Systematic Living; the bird who would be caged

6 07 2010

A man named Leo once told me that he thought he would love to have a bird, but he thought it cruel to keep one trapped in a cage.  The beast was made to fly and be free, and here it is, stuck in a tiny little prison.  I asked him if he believed that caged birds were unhappy.  He believed that they must be.  I asked him if he had ever owned a bird, and he had not.  Then I asked him what he thought would happen if a person were to open the door to the cage and walk away.  He said he imagined that the bird would just fly right out.

Now, I’m not a bird expert.  I’ve heard that the zebra finch is very difficult to keep caged if the opportunity presents itself for the bird to escape.  I’ve never owned a zebra finch, but every other caged bird I’ve seen, including the few that I’ve owned, have been very much opposed to leaving their cages for any reason.  I’ve seen cage doors left open for hours, with the bird sitting as far from the door as possible, refusing to even consider leaving.  I’ve seen them fight like mad their owners when they were being forcibly removed.  Once removed, I’ve seen them return immediately to their cages.  In the best of circumstances, the bird might be content to merely sit atop the cage without going in.  When we imagine ourselves as the bird, we assume an eagerness to get out of there and never return, but to the bird, it is a home.  The cage is safe.  We use the cage to keep the bird in, but the bird uses the cage to keep everything else out.

This seems insane to us, doesn’t it?  Who would prefer captivity?  Yet, we sacrifice freedom for security all week.  Let’s start with that mortgage, shall we?  We happily imprison ourselves in debt, assuring that we cannot simply leave our homes at will.  Rather, we are stuck in these abodes so long as we cannot find someone to buy them from us.  We become obligated to a bank, because we like to sleep in the same place every night.  Bad comparison, you say?  Imagine living as a vagabond, a nomad without a permanent home.  Such people have a great deal more freedom, minus the security.

Five days a week, we go to work at the same place, doing the same thing, day after day, after day.  We complain about our jobs regularly, until we lose them.  Then we complain about losing our jobs until we have a new one to complain about.  When we have one, we miss our freedom, and when we don’t have one, we miss our security.  Unrealistic would be the effort to find a new job every day, though many people do it.  I have seen them on the street corner, these migrant workers, waiting for a stranger to show up and offer them an arduous job for not enough money.  They have the freedom, and they prefer it over the security.  When offered a more permanent job, I’ve known of them to refuse in favor of the freedom to retire for a couple of weeks until their money runs out.

When we choose to work the same job every day, no matter how much we hate it, we make a choice to live systematically.  I know what I’m going to do tomorrow, because it will be about the same as what I did today.  The next day will be the same.  The day after that will be no different.  The repetition is painful, but I’ve got an income.  I don’t need to waste time looking for a new job each day.  When I come home from work, I return to the same home every day.  I don’t need to waste time looking for a safe cave or overhang to take shelter in each day.  As a result, my life is more efficient, and my systematic living has bought me greater prosperity.

What may not reason so well into this pattern is the tendency that so many people have of spending their free time in the evenings the same way every night.  For most, it’s a night on the couch in front of the television, watching the same shows each night, as actors pretend to live glamorous lives.  As the actors pretend, the viewers pretend with them, living vicariously through the television.  Yet, no one is actually living life.  When the rest of life is an empty repetition, one should wonder why we would waste the time, that precious little time, when we could do anything with complete freedom without sacrificing security.  What we do for fun need not be the same today as it was yesterday.  It doesn’t even help in the slightest.

What we do in our spare time doesn’t even need to be particularly fun.  It could be anything at all.  It could be productive or frivolous.  We are completely free to do something different with that fraction of each day.  Generally, though, we tend to repeat ourselves in the end, the same as we did in the beginning.

True, we have our preferences.  True, we have our hobbies.  I tend to think, though, that the real driving force is not our inclination toward what we do, so much as it is the security found in lazy repetition.

Our lives are generally repetitious, because we are a systematic people.  It makes us effective in what we do.  It makes us wealthier, and it improves our standard of living, generally.  We love the cage that we have built for ourselves, and we dare not leave it, even when the door has been opened for us.  My cage may be keeping me in, confining me to the drudgery of daily living, but it may also be keeping out the things that frighten me, the insecurities and uncertainties of spontaneous living.

There is a value in systematic living, and our society thrives on it.  However, there is also a danger to it.  When the stables are on fire, the horses are frightened and run into them for security.  They prefer the conflagration over survival, because the stables are a symbol of security for them, even when they are really an execution chamber.  When the government goes mad makes us do what we ought not do, we choose the security of compliance over the need for freedom and rebellion.  Thankfully, we are not there yet, but we will be eventually, and there will be cows among us who wander wherever they are herded.  Going along with the crowd feels safe, even if it deprives us of our freedom.

If God calls us to pull up stakes and travel the world to spread the Gospel, then this is at once a horrible shattering of all security and an unfettering of boundless freedom.  Would that we had the courage.

In the meantime, should we feel tempted to complain about this little Eden that we’ve constructed for ourselves, let us at least appreciate the security that we’ve been granted.  When this Eden is shattered, let us be thankful for the freedom we’ve been leased.  Either way, we could complain, but either way, we could be grateful.

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