Recently in conversation with a friend, I was reminded of when the doomsday of Y2K was on everyone's mind. Do you remember it? Several people I respected were in the thick of major purchases and collections as security against the world as we knew it coming to a screeching halt. In the first half of 1999 I was a grad student who was focused on my upcoming wedding; world news wasn't even on my radar screen. But these friends' plans couldn't help but cause me to question whether I also should be concerned. My gut told me I had no vocation to go off the electric grid or learn survival skills. My gut told me they were getting carried away. And even though on occasion I spoke from my gut to these friends, my respect for them somehow left me somehow with a slightly sticky residue of worry on my soul.
Today there is no magic date on which people fixate (oh wait, how could I forget the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012!). But in certain circles survivalist thinking is alive and well. As I recently told a friend who was finding herself similarly stuck as I was in 1999, I have nothing at all against surviving. It's a good idea. I'm even quite interested in the movement toward homesteading, subsistence farming and, yes, going off the grid. But mixed in with these ideals that I consider quite romantic, attractive and brave, I often find a mentality that is simply toxic to the soul.
I think some people choose to go into a deeper-than-the-cultural-norm step into self-sufficiency because they really love hard work. They love the thrill of subduing the earth and causing things to grow and sustaining themselves. I admire that. Some may also have ideals of providing for others or teaching others to love the work they love. This is good.
But there is something more involved when there is toxicity. Sometimes it is blatant, and sometimes it is subtle, but I think part of the something more is the idea that a very intense form of "bucking up," a form few others are taking, is direly necessary. It's the "I'm going to be fine and everyone else will be screwed" sense. I think there is both fear and pride involved. (Of course, fear and pride are involved in just about every human endeavor! Can't be far off!) There can be this sense (and if you read in certain political circles as I do, you'll recognize this) that I am part of the chosen remnant, the last few people who have any sense whatsoever. There is something very ugly in this. It is the sort of thing that provokes insecurity in others who don't want to be left out, and who would actually consider selling their soul for the safety that the hard working bucker up seems to have. There's some esoteric knowledge that seems they have, and surely I will be among the screwed if I don't follow suit, despite my better inclinations. Something in this appeals deeply to human instincts, and offends human sensibilities at the same time.
In this conversation with this friend, I recounted to her the experience that impacted me significantly back in 1999. It was All Saints Day (November 1), and a warm one to boot. The leaves in our local cemetery were at their absolute peak of beauty, and a lady at Mass strongly suggested a walk there. (It's a very park-like atmosphere, I always have to explain to folks who aren't local.) I went, and sat in one of my favorite spots, intending to pray the rosary. As I looked up at the trees. I don't get moved by trees, hardly ever. But I was suddenly stunned to silence, and the words of my prayers seemed almost a profanation of the holiness of the moment. I was overwhelmed by the realization that this stunning beauty was created by God, and funny little creatures like squirrels were scurrying around it in, as their home. They weren't paralyzed by anxiety. They weren't panicking over their acorn quotas. They were glorifying God by being the creatures they were created to be, expressing their "thanks" in simple living. I knew that even when they died, they would die as God's creatures. It struck me, hard, how silly it was for us to be anxious over Y2K and our lives. There is beauty that is far more than a tree, and there is life that is far more than gathering acorns (or survivalist supplies). I knew that for me to worry over these things was to cut the Author of Beauty right out of the story of my life. And if I did that.... what would there be?!
None of this is to say that hard times do not come to squirrels or trees or people. Suffering and death are asked from us. And there is nothing wrong with trying to shield one's family from suffering and providing for them. But what is our real need and the ultimate provision? There are millions who live in physical want daily. How many more millions live in want of Beauty, even amidst physical plenty?
"Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well." (Mt. 6:33) As Rich Mullins reminds us, the things God promises to add including making sure we "dress like flowers and eat like birds!" What is it I really need and desire? The punchline of this life is that this life is not the punchline. It is eternity. Which, of course, starts here and now. So, how do we store up for ourselves treasure in heaven? (Mt. 6:20) God has promised us "Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you" (Heb. 13:5). With that promise of provision, the provision of God's presence, my life is secure. I trust this to be true because I've seen it borne out in my life. So I can testify to my friend that it is true, just as others who lived it before me testified to me that it is true.
Life is rough, and this is how we need to remind and encourage one another.