Our old dog sits beside me as I write, staring off into space, a distant, unfocused look in her eyes. A penny for her thoughts.
One thing I’m sure she’s not thinking about is the meaning of life. The Far Side not withstanding, dogs don’t think about what life means; only what it provides.
We do think about life, however, and therein lies the rub.
It’s not that we want to think about life; it’s that we have to. Something keeps prompting hard questions about who we are and where we’re going — questions that lead us into deeper questions, confusions and cul-de-sacs.
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What’s it all about, Alfie? Why am I here? What is my duty? Where am I going? Why work all my life and endure a never-ending round of frustrations when “all my harvest fields,” Francis Thompson said, “are bedunged with rotten death?” Why go on, when, no matter what I do, I’m going to end up under the ground?
“You know what’s funny?” Dilbert’s colleague, Ratbert, asks. “I’ll tell you. You’re working hard. I’m doing nothing. In a hundred years we’ll both be dead.” “You may not need to wait that long,” Dilbert snarls over his shoulder as Ratbert leaves to spread joy in some other place.
Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst, makes the point that given the frustrations of our existence, the real question is not why people lose their minds, but why more people don’t. He writes, “Considering man’s position in the world, his separateness, aloneness, powerlessness, and his awareness of this, one would expect this burden to be more than he can bear, so that he would literally, go to pieces under the strain.”
Some folks do go to pieces, of course; they crack up under the strain. Most of us, however, as Fromm goes on to say, “avoid this outcome by compensatory mechanisms like the overriding routine of life, conformity with the herd, the search for power, prestige, sex or money. ... All these compensatory mechanisms can maintain sanity, provided they work — up to a point.”
What Fromm is saying is that our thoughts about life and death are so powerful and pervasive that we have to find some way to protect ourselves from them. That’s what’s behind our drive for money, power and success. That’s why our efforts — whether we’re pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science, or a black belt in karate — always have a compulsive feel to them. We become single-minded and obsessive in our pursuits so we can forget about ourselves; so our anxiety will become less oppressive.
Fromm calls these works “compensatory mechanisms.” God calls them “cisterns.”
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)
Cisterns are holes in the ground, reservoirs for storing rainwater or runoff. In ancient times they were usually pear-shaped reservoirs with a small opening at the top. Most were small, but some were very large and took a long time and a lot of work to dig.
Picture yourself swinging a pick, digging from dawn to dusk, excavating the hard, unyielding ground. While others are playing golf, swimming, fishing, vacationing, gathering with family and friends, you stay on the job, working through the biting cold of winter and through the blazing heat of summer when the sun turns your cistern into a kiln.
After years of strenuous, demanding effort you finally achieve your purpose: you complete the hole in the ground on which you’ve invested your best years. Then you step back and wait for your cistern to fill — and it leaks. There’s a crack or flaw in the tank; perhaps the stone is too porous or the lining is faulty and you discover what every one of your neighbors has found, or will find, that cisterns, no matter how well constructed, always leak.
“I’ll dig another cistern,” you say. “I’ll take my project back to the drawing board and draft a new, improved version. I’ll work harder, work longer, work somewhere else, make it work this time.”
But sooner or later reality settles in. It’s just a matter of time. Our projects work, “only to a point” Fromm said. In the end we run out of money, energy, time or some other resource and every effort becomes meaningless. We “come to the cisterns and find no water; (we) return with our vessels empty.” (Jeremiah 14:3) We find ourselves in that state of bitter despair Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard described as “a sickness unto death.”
What I mean is this: All our projects — whatever they may be — are doomed to failure. Whatever the object of our quest, when we find it we discover that it does not contain the satisfaction we seek. We have followed emptiness, Jeremiah said, and we have become empty (Jeremiah 2:5).
There’s a reason for that emptiness. God in his infinite love and wisdom has foiled us. He has seen to it that our endeavors fail to satisfy us because he loves us too much to let us go. He will deny us and thwart us until there is nothing left but God. “He threatens terrible things,” George MacDonald says, “if we will not be happy.”
Perhaps you’re a cistern-digger, driven by soul-thirst, yearning for satisfaction. Only God can satisfy your heart. Everything else will deceive and disappoint.
James Taylor writes, an unwitting truth-sayer:
There’s a river running under your feet —
Under this house,
Under this street,
Straight from the heart;
Ancient and sweet,
On its way back home.
There’s a river of God’s love flowing at your feet. Put down your pick and shovel. Stoop down and drink. Jesus said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” (John 4:13)
In C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, the young girl Jill finds herself transported into a strange land because of her pride and foolishness. She is lost and thirsty, and looking for a stream. She finds a brook, but she also finds a Lion, Aslan, the symbol of Jesus, lying beside it. Aslan growls and tells her she may come and drink.
“May I ... could I ... would you mind going away while I drink,” said Jill.
The Lion answered with a look and a very low growl, and as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Do you promise not to — do anything to me if I do come,” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion.
It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh, dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
David and Carolyn Roper co-direct the work of Idaho Mountain Ministries, a ministry of clergy care. David is the author of 14 books. The most recent: Teach Us To Number Our Days.
The Idaho Statesman’s faith column features writers from many different perspectives.