The future is hard to figure out. Surprising and unexpected turns pop up. Biography that leads readers on a straight path is predicable. It makes life monotonous, devoid of blessings and curses that throw characters off-stride. Top-flight authors create characters who zigzag through life. They flash dexterity to juggle many balls in the air and don’t ham-fistedly clutch but one.
Don’t we wish for a mirror that reflects what lies ahead? Life acts more like a multi-way mirror, however, which projects contrasting images from various angles on zigzag paths.
The Bible uses a metaphor that hints at the future’s complexity and ambiguity. Our lives are like “earthen vessels ... ” (II Corinthians 4:7), ancient clay pots showing zigzag cracks. Fissures make life interesting. People who don’t have all the answers surprise us with insight. They arouse our curiosity. A person garners interest who engages rather than demonizes different thinkers.
Joseph Epstein in his essay “A Literary Education” describes a zigzagging future. “From the study of literature we learn that life is sad, comic, heroic, vicious, dignified, ridiculous and endlessly amusing sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once, but never more grotesquely amusing than when a supposedly great thinker comes along to insist that he has discovered and nattily formulated the single key to its understanding.”
Epstein warns against trusting answer uber-man Sigmund Freud. His psychoanalyzing showed “extreme determinism” which seems “immensely untrue to the rich complexity of life, with its twists and turns and manifold surprises.”
Peter O’Toole, who died last month, and Pope Francis aren’t intellectual snobs Epstein deplores. They scout out the future rather than point toward a secure, straight way ahead.
O’Toole led a tough life, raising cinema to grandeur before tainting his talent in drunken binges. Playing T.E. Lawrence in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” O’Toole didn’t let shifting sand bury his hopes. Jerky camel rides in the Oscar-winning film furnished the stuff of epic adventures.
Off the movie set, however, O’Toole groveled in booze and debauchery. His path spiraled down.
Credit his candor. He confessed zigzag idiosyncrasies before tweaking them with smiles. In a 2008 interview, O’Toole remembered, “Many years ago I sent an old, beloved jacket to the cleaner, the Sycamore Cleaners. It was a leather jacket covered in Guinness and blood and marmalade ... and it came back with a little note pinned to it: ‘It distresses us to return work which is not perfect.’ So that will do for me. That can go on my tombstone.”
Life isn’t tidy, is it? Pope Francis relishes knocking off-center critics who brand him with a poker he rejects. He drives Rush Limbaugh berserk. You’d think the pope wouldn’t criticize wealth, since the Vatican has so much of it. Yet, around Thanksgiving the pope attacked the “idolatry of money” in his first exhortation. This is the same wealth Rush covets. He tells gullible listeners that America’s rich 1 percent function as the No. 1 anti-poverty program on earth.
When the pope questioned this ridiculous assumption in his apostolic exhortation, Rush denounced the document as “pure Marxism.” Pope Francis declared he wasn’t a Marxist, but he knew good people who were. He follows Jesus, not Lenin.
“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain — and most do,” observed Ben Franklin. Rush lumbers along on a dull, predictable and repetitive linear path.
Pope Francis, in contrast, uses zigzagging zingers to challenge Wall Street speculators and many a wanna-be seduced by the golden calf. We expect him to excoriate all Marxists because they’re a godless crowd. He doesn’t.
Nancy Gibbs, Time Magazine’s managing editor, describes how the pope confounds critics. The pontiff pulls one way when adversaries expect him to push in another direction.
When Pope Francis, “ ... cold-calls strangers in distress, offers to baptize the baby of a divorced woman whose married lover wanted her to abort it, he is doing more than modeling mercy and transparency,” writes Gibbs. “He is embracing complexity (zigzaggy-ness) and acknowledging the risk that a church obsessed with its own rights and righteousness could inflict more wounds than it heals. Asked why he seems uninterested in waging a culture war, he refers to the battlefield. The church is a field hospital, he says. Our first duty is to tend to the wounded. You don’t ask a bleeding man about his cholesterol level.”
The pope finds a need and fills it, even when a sinner doesn’t square with doctrinaire church expectations.
We ask too much of life and religion by demanding a clear path ahead. A murky future gives glimpses of meaning when we dare travel its zigzagging paths.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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