I was reading a book this weekend, in which a woman constantly told guests not to drink coffee while sitting on her white sofa. She didn’t want stains. This ludicrous statement was preceded by a chapter full of good ol’ zombie dismemberment-and-shotgunning that spattered hunks of undead meat, brain remnants, and ichor onto everything in the apartment.
I didn’t really see the irony of the statement until I woke up this morning. I started wondering: would she allow people to drink water on her couch? You couldn’t see a water stain. How about milk? Milk is white, kind of like couches. Coca Cola? Tea? What about those little soy sauce packets? She didn’t say anything about other drinks. Just the coffee. Maybe she needed better coasters. Or (given the presence of zombies in her apartment), better guests.
I guess what struck me is how often, when presented in our lives with a situation we can’t control, we tend to find something we can control, and grapple onto it as if it provides all meaning to life. Can’t very well control the zombie menace, but certainly you can control neutral, complacent nonspilling guests from drinking hot brown caffeinated beverages while using your furniture.
We hate being confronted with insurmountable situations, so we automatically find smaller, more manageable situations that we can control. Bad day at work? We shout at the kids. They’re an easy target. It helps us feel like we’ve regained control. Do you feel bad you don’t go to church regularly? We do. So we suit up, throw our kids into the back of the station wagon, and show up for Easter Sunday, to ease our conscience. We hope the crowds of other non-attendees will mask our own particular non-attendance; maybe we can slip in a side door without Sister Beverly accosting you and asking why Junior hasn’t been in Sunday School for the last few months. We then throw a $100 bill into the collection plate as a soul-appeasement offering.
I guess I might be unreasonable. We can’t possibly do everything at once. We need to break larger, more complex, tasks, into smaller chunks in order to accomplish a big goal. You don’t lose 40 pounds by chopping off a leg. Well, if you’re a zombie, that’s always an option. But you’d mess up the couch. At any rate, where do we draw the line at misdirection? Maybe a little is even good for you. If you’re stressed out at work, nothing seems nicer than going home, popping open a beer, and opening a book, where you read about people with bigger and more interesting problems (and zombies) than yours. It places your stuff in a new perspective.
In the wonderful Terry Gilliam film The Fisher King, Tom Waits has a cameo role as a homeless veteran in a wheelchair. He delivers this monologue to Jeff Bridges:
See… guy goes to work every day, eight hours a day, seven days a week. Gets his nuts so tight in a vice that he starts questioning the very fabric of his existence. Then one day, ’bout quitting time, Boss calls him into the office and says, “Hey Bob, why ‘ontncha come on in here and kiss my ass for me, will you?” Well, he says, “Hell with it. I don’t care what happens, I just want to see the expression on his face as I jab this pair of scissors into his arm.” Then he thinks of me. He says, “Wait a minute. I got both my arms, I got both my legs. At least I’m not begging for a living. Sure enough, Bob’s gonna put those scissors down and pucker right up. See, I’m what you call kind of a “moral traffic light”, really. I’m like sayin’, “Red! Go no further!”
So, I guess what I’m asking is where is our moral traffic light? What is the force that stops us from doing stupid things in stupid situations to people who don’t deserve our anger? I like when people say God, or the Bible. I like it, but I don’t think it’s a complete answer. Christians can be just as sporadically mean-spirited as anyone else. Religion doesn’t withhold us from yelling at our neighbors for picking the apples from the tree that shades both our yards.
I don’t know what helps you, but nature helps me. I like walking on the trails behind our house, and listen to the insects buzzing (before the cicadas get all crazy in the summer heat, at any rate). Watching the ripples of a pond, or listening for a deer as it crashes through the dead leaves. We’ve had two consecutive 90-degree days (32c for my Canadian and European friends) and I’ve been awakened the last three mornings at about 5 AM by the birds who are sensing dawn. I walked to the car yesterday, and saw two bumblebees the size of my thumb, hovering like ominous drones over the azalea bushes. The day buzzed with insects. Our kitchen has become a haven for stinking, rotten ants again. Springtime means things are coming alive.
I marvelled yesterday when I thought, “where were all the bugs this winter?” Why don’t they all die when it’s 0 degrees (-17c) outside? Deer, foxes, insects. They all come back after the cold winter. The book of Luke, from the Bible, reports Jesus as saying “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” Now, I admit, scripture doesn’t breathe moral life to me all that often, but three or four verses have stood out, and have actually pointed me in a moral direction, rather than providing a historically interesting text to parse. The passage continues with Jesus’ famous “consider the lilies of the field” speech, but I won’t bore you with more two-millenium-old words. Suffice to say that, whatever your religion, or non-religion, these few sentences speak with depth and meaning: stop obsessing about stuff! You can buy another car after you’ve hit a moose. You can replace the sofa after the inevitable zombie apocalypse. I won’t tell anyone to trust God. I will say, however, to look at the small things, just for awhile, and be amazed. If bees can survive all winter, I bet we can find something more powerful and amazing in the universe than having to control it. Just give it a try. Oh, and while you’re at it, stay away from zombies. They will sit on your white couch, mess with your XBox and drink your beer.