A Flying Fable

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a mountainous kingdom where people loved to fly. It was a national passion. Most anyone who dared went flying, because it was a highly dangerous activity in the old days, leading to many crashes, injuries, and deaths. But because the mountains were separated by treacherous ravines and raging rivers, flying also served a vital purpose: it made it possible to get from one part of the kingdom to another. But generally, those who went flying went because flying is a wonderful thing.

Because flying was so dangerous, and because so many families were left shaken or broken by the deaths of members in flying accidents, the leading priests of the kingdom decided that it was against God’s will to go flying—except under certain circumstances. If one had to fly, the priests pronounced, it had to be done properly: a specific and legitimate destination in mind, not flying for sheer pleasure, and for legitimate, non-pleasurable reasons; a limit on the number of times someone flew in life, and with whom; legal documents such as wills and inheritance squared away in advance, and official oversight obtained; and all consequences to be accepted, whatever they might be.

Some of the priests had decided that flying for fun was against God’s will, and so it needed to be controlled; others had come to the conclusion that flying needed to be controlled, and so decided it was against God’s will. Whichever way it began, however, it came to the same thing, and it was written down accordingly.

Time went on, and, since humans are clever, ways of flying more safely were invented, and then more ways still. As the gear improved, more and more people began flying not just to get around, but for the sheer joy of it. Since many more people were flying now, there were more accidents, but if done well, flying was increasingly safe. It became commonplace—to the point where if someone flew only for business, or not at all, they were considered quite old-fashioned.

The priests who had pronounced on flying in the old days were long gone, of course, but their written words remained, and their priestly successors were numerous and vocal. Not a few, seeing that the danger had passed, began to drop their objections to flying, or looked the other way, or even outright encouraged some limited forms of pleasure-flights.

Others, however, objected strenuously. They pointed out that flying for pleasure was time wasted and resources squandered. They pointed out that flying for pleasure decreased the significance of business flights. And most of all they pointed to the holy writings, which said plainly that flying was only to be done under certain circumstances, and certainly not just for the fun of it.

As flying became more and more common, this latter group of priests grew more forceful in condemning it—and in a fascinating wrinkle, they objected with increasing rage to the safety gear which had made flying less dangerous. Every time someone invented a new flying safety device, these particular priests denounced it vigorously, on the grounds that it would encourage more people to fly. And whenever anyone offered classes on flying safety, oh, how these priests would howl!

Flying was still inherently risky, of course. There were always unexpected updrafts and so forth. But as the risk dropped closer and closer to zero, flying for fun simply became the norm.

Still, certain priests kept protesting. If anyone ever suggested to them that their rules were now totally archaic, and had been written in reaction to a situation that no longer existed, they vehemently denied that the laws of their God had ever had anything to do with safety. The law had always been that way, they said, and always would be: God’s will was God’s will.

And while they were wrong about “it’s always been that way,” they might have been right about “God’s will.” Who can discern the mind of God?

But one thing is certain: flying is fun. And it really has always been that way, and it really always will be.

Draw your own conclusions.

Credo

I believe in choice, and I believe in choosing wisely.

I believe that I have an independent will and that I can use it — but I also believe that there are good ways and bad to use that will. Liberty is therefore a great good, but only because it allows people to make the right choices — it is a means to an end, not an end itself. Unbridled freedom, choosing solely for choice’s sake — living in the Land of Do-As-You-Please — can be both good and bad, and choosing well requires more than simple freedom.

I believe that everyone can be helped to choose wisely. My own choices, or at least the wise ones, are helped by my friends, my family, and (greatly important to me) the stories I have heard and I myself tell. This is why I went into teaching, to tell stories that could help people choose well.

I believe that the Golden Rule is a pretty reasonable guide for our choices, as long as we remember to apply it to those living in the past and the future as well as to those living in the present.  But I also believe that everything should be put to the test, for there are always exceptions. I also believe that sometimes wisdom needs to give way to nobility and heroism — and, occasionally, to pure silliness.

I believe, moreover, that people can only learn what is wise by being foolish for a while. As much as we can manage, therefore, we should let them make their mistakes, and then help them learn afterward. Continue reading

The Truth This Night

I don’t know if there’s a heaven or a hell. I don’t know if there will ever be a second coming — or if there ever was a first. Heaven sounds lovely and makes a nice bribe. Hell sounds rather less appealing and makes a fantastic threat. The Second Coming can inspire hope but also slacking. The First Coming makes a wonderful tale worth retelling and living by, but I don’t know if it is true. I don’t know if any of it is true.

I wasn’t there; I hear the story but I’ve been taught about how stories can change in the telling, and even if I had been in the crowd at the foot of the Mount, I know too well how my memories of the sermon on it would be garbled. I’ve seen things and heard things, true. I have felt someone’s deep presence in my empty room, and heard human tongues speak holy words. But I still do not know, beyond doubt, that the One Who Is actually is, or that the Kingdom can be made real — especially when the still small voice whispering in my heart tells me to keep doubting, that it makes me very useful. So I know that I know next to nothing.

But I do know suffering, and I do know hope.

I know my suffering is dwarfed ten times over by millions, but suffering is very real. I know it in my bones and in my arms and in my soul. And hope — maddening hope, irrational hope, hope that makes us keep going when everything reasonable tells us to lie down and give up — I know that too.

So, driven by both suffering and hope, I have to do my part to help people in this terrific and terrible world. I have to hand out the dollars and serve up the soup, but I also have to speak the words I am given, including these. Sometimes the soup matters more than the words. But the words don’t get eaten. The right word can come alive, and do things I never dreamed of.

And what is that word?

Let’s forget heaven tonight. Let’s forget hell today. Let’s set aside all thought of salvation or eternity. Let us forget demons and angels and the whole troop; abandon the Torah, leave off the Gospel, lay down the Koran. For a day or an hour, we’ll forget every holy word we have ever heard in our lives. And in that hour we’ll feel the suffering around us. We’ll think of the pain of our sister, the grief of our brother. Then in hope, let’s do any thing to ease that suffering.

Tomorrow we can go back to holy writ and hierarchy. But right now, join me in forgetting everything except the pain you feel, the pain I feel, the same pain in everyone around us — that, and the hope that pushes through pain.

I say these things because I know how the story goes. The great speaker arises, the words flow forth, a new faith springs up, the fire rekindles. But the story always ends the same way. The speaker dies, the words are forgotten, or misquoted, or sabotaged, or written down (worst of all for a living word) and everything returns to normal. The people who have seen a great light go back to walking in darkness. We focus on the strata of the world — who’s on top, who’s not. We start judging. The grit and dust of daily life chokes our inner fire. We forget compassion, in the old sense of that word: we forget that everyone around us suffers as we do, and rather than suffer with we suffer alone, and leave others to suffer alone as well.

I know the story. I know the cycle. I know how it goes.

I don’t like it.

So I’m not here to talk about Heaven or Hell. I’m not going to say who’s saved or who’s damned. I do have a little to say about the One Who Made Me Write This, but all of that is guesswork and notions wrapped around a handful of truth. Mostly, I think, the One is not so interested in how we worship; the One sees all belief. This time around, I think the One wants to know how we are compassionate, and how we are hopeful. Whose suffering have we seen today? And whose hopes have we built up?

So let us forget all religion, for a little while, and be good to someone. It may not save us or redeem us or purify us. It might change the world if enough of us do it, but I’m not holding my breath nor expecting it of any of you. All I know is that for one day, there will be a little less suffering and a little more hope.

And that’s what I have to say.