A Road to Madness

(Photo courtesy of Jeremy Perkins at unsplash.com)

The other day I went to the park with my two little kids and they both found ways to amuse themselves by spinning around. This brought to mind how much I loved spinning rides as a child. Just like my kids, if given the opportunity, I’d stay on a merry-go-round as long as was possible, sometimes for the entirety of a park trip. Or, short of a merry-go-round, when I was very small I would ask my dad to grab me by the wrists and spin me around so that my legs came up off the ground and my body spun through the air. When he wasn’t keen on getting sick himself, I’d find ways to spin my big wheel on a bit of slick pavement or twist my playground swing until the chain could take no more … or I’d even just run around in circles. All for the fun of spinning. I even remember watching Top Gun as a kid and wondering what was the big deal about a “flat spin”; spinning in a F-14 just sounded like a fun afternoon to me.

It all seems a bit ridiculous to me now though. Why would anyone ever want to spin? All it provides is a good way to make oneself sick. Which, if that is one’s goal, sticking one’s fingers down one’s throat could accomplish the same thing without the exhaustion of one’s equilibrium … and it would save time too.

There truly doesn’t seem to be any perceivable benefit to spinning. We haven’t seen some Medical Journal publish an article about how we all ought to be scheduling time in our local centrifuge, nor have we even seen some quack on a late night infomercial peddling a plastic roundabout which will somehow shed body fat, improve digestion and stimulate mental rejuvenation. And that’s saying something, considering the nonsense that gets put forward these days as a natural cure for whatever ails you.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that only fun could be considered an even remotely rational reason for spinning around. And yet, other than perhaps riding the Mad Hatter’s teacups at Disneyland or Mater’s Jamboree at California Adventure, I can’t conceive nowadays of fun somehow overcoming the drawback of dealing with the resulting disorientation.

Maybe it is just that I’ve aged too much now – I’m old and I can’t enjoy purposefully making myself sick? Could it be that I’ve lost some joy that only a child could know? Perhaps I’ve left dormant for too long some child-like delight at trees which seem to wave as in a cyclone – though in stillness, or a stationary ground which seems to pitch and roll like a ship’s deck in a heavy sea? Maybe it is the absurdity of it that is now lost on me?

Actually … it can’t be the absurdity thing. I love absurdity. I laugh when the Coyote runs off the cliff for fifty paces and then only falls after looking down. I can’t help but love Mr. Bean getting his head stuck in a turkey when looking for the wristwatch he lost while stuffing it. Or, when Moe, Larry and Curly are looking over the edge of a tall building and Curly quips, “Hey, I think that’s my Uncle down there,” and Moe responds with, “Oh really? He looks like an aunt!” It’s all absurd and that’s why it cracks me up.

So it must be that I’ve simply “outgrown” wanting to make myself sick. There’s a part of that realization which makes me sad. I don’t want to “outgrow” anything that brings joy. But for all of the joys that I experienced as a child – pure and unbridled as they were, and which I’ve subsequently outgrown – I’ve found other things in which to take joy as I have gotten older; things which may be unappreciated by a young mind.

For instance, the other morning I walked out of my front door to get into my car in order to head to work and there, perched off to the east right above the spot where the sun would rise above the horizon an hour later, was a beautiful silver crescent moon with Venus shining brilliantly immediately below it. The two heavenly bodies hovered in the deep, dark blue of a cloudless sky and my heart leaped in my chest for a moment at the glory of God shown in the heavenlies. No doubt I would have enjoyed the sight as a kid too. After a bout of circle-running, I might have glanced up and thought it was “neat” or “pretty” before getting back to the serious business of making myself sick. However, as an adult I can look up, weary from the very thought of going to work for another day, and I can see the beauty and appreciate the convergence of the two bodies. Though I’m no astronomer, I can appreciate that confluence of paths that brought them into so close a visual alignment. Though I’m no mathematician, I can calculate enough to know that the particular sight was one which was completely unique – only my position on the earth, at that hour, on that date, with the heavenly bodies at that point in their paths could have produced that level of beauty. Though I’m no artist, I can see the moon and planet’s light stark and shimmering against the oil backdrop of the dark blue on the canvas of night.

How does this come about? What causes the appreciation of things changes with time? It is certainly maturity which leads to the appreciation of the grander and more eloquent. Appreciation for the beauty of creation certainly trumps appreciation for the sensation of spinning. And yet the level of joy derived from each – in the circumstances in which they’re appreciated – is conceivably the same. In fact, the enjoyment of a child for spinning might be more joyous than the enjoyment of a beautiful vista to an adult; since, to the child, all things are new – even joy itself. Once again I would point out that one thing is certainly “higher” than the other – one thing is more powerful and glorious than the other – but the joy that is produced is not. Joy is joy.

Note that I’m not using the word “happiness” here. I’m talking about joy. Happiness is always contingent. It’s always conditional and it’s always fleeting in this world of pain and suffering. Joy, on the other hand, is untouchable because its source is untouchable. The smile of a loved one moves something in the heart that cannot be replicated by a pleasurable circumstance. Eating a great piece of pizza isn’t as gloriously joyful as one glance over the rim of the Grand Canyon. Nor is reading a good book as incredibly fulfilling as hearing your child say, “I love you.” The pizza and the book, while good and decent and excellent in their own rite, pale in comparison to the higher virtue of the power of creation or the gentle love of a child. And so it is with happiness versus joy. The sight of the Grand Canyon and the love of the child make a deeper imprint than the pizza or the book – an imprint which is permanent. It adds to the repository of goodness which can be called upon joyfully for the entirety of life. I am certainly not saying that pizza and books can’t bring joy, I’m simply saying that there is a spectrum on which the pizza and book do not quite measure up to the Grand Canyon or the love of a child and, in that way, differ as much as happiness and joy. As a matter of fact, anything can bring joy – or be thought of joyfully – if it is attached to something lasting. More on that in a moment.

This brings me to the reason I would even mention spinning as a child in the context of joy: Though I can’t point to a specific memory of spinning on a merry-go-round, or being lifted into the air by my spinning dad, I can remember the sensation because the joy imprinted it. I can’t say that at 12:38pm on May 16th in the year of our Lord nineteen-hundred-and-none-of-your-business that I spun for 26 minutes and twelve seconds straight on a merry-go-round in Redlands, California. Joy doesn’t work like that. The very context of the joy may be forgotten but the imprint remains. It is impervious to the loss of memory. It is resolute in the face of unrelated pain. Which is why the joy of spinning is even remotely comparable to the joy of seeing the moon and Venus shining brightly on a cold, Autumn morning. I will likely never remember the day or time or maybe even the circumstances of seeing the moon and Venus like that. In fact, I may never remember that it was the moon and Venus; I may, with my pitiful memory, think in the future that it was Orion and Mars or an UFO and Jupiter. Nevertheless the joy it gave will be untouched because it is invulnerable to my own foibles or the jumble of memories piled on top of it by years.

Joy is incredibly strong. It is able to cut through pain like a ship’s prow through water. It is as strong as titanium and yet as supple as silk – able to work its way through the cracks of sorrow and stay true no matter how long the storm lasts. It is able to withstand all things, but only with this proviso: that there is something eternal to which it must be moored. If it isn’t moored to the eternal, it ceases to be joy and becomes just one of many irrecoverable and fleeting moments of happiness instead.

Yes, the problem with happiness is that it is fleeting. The taste of a great piece of pizza goes away almost immediately, and the memory of it might be more irritating than joyful, as you try to replicate that flavor in various ways. The story in a great book can only be read for a first time once, and any subsequent read may not fully capture the wonder and enjoyment of the first. Sadly, even the sight of the Grand Canyon or the love of a child can become short-lived and passing unless there is something eternal to which they are attached.

Now let us think for a moment about the related difference between love and infatuation. Infatuation is fleeting. It is temporary. It is, by its very nature, something which must pass. Just as a tornado must move on from where it is, and eventually dissipate, because it is driven by temperature and pressure differentials, so must infatuation move on from its temporal confines to somewhere else and eventually dissolve. It is created by a momentary circumstance, a chance confluence of time and place, which will soon disperse taking the infatuation with it. Meanwhile love is lasting. Love is permanent. Even if the one who loves dies, their love still lives on in those people who were loved. Instead of love being like a tornado – here now and gone in five minutes – it is like the atmosphere: large enough to contain any infatuation and outlast it.

The reason there is such a close parallel between happiness/joy and infatuation/love is because happiness and infatuation are temporal, while joy and love, in order to be joy and love, are necessarily eternal. This gives new meaning to the words, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), because we see that the extent of the love which we are able to love is in its link with the divine. We can only love eternally if we moor that love to the eternal; and what is eternal except God Himself? Our joy, similarly, must be of God then if it is to be borne on wings of love and therefore eternal itself. Joy is a grace. It is an eternal gift from the eternal God, and therefore must be a gift to a mortal man. It is a necessary by-product of the eternal love which the eternal God lavishes on those whom He saves.

The fact that the little joys of life are a grace from an eternal, loving God should make us very humble; because there is a necessary corollary which is rather unpleasant. If happiness and infatuation are temporal, and joy and love eternal, those who refuse God are also refusing His love – and therefore His joy. This means that the only thing with which they are left in this temporal, physical existence is the temporal and physical facsimiles of love and joy, namely: infatuation and happiness. Since these pleasures are fleeting, with nothing eternal as a foundation, the pleasures themselves are all that there is in this life. One can never recapture the excitement of a first ride on a roller coaster with a second or third or fourteenth ride. No one can in the second watching of a movie fully recapture the enjoyment of the first. Quite the opposite, as the familiarity breeds contempt. The happiness or infatuation, unmoored from the eternal, has diminishing returns for the one who seeks to regain it.

This is the hell of the unbeliever: separation from God … which means separation from His love … which means separation from His gift of joy … which means an ever more rabid chase for the dwindling yields of temporal happiness. They are in starvation: from want of joy, from want of love, from want of meaning, from want of fulfillment. They seek to satisfy a starvation by chasing those ever-diminishing returns and I can think of no other destination than madness for a person in that state.

As a child, my love for spinning seemed to never create diminishing returns of joy. This is probably because children have an eternity in their hearts that has yet been sufficiently tainted by the cares and pain of this world (and woe to the person who destroys that innocence). As an adult, in spite of having seen, felt and experienced pain, frustration and anger for years, I can still see opportunities to find joy, but only because eternity is being slowly reintroduced to me by the Spirit of God working His change in a sinful man. As I grow in awareness of the countless things God touches, my joy only increases because it is linked to an eternal God. My joy is unbounded because it isn’t linked to my quite limited imagination, nor my own pitiful capacity for love, but to the God who is unbounded.

All of this means that I pity those who spend their lives searching for the next thing to give them meaning and purpose, when they reject the very One who is meaning and purpose. They search for it within themselves. Or they search for it in a relationship, experience, wealth, fame, or in some other goal. If they achieve that goal, they often lapse into rudderless-ness, wondering what to do next. Or worse, they climb that peak only to see another one, higher and more dangerous, in the distance. Worse yet are those who can never achieve their temporal goals because of limitations in themselves or the fundamental unfairness of life’s circumstance.

There’s another group of people rushing madly down this temporal road to insanity though. This group may be a surprise to some, as it seems on the surface like their aims reach beyond this life. Sadly though, their eventual destination is the same as all others with an earthly goal. We will call this group the “Dreamers.” Dreamers might be able to see the futility of wealth, or the fleeting nature of fame, or the emptiness of serial relationships, and they might then conclude that ultimate joy can be achieved in helping others. This is quite noble in one way: they are looking outside of themselves to achieve some goal which will benefit others and hopefully have spillover which will give them meaning. And so they become crusaders for social justice, campaigners for more affordable healthcare, zealots for safety in some vocation/location, advocates for education, or evangelists for some “better” lifestyle. They aim to enlighten those around them, or provide some service to the helpless.

My prayer for the Dreamers is that God will bless them in their work, as well as for it. But that blessing won’t be exempt from the law of eternality which I’m pointing out now. No matter how noble an effort is, it is foolishness to believe that it can achieve anything lasting without coupling it to that which is the source of all things which are lasting and eternal. It is senseless to think that actions which are done in the name of the physical can transcend the physical. The Dreamers who do good things for others will inevitably find more fulfillment in their work than those who work for wealth or status; and certainly more fulfillment than those looking for the next endorphin rush. But they’ll end up at the terminus of madness too, no matter how much their course has meandered into beautiful valleys and onto glorious peaks along the way.

The reason for this is that the destination determines the fruitfulness of a journey. We always quip, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” and we may be right when talking about a vacation or a simple errand. But nothing could be further from the truth when talking about life. The eternal destination of the traveler won’t just be a lion’s share of the determination of success or failure of even a Dreamer’s actions, it will be the entirety of that determination. What good is it to have changed 10,000 people’s destructive habits if you still end up unfulfilled eternally? Or, more frighteningly and bluntly, what good is it to provide 1,000,000 meals for the hungry if you still end up in hell?

We are fed a lot of lies in this world. Some of them are easy to spot. They are obvious in their depravity, being easily identified by anyone with a half-functioning conscience. But the most insidious lies which are told to us are those which seem noble on the surface. They don’t cease to be lies because they’re candy-coated though. These ideas are wolves in sheep’s clothing as much as the wolves in sheep’s clothing who create them.

If we live a life only temporally, we may with our most pure motives see a plea for monetary contributions to relieve suffering of earthquake or hurricane victims and give. But, even with those “pure” motives we are still hoping to gain some credence to the idea that, temporally speaking, “I’m a good person, deep down.” We may even go a step further and volunteer our time and companionship at the local homeless shelter, hoping to achieve some higher meaning from the idea that temporally speaking, “I’m selfless and loving, deep down.” Perhaps we even go to the extreme of the ultimate Dreamer and dedicate our entire lives to some ideal which we have concocted for ourselves to the point that we even subdue every thought of “I’m good because …” But it all means absolutely nothing how far we travel on the road of altruism if its end is destruction.

Please don’t misunderstand me … I certainly am not saying that all roads of altruism and charity end in hell! Absolutely not! I am saying that the value of the road on which you find yourself is not based on where it wanders, but on where it ends up. If the road ends in joy, even the rocky, dangerous and stormy bits become colored in joy. If the road ends in despair, the despair creeps backward to taint even the happiest of moments … and it does so for even the most altruistic and charity-driven person. The things which should have brought joy are destroyed by the despair at the end of the wrong road, while the things which should have brought suffering and pain are turned to joy by the love at the end of the right road.

I admit it: this has been a long post. It’s a long slog through something which could be disheartening. And yet it all basically boils down to a simple plea to see the big picture. Spinning may not bring us joy like it did when we were a child, but if you still look back on the spinning with fondness, then count your blessings that that simple joy hasn’t been destroyed by life’s misery. We can’t recapture every circumstance which was perfect once upon a time … and that makes each wonderful memory more of a treasure.

While this essay is certainly a call to Christ – even if it is a bit clunky – it is also a call to a couple of other very important things. It’s a call to live life with the desire to color every circumstance with the joy that is to come. And it’s also a call to live with understanding and pity for those who have no hope. The thought that the despair of eternity is plundering even the happiest of life’s moments for the unbeliever should move us to do exactly what we have been commanded to do: share Jesus Christ. For He is the one way to the Father (Jn 14:6), the Father is the One who gives grace leading to salvation (Eph 2:8f), this salvation leads us to hope (2 Cor 4:16), our hope is bolstered everyday by the love of God (Rom 5:5), and the love of God gives us joy in all our circumstances (2 Cor 6:3-10).

What a wonderful gift it would be to not only share Jesus with an unbeliever, but to also have a hand in restoring the past; to watch despair give way to hope and watch hope restore joy.

We all are on a road somewhere … what is your destination?

Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, Let the bones which You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness. Psalm 51:7-14 (NASB)

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