Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Riding on a bus with no seat belt

Today I was riding home from work in a company-sponsored shuttle (I work at a large tech company that does all sorts of fancy things like that for their employees, it's pretty nice), and upon entering the bus I discovered that, as is true for many buses, this bus did not have seat belts.

And then, as I often do, I delved immediately into the philosophical implications of seat belts. It reminded me of when I was growing up, and how my mom would always make me wear a seat belt no matter how far we were going or where we were (rural, urban, near or far, though given where we lived in a city, it was mostly urban and mostly local travel). But upon reflection, I clearly saw how my mom's influence had driven me towards being a more... "careful" person in general. I can clearly see this pervading force in her life, this drive towards being careful in everything, and how strongly she attempted to impart that same drive into both me and my siblings.

I see it in many, many of the different aspects of how I relate to life and other people. I am always calculating probabilities and trying to find safest paths to wherever.

Some funny childhood stories to back this up. First, I should mention that all of this occurred before I became (or ever thought about becoming) Christian. My first story is how I had a particular stuffed animal whom I related with closely, and after seeing some forgotten horror movie or other, I decided it was possible that this stuffed animal might actually have a spirit or be alive in certain circumstances. So what I did was try to negotiate an agreement with the animal that if it would help protect me from evil spirits, I would always keep it in an open cupboard. I am not making this up.

The next story is that when I was somewhat older, I also considered the possibility that there were evil spirits who lived in our house's basement. This feeling was exacerbated by all of the bizarre and sometimes undecipherable graffiti left by the prior owners. Now on this point, I have some objective support because the prior owners were truly strange people who left some genuinely mystifying graffiti, including pencil drawings of twisted and malformed men, spray painted words and their names, and a variety of bullet holes in the bathroom we never used, near the broken glass. So as a young child, I think it's understandable that I would have some moderate fear of the place.

Add in to that, my mom's repeated assertion that I must always wear shoes down there to prevent myself from accidentally stepping on nails in the floor. This is perhaps a strange warning to give, since it was a linoleum tiled floor and there were no nails to speak of in the entire place, but then I've already written about my mom's tendency to fear every possible threat (and many impossible threats) of bodily harm. So with her warnings on the one hand, and my fear of evil (or at least strange) spirits on the other, I did what any rationale child would do and made a bargain with those evil spirits. I offered to always walk in the basement wearing shoes if they would agree to never harm me. I also stipulated that they were not allowed to leave the basement if I left the basement door locked.

(This is getting really long but I'm not done yet)

Then, when I was a little older, I made yet another bargain. This time I went straight to the top of the power chain and made a deal with God. This one is a longer story than the other ones, so I will give it in brief. On two occasions, I made particular assertions to a friend that he found non-credible. They were both, of course, complete lies, but I was not going to let that get in my way. As an effort to convince him, I made the highest oath possible to a child of that age: "I swear to God that is true". This was the thing that you said if you meant to be taken seriously. I don't remember anymore whether it worked, and it was about some childish thing or other so it doesn't actually matter. But I remember very vividly that some short time after the first occurrence of my "swearing by God" of a lie that I received some sort of unusual and painful injury. I remember even more vividly that after the second instance, I ended up cutting my thumb on an old, inactive lawnmower that we had in the yard while my mom was doing yardwork. Compared to other possible injuries, it was very light and non-life-threatening. But compared to what I had suffered before, it was very dramatic, involving blood gushing forth and an emergency room visit. I required some number of stitches (maybe 6-10 or so) and a big old cast and I couldn't use my thumb for some weeks after that while it healed. I still bear a scar from that cut to this day.

This was, to me, a wakeup call about how I was living my young, pre-pubescent life. I decided to get right with God, the only way I knew how: by making a deal with him. I wish I were lying, but I'm not. I thought, the only reasonable course of action is to make a deal with this omniscient God, as follows: I would always and henceforth admit that he existed, if he agreed to not do anything horrible to me like what I had just gone through.

As a funny coincidence (I use that term ironically), this story later played a surprisingly substantial role in my later conversion to Christianity, but that is also a very, very long story and is somewhat unrelated to my point in this post.

Why I relate these stories, and how they relate to the seat belt on the bus, is quite simple. Each of these situations was me attempting to take control of what is essentially an uncontrollable situation. I wanted to make "deals" with evil spirits that I did not fully recognize as existing primarily as an effort to control my nascent childhood fears and anxieties (I would tell myself, "why be afraid if you have a pact with the evil spirits?"). It meant nothing to my logical mind, but would pacify my emotional mind. And at the end of the day, fear will always come from your emotional mind and so no matter what logical garb these pacts might wear, they were not fundamentally intended towards logical soundness.

I wanted to make deals with these evil spirits because I wanted to feel that they had some sort of obligation towards me, that they were not free to impose their supernatural torment on my limited, natural self. And for the same reason I made a deal with God. All of these "deals" were completely bogus of course: who in their right mind would suppose that God cares whether you "believe in him" or not, such that you could control his actions by threatening to take away that belief? Who supposes that evil spirits care whether you touch the floor of your basement? But I wanted control, I wanted safety, and I wanted assurances that nothing bad would happen to me if I took some action or set of actions. And I feel nearly the same way about seat belts.

I would wear a seat belt to form some sort of inner assurance that as long as I take this one little step, nothing bad will happen to me. The car might get into an accident (as has happened when my mom would drive me to school), but the seat belt would protect me. Bad things might happen in life, but these little protective measures would always be able to keep me safe. I had a vague and disquieting recognition that worse accidents were possible, accidents that even a seat belt can't protect you from, but I would shut out these thoughts for the simple reason that, if nothing I can do can stop them from harming me, then there's really no point thinking or worrying about them. But at the same time, if you shut out those thoughts it can give you a false sense of security, and you can falsely associate your protective actions (wearing a seat belt) with the non-occurrence of very-bad-things (a semi-tractor-trailer smashing you and your car into tiny bits). This leads to a sort of modern mysticism, where your token or ritualistic actions provide irrational comfort with respect to totally unrelated events, and the non-occurrence of those unrelated events only strengthens the mysticism.

But what I have come to recognize more and more when growing up, particularly after becoming Christian, is that there are many, many events in life for which you simply have no protection. Or to relate it to my initial story and title, there are some buses in the world of life that have no seat belts, and never will. These buses come with different names and in different places (cancer, drunk drivers, asteroids from space, various diseases, crime) and some of them have partial mitigating steps you can take, but some of them there is really very little anyone can do to prevent their occurrence to at least some minority of people.

For me, and from a Christian perspective, this whole issue is related to the debate between faith-based actions (being "led by God") and wisdom-based actions (being "led by personal wisdom"). If I had more time I would go into more detail, but suffice to say I have a large number of friends who have been directed by God into specific situations, which are often much more dangerous than suburban America where many of us currently live. But this comes out of a fundamental realization that safety is not found solely through the application of human wisdom, but it comes from following God's leading and following his spirit. This is a topic of books and I'm just writing a paragraph, so forgive my lack of clarifying statements and specificity.

For example, I have a friend who, for many reasons, has chosen to live in Haiti. Haiti is statistically less safe than America (to put it blandly), so from a selfish point of view, you can question this decision. But he distinctly felt God lead him to go to Haiti, so he did. It might not make sense in human terms, but in spiritual terms, it does. And this is the heart of the issue. What if God leads you into a situation where your wisdom recognizes an increase of personal risk of injury? You don't have to decide what you will do, you have to decide by what criterion you make that decision. It is the criterion itself that, when chosen, makes the decision for you.

As Christians, my friends and I are often led into situations where the physical risk is greater than what it would be in other alternatives. In other words, I am led into situations not where there is no seat belt, but where God is positively asking me to remove my own seat belt, stand up, and walk up the bus while it is in motion to go talk to someone: a voluntary acceptable of extra personal risk.

All of this risk is justified through a single principle: the divine assurance that God will always be with me, to the very end of my life and even beyond. Or at Jesus puts it, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

I can say with only a tiny bit of facetiousness that truly Jesus is the ultimate seat belt in life. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, he will always be there to protect me if I get into an accident. This is what justifies going to Haiti, this is what justifies going to south Sudan, this is what justifies eating and drinking in a garbage dump outside Manila, where you're just as likely to get parasites as anything else, this is what justifies living 3 years in Nicaragua on behalf of people who can never repay you. Without the ultimate seat belt, none of these decisions would make any sense to any rational thinker. With the ultimate sense, it absolutely makes sense to voluntarily give up your life on behalf of others, because God is your protector and he will never fail you. Not even if you get hit by a semi-tractor-trailer and you and your car are smashed to bits, because God knows where every bit is and where it belongs, and he knows how to put you back together.

I still feel a little nervous when riding in a bus with no seat belts. It's habitual, really. But I feel better about it now than I used to.

1 comment:

Michaela Stephens said...

Very thoughtful post. I honor you for your honesty.