A Meditation on Futility

A Kansas farm family fights a losing battle with the relentless "hoppers" in a cartoon by 19th-century illustrator Henry Worrall. (Kansas State Historical Society)

In 1874, farmers in the Great Plains had their crops devastated by a swarm of locusts, the like of which the world had never seen, nor is likely to see again. Witnesses say that the swarm was as much as 110 miles wide and more than 1800 miles long, at times blocking out the sun for six hours at a stretch. Where they landed, they consumed everything. They devoured not only crops, but the wooden handles of farming implements, and even the wool off the backs of living sheep. It caused many farmers to cut their losses and move back east – Kansas alone lost as much as a third of its population that year. The locusts caused an estimated $200 million in crop damage alone. At one point it was a legal requirement that all men between 16 and 60 work for two days killing hatching locusts, or face a $10 fine. The plague was, to say the least, devastating. And then – for reasons that nobody is altogether certain of – they declined in number and became extinct by 1902 (http://www.historynet.com/1874-the-year-of-the-locust.htm).

 

It was a piece of history that I found myself meditating on during one of those moments of metaphysical introspection I am prone to, during a conference in Cape Town this week. As one of my colleagues was presenting, my mind fell – as it habitually does – to pondering the futility of it all. The things that we were talking so passionately about would hardly matter in two hundred years. These people – so important now – might at best be a picture in a dusty yearbook or a name in a footnote of an obsolete journal in a century’s time. Their names will soon be forgotten, their achievements rendered meaningless.

 

I started thinking about how, all said and done, we are no different from those locusts. Our individual lives are (not to the individual, obviously, but for all intents and purposes to everybody else) meaningless. Only the colony has a chance of enduring. We spend our lives contributing to the larger functioning of the hive, labouring under the illusion that we are pursuing our own dreams. We go to sometimes quite extraordinary measures to leave a name behind, but – as John Webster writes – “leave but nets to catch the wind”. In our own way, we voraciously devour whatever we believe will satisfy our hunger, and leave in our wake utter devastation. Our personal histories, and our corporate ones, are littered with stories of avarice and destruction.

 

Maybe that is why we find ourselves so entranced by water, or enthralled by the vermilion glow of burning embers. Perhaps in the ceaseless cadences of the tides, in the ancient stolidity of mountains, or lost in the primeval memory of a forest, we are – on some subconscious level – reminded of just how insignificant we are. It could be that the indifferent canopy of stars, the restless transience of clouds, allow our souls – however briefly – to touch the infinite and acknowledge our impermanence.

 

Maybe that is why our interactions with nature are so often tinged with an inexplicable sort of sadness; why when we gaze out to sea there is a mysterious sense of loss. Like Breughel’s Icarus, we know that we, too, will someday plunge into the icy deep and the world will barely notice our passing. On an individual level anyway. The swarm will continue to sweep relentlessly down from the Rockies, laying waste to all in its path.

 

We were designed – from everything I can see – as a collective. Maybe that is why the emphasis by the Christian church on personal salvation doesn’t always sit too comfortably with me. The evidence doesn’t seem to point in that direction. I am not trying to downplay humanity’s need for redemption, or the necessity of Jesus’s sacrifice. Nor am I suggesting that God does not love individuals individually. Rather, I am suggesting that Biblically speaking, and in nature as a whole, the emphasis seems to be on the importance of our corporate identities rather than our personal ones. The personal is important, Biblically, but finds its truest value in the context of the body (see 1 Corinthians 12 as an example).

 

I believe that it is only once we lose a sense of our own importance that we can see the importance of life, once we stop fearing being insignificant that we are able to live significantly. Only once we are able to stop worrying about all the things that ultimately do not matter, can we see the things that do. Instead, we live out our days like those locusts: an urgent flurry of consuming and procreating, oblivious to our impact, blinded by hunger. We cannot comprehend what Jesus said, that only those who lose their lives will find it; that everything, as Solomon noted, is meaningless.

 

I do not find this revelation disturbing. I am not saddened by it. Quite the contrary. It is liberating. Micah 6 verse 8 reminds us what it is that God requires of us: to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with Him. It is a commandment predicated on the primary importance of the group. It tacitly acknowledges that personal ethics are important only because they impact on our key relationships – with God, with our communities, with ourselves – not because being good is a worthy end in itself, or to win God’s approval. Freed of the hollow promises of personal significance, and the fears of failure and disapproval that often accompany them, we are able to live lives that harness our strengths, complementing others as they express theirs, and where the quality of life within the group is thus enriched. The individual is most powerful, most empowered, and the quality of life of each individual is most enhanced, when the individual perceives her value to be located within the context of a larger cause. And the focus of Jesus’ ministry was always abundant life (John 10:10).

 

So when the applause wrenched my mind back to the airconditioned auditorium, I was far from discouraged by the unavoidable futility of my life and my work. As I got up to speak, it was with the assurance that comes from believing that as long as both my words and my character inspire other individuals in the swarm to be more discerning in satisfying their appetites, in choosing their path forward, it might be possible to mitigate the devastating legacy of the swarm. And there will be others who think like me, like my colleagues. God, who holds all time and space in His hands, designed a system that does not depend on the whims of any one – desperately finite – woman or man. We are a tide. And the tide is unstoppable, irrepressible. I know His will for His creation will prevail, with or without me. I find comfort in that.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Meditation on Futility

  1. This is a fascinating piece and has really made me stop to think. It reminds me somewhat of the concept of 1984 (George Orwell), although from a very different outlook. It makes me think of how we all participate in the wider society, how we contribute daily and our actions shape the world around us, perhaps without our knowledge. I am not sure how comfortable I am in the idea that I am defined by the wider society (this is more due to my personal thoughts on consumerism which is so endemic), but this is a brilliant piece. On another note, the idea is almost liberating, as you discuss. This has given me much to think about. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

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    • Thank you for taking the time to read it. I am also not sure that we are defined by the wider society – although to some extent that is unavoidable – but I am convinced that we find our highest expression when we are part of something bigger, and lose the idea of selfhood as an end in itself. I’ll pop over to your blog and read your thoughts on consumerism. You have me intrigued 🙂

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