A pastor colleague of mine told a story yesterday. He grew up in South Africa, and spent many years in the struggle against apartheid. He recalled a large funeral service for two young adults killed in the struggle. At one point, the pastor took a spear and dropped it to the floor, saying “These two can no longer carry the spear. Who will now carry the spear?” One after another, people walked up front, picked up the spear, then passed it to the next person in line. It became a powerful, spontaneous ritual, a symbol of what little chance apartheid had of sustaining itself.
My friend ended the story by saying, “These people had something to live for, and something to die for. My sense is that few people in the U.S. have this clear and distilled sense of purpose.” That really struck me as terribly true.
Coming of age in the late ‘80s, I remember being mesmerized reading Brett Easton Ellis’ first novel, Less Than Zero. If you’re not familiar, it’s the story of a college guy from a wealthy Hollywood hills family, and how nothing really mattered much in his life. He and his friends had access to everything, but life seemed to add up to (in the words of an old Elvis Costello song) “less than zero.” It was a chilling portrait of what my generation could wind up looking like, if we didn’t have something to live for and something to die for.
This is a serious question about meaning and purpose in life, and yet I don’t like to get so serious as to veer off the sunny side of the street. I can’t live my life as a nihilist, and yet live or die passion doesn’t come easily or often for me. Breaking a wooden seat while watching an Eagles game doesn’t quite rise to the “pick up the spear” passion I’m wondering about today.
I think for many of us, economic reality is breaking the spell of numbing, robotic consumerism, but we’re still discovering what’s on the other side. If all we connect to is “stuff” then when stuff runs out, we’ve got to find what really matters. For me, I’m taking family relationships less for granted. I’m becoming more passionate about my work as a writer especially. But my friend’s story has made me realize that I am doubtlessly more daunted by larger issues than I should be. I’m not a “cause” person, even though I have strong feelings about things like climate change, child sex trafficking (see previous post), the death penalty, ongoing racial inequity and tension, and men wearing pastels (kidding 😀 ). Maybe it’s time for me to pick up the spear on some of this stuff.
How about you? What will cause you to pick up the spear these days?