. It can only remove value, and the moment we start it up for use against the inconvenient humans around us, we find it hungry to gobble up our own value as well. The problem is that a simple look at ourselves in the universe through Sagan’s eyes makes it hard to justify how any portion of the population of a speck of dust can ever make claims of significance and value for itself. When we zoom out to Voyager 1’s perspective, there’s really not much difference between a grown up speck of dust or an unborn speck of dust, or between a fantastically famous speck and the speck that inhabits a forgotten room in a mental institution.

Thankfully, we are not entirely at the mercy of Sagan’s meaning-munching machine. It turns out that in creating it, he has stepped beyond his authority. He has told us that the universe is big, and we believed him, because compared to it we are small. But he has not stopped there: he has also told us that the bigness of the universe teaches us that our small lives are inherently meaningless. But does this follow? Does smallness really preclude meaning? We might as well say that because we are not as long as a river, we cannot claim to run. The fact that we are small compared to the cosmos is just that: a fact. The further proposal that we are meaningless is not a part of this fact. Significance and meaning can rest quite well on tiny things in the right conditions. Which is exactly what Christianity teaches.

Unlike Sagan, the Christian does not look at the vastness of the galaxies as proof that we are alone, but rather as proof that we are in the company of Someone very large indeed. King David saw the sky and knew that he was small, which drove him to ask:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them? What are human beings that you care for them?”

What are we? We are small. But for David, our significance is not in our size or our ability to manufacture worthy goals (as if that were possible for dust motes). No, our significance is found in the fact that our massive Creator has been mindful of us, God Himself has cared for us. He has shown that He considers us significant.

And so we are.

A Hand In The Dark

“Sorry for your troubles”, they said, one by one, to the smiling lady who offered each one of them a cup of tea. But through her smile, her words were desperate: “To lose one son was bad enough, but at least we knew that was an accident…”

The second son was lying in the front room, pale and cold. The coffin was padded, unlike the rocks where he’d been found at the bottom of a cliff. There was no note. No reason. No signs and signals, even after every memory of every person was turned over in the search. There was just this pale face in the front room, this politely smiling mother, and these cups of tea.

There were eight of us who came up from the south coast to participate in this sunlit scene in the hills of Cavan. Four hours on the road each way made for a long day, but we had to be there. The man lying in the front room had been one of our sports club’s strongest leaders, and had been involved with several other community groups as well. He had done so much for us, and for so many others, perhaps partly because he hated to see anyone else have to go to any trouble. It struck me ironic that here was his family and us and all these neighbours and friends and associates, all going to so much trouble – all because the man who didn’t want to trouble anyone had troubles he didn’t want to trouble anyone with.

I’ll never know what pushed my friend over the edge, but I do know this: I know that hopelessness can be well hidden. It can be hidden under smiles, hidden under chats and cups of tea and friendly complaints about the weather. It can even be hidden under fame and fortune, as we’ve seen in several tragedies in the news recently. But hiding and trying to keep our heads above these feelings on our own is extremely dangerous. If you’re drowning, you won’t be saved by clinging tighter to yourself. The answer simply isn’t in us. We need help. We need someone to reach out to us with a hope that is bigger than we are.

It turns out, fame and fortune are too flimsy to hold us. Weekend bashes with the besties are too temporary to help. Promotions and romance and fast cars and laughing children don’t keep us safe. We need someone with stronger arms. Someone who can reach out to us and pick up all of our troubles and darkness and hopelessness and rebellion and wrong and evil and sin and die under the weight of it and rise again with the indestructible power of a hope that claims victory even over the darkness of death itself. This is the hope we need, and these are the nail-scarred hands that Jesus reaches out to us in our trouble and despair.

Falling into these hands won’t make every storm end, but it will give us Someone solid to cling to while we wait for the dawn, even if the night is long. I’ve never faced the level of desperation that made my friend choose to jump, but I have lived in smaller pits that still took a long time to climb out of. I’ve been in the shadows long enough to know that easy answers won’t do. Eyes that are accustomed to the dark are still blind if you turn the light on too fast. Broken legs that are set still need time to be nursed. Desperate hearts that find hope still need time to heal. But as we learn to lean on the hands that hold us, we’ll find that Jesus’ invitation is true:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

What’s New About New Ireland?

Hello! My name is Seth, and I live on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland. Ever since I was a child I have found that writing is the best way for me to collect my thoughts and process what I see and experience, so I’ve done a lot of it. I find that the world is a bottomless depth of wonder and intrigue, and this blog is a small attempt to scratch my way under the surface. So welcome to my new blog. These days, new things are usually considered to be the best things, so this might be the best blog you’ll read today. Anyway, it will almost certainly be the newest. And speaking of new-ness, you’ve probably heard more than a few people saying that the recent referendum landslide in favour of legalising abortion is proof that we are living in a New Ireland. No one denies it.

So what is new about New Ireland? First and foremost, New Ireland is Not Catholic. Except when she is.

According to exit polls, 74% of those who voted in the referendum described themselves as Catholic, although it’s obvious that a large percentage of these voted against Church teaching. This reflects the reality that although a strong majority of the Irish population is happy to participate in the rituals that have shaped Irish life for centuries, these rituals actually mask the real change in Ireland, which is not so much in Church participation as it is in Church authority. The change there has been drastic: the Church that used to have unquestioned authority over the halls of Irish power now has trouble asserting meaningful influence over the hearths of Irish homes. There are reasons for this, of course. The Church has shown Ireland that even those who dedicate their lives to God are not immune to the corrupting influence of power. Her power was shockingly abused by some of her leaders, and the Irish people rebelled in what our Taoiseach has called “a quiet revolution”. Although the majority of individuals in Ireland are still Catholic, the nation as a whole has set a new course. Ireland may be hung over on religion, but she is not listening to the Church anymore. New Ireland is not Catholic.

But defining things only by what they are Not isn’t enough. A black hole isn’t a planet, but it would help us more if we could figure out what it Is. New Ireland isn’t Catholic, but what Is it? Just like a black hole, it’s hard to say. So far, New Ireland seems determined to be as European as possible, substituting the goals and morality of Brussels in place of the hypocrisy she saw in Rome, and media presenters in place of the priests who used to teach her how to live. But New Ireland is still just that: New. New-ness comes with the smell of progress, by the simple virtue of being different from the broken past. But once the New has established herself firmly, her flaws will also become apparent, and it may turn out that they are not so very different from those of the broken past.

What was it, after all, that caused the fall of the Catholic Church’s power over Ireland? At the heart of it, there were selfish people, using power for selfish purposes. Will New Ireland be free from this? Don’t hold your breath. Examples already abound of bankers, politicians, and private citizens using whatever power they have for themselves alone. The question is: What can be done about it?

Old Ireland tried to cure selfishness by teaching people a system of rules to encourage them to submit themselves to God and sacrifice themselves for others – but the rules were not enough to stop some of her teachers from abusing the submission of others for their own selfish goals. In the end, we saw that rules alone couldn’t cure us. So New Ireland proposes a new and radically different solution. In fact, New Ireland completely re-frames the question: what if selfishness wasn’t the problem after all? What if the real problem was all the self-restrictive rules and talk about self-sacrifice, which made it impossible for the self to flourish freely? New Ireland proposes a new definition of the problem: we are suppressing ourselves. And so New Ireland proposes a new solution: the absolute freedom of self.

Who can argue with freedom?

Self-determination sounds incredibly liberating. The problem, of course, is that when we celebrate Self above all things, we end up selfish. If our personal freedom to make personal choices for our personal good is the ultimate goal of all things, than what is left to motivate us to give up any of these rights for the sake of the people around us? We find ourselves, in fact, right back at the very problem we were trying so hard to run away from: we become selfish people doing selfish things.

What we need is not more restrictive rules that try to mold the self from the outside. We’ve seen already that this doesn’t actually change our selfish hearts, it just makes us hypocrites.

What we need is not to liberate ourselves from all restrictive rules so that we can mold the world to suit ourselves. This will only make selfishness easier to act out, and harder for anyone to question.

What we desperately need is an entirely new self. There’s a reason Jesus said “You must be born again”. He knew that no external system, and no amount of external freedom, could cure us of our passionate, relentless, and yet ultimately self-destructive self-focus. His solution was the most radical of all: he gave up his own self entirely – even to death – to buy us the cure for our selfishness. He offers us an entirely new identity. An identity that places incalculable value on each individual self, while simultaneously re-focusing our eyes on Someone much bigger (and far more satisfying) than our tiny selves. Can we humble ourselves enough to stop staring at ourselves and start looking up? If we do, we’ll find that Jesus’ paradox is true:

“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”