Monday, June 22, 2009

Heroes and Villains

I have a tendency, when I find a novelist that I like, to read everything that he or she has written. Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, James Clavell Jodi Piccoult, Maeve Binchy, James Michener, Margaret Atwood, Chaim Potok - these are some of those authors. It's been years since I read the James Clavell books, but I've been reminded recently of one that really made an impression: King Rat (1962).

Set during World War II in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, King Rat depicts the struggle for survival in the camp. I suppose as a budding sociologist, the book really intrigued me because the camp was basically a microcosm of society. The prisoners and guards formed a social system and developed a culture, with it's own norms and values. There were rules - and consequences for not following the rules. There were those who prospered and those who did not survive. There were those who maintained an admirable degree of integrity and those who made no pretense at integrity. I don't remember any of the details, really - just the discomfort in reading this book and thinking about how I would act under similar circumstances. Would I be noble, honest, kind, compassionate, generous? Or would I be devious, manipulative, selfish, cruel? Would I try to stay out of the way - inconspicuous, inconsequential? Would I part with my integrity for the sake of comfort, or even more basically, safety?

King Rat is a novel and like any worthwhile novel, it raises questions for the reader. I often think about King Rat when I'm watching the news and I hear reports about some event - a natural disaster, a crime scene - where some people respond as heroes and others as villains. I wonder, what is it that causes some people to run into a burning building to rescue someone else - or even a pet or piece of property - and others to take advantage of a breach in security to loot and plunder? Why will one person jump into the water to try to rescue a stranger who is drowning, while another person will stay safely out of the way even as they watch that person drown?

Is there any way we can know how we'll react to these kinds of situations? Is it enough to hope that when the chips are down, we'll be revealed as heroes rather than as villains?

I mentioned recently listening to a discussion of Gaia Theory and James Lovelock's prediction that the global population may actually shrink to about 1 billion people. What kind of society will we live in if the population starts declining rapidly? How will we respond? Will we be heroes? Villains? Is there anything we can do to prepare ourselves?

I actually am more and more convinced that we CAN prepare ourselves to respond to any kind of situation. But it will take some time and intentionality. This may sound pretty bleak and not the kind of thing you want to think about on a gray and damp day, but I honestly think that preparing ourselves for the various temptations which may one day come our way, is a key to living fully and freely. If I really WANT to be a hero, the training is now, NOT when the chips are down, so to speak. I may not have time to think, let alone plan. I may not have an opportunity to consider the pros and cons. I will simply react. In that instant of decision, what I REALLY believe about myself and about God will be revealed.

I know it's probably a bit lame, but I do think about stories from the book of Daniel - the one where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego get thrown into the fiery furnace - and the one where Daniel is put into a lion's den. Were they tempted at the last moment, to back down? It's easy to SAY that "my God can deliver me" but when the heat from the fire is so intense that guards are dying or when hungry lions are circling - did they waver? Sure - God rescued them. The stories would be a whole lot less impressive if he hadn't. But God doesn't always deliver us from evil - or at least he doesn't always do it in such a way that we live to tell the tale. Don't forget the disciples and the hundreds of thousands since then, who have been martyred for their faith. Deliverance may look a whole lot different than it does in the book of Daniel.

So the real question is, do I trust God with my life, or, when it comes right down to it, will I have more confidence in myself than I have in God?

No comments: