No Comfort At The Edge of the Sea
In the movie “The Princess Bride”, the heroine Buttercup negotiates what she believes is safety for her lover before being taken off as a prisoner. As she rides away, he looks at his captors (who have no intention of honoring the bargain) with a calm that contradicts his situation and says “We are men of action, lies do not become us”. Whereupon they knock him senseless and drag him to his death. (Don’t worry, eventually he gets better).
Recently, I read a short essay on line called “No, Everything Is Not Going to Be OK“. In it, the author Seth Godin (whom I highly recommend) eschewed the trite (and often empty) offer of hope that people seek. We are told by everyone from parents to spouses to managers to people at the other end of the bar that “it’s going to be OK”, when it is obvious that they barely understand our situation; when it is clear to us that it really WON’T be OK. But we choose to accept and believe their words because sometimes we want reassurance more than we want honesty or clarity.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that sometimes – maybe a lot of times – it WILL be OK. Our moment of panic is just that, and once the stress has passed things really will return to the way they were before.
But, Seth posits, when people need to create, or innovate, or stabilize, or adapt – in those situations, honestly it’s not going to be OK.
It’s going to be different. Some things MIGHT be better, but there’s a good chance that at least some things won’t be better, that some things won’t be the same and that some things could get worse. In fact, when we introduce change, there’s always the chance that everything will get worse, at least for a while, and sometimes for a long while.
Standing at the edge of the sea – the vast expanse of water in front of them and the might of the Egyptian army bearing down on them from behind, the Israelites may have realized this.
In that moment of panic, the more level-headed Israelites might also have realized that they were simply facing one of the many possible bad outcomes of their choices – they could have stayed in Egypt and been killed by harsh labor, they could have failed to follow Moses’ instructions and succumbed to one of the plagues. Heck, they could have stubbed their toes on that last walk out their door on the morning of their liberation, gotten an infection, and died on the road between Egypt and their current rock-and-a-hard-place predicament.
I’m not going to waste time on pediatric theology. I’m not going to ponder whether the waters really parted, or whether Moses was one historical figure or an amalgamation of many, or if there really is a God or any of those “big idea” questions today. Because I think that often (and especially at points in the Torah narrative like this), our holiest of writings can help us learn that it’s not about what happened, but what people DID about what happened.
If you spend all your energy trying to figure out how that guy built a great big boat and put all those animals on it, you may be missing the point. Likewise if you are computing the probability that a tsunami caused a massive low tide, and calculating how long 600,000 people would take to cross the resulting land bridge. I think there are better uses for our mental energy.
Our mental energy might be better spend considering how a group of people decided to put one foot in front of the other to leave an abusive situation, a situation that was not healthy for them to be in (even though it may have been “the way things are” or even if anyone else was thriving in that very same situation). They braved blood and vermin and disease and fire and darkness (whether literal or metaphorical) to change their place. They stood up to the powers-that-be and kept demanding what they needed until those powers relented.
When they stood at the edge of something new and vast but with Pharaoh ready to drag them back, they may have felt like Al Pacino’s character in “The Godfather” series, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
Then, rather than sighing and hanging their head and going back to their codependent spouse or overly needy kids or their gang or their job or whatever it was, they found that rare courage to keep creating, keep innovating, keep adapting to the REAL situation – not the one they wished it was, not the one they may have been sold, and not the one they were afraid of either.
Seth states: “No, everything is not going to be okay. It never is. It isn’t okay now. Change, by definition, changes things. It makes some things better and some things worse. But everything is never okay. Finding the bravery to shun faux reassurance is a critical step in producing important change. Once you free yourself from the need for perfect acceptance, it’s a lot easier to launch work that matters”.
Looking at the big picture, Seth is wrong. Really, gigantically, monumentally wrong. It actually *is* going to be OK, at least from God’s perspective. It’s all going to come out just the way it is supposed to. It was OK, it is currently OK and it’s still going to be OK 5 minutes from now. But that’s the long view, the “when we look back on this next week/year/decade we’ll all have a good laugh” view. We can (and should) take comfort knowing that there is a plan and that we are all part of it. But we should also recognize that feeling OK about things in each and every moment is not a guarantee. It may not even be something we should expect, especially if we want to live creative and energetic lives where we pursue dreams and push limits. If we want that, we should probably figure that “not-OK-ness” is going to part of our day.
The other point that we can’t overlook – with regard to both our collective Jewish experience and with our individual creative ones – is that we aren’t alone. When we create, we are offering up the service of our heart to those around us and to God. It becomes part of the community. If our community really is OUR community – our homies, our peeps, our posse, mia familia, ha-mishpocha – then we and our creations will be accepted and honored and supported for what they are.
As Michael Walzer states in “Exodus and Revolution”,
“Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land;
That the winding way to that promise
Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching together.”