The Feast in the Jungle: Gratitude and Distrust

Religion — By on June 8, 2010 at 12:00 am

Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” has been playing through my mind at odd hours recently. If you haven’t read it, I won’t give the plot away, but it’s built on a premise of fearing the thing which your own fear creates. If you had not feared it in the first place, it would never have been anything to fear.

The fear of never being happy is something akin to that. Not actual unhappiness, mind you, but the state of fearing unhappiness. It is nebulous enough to be the perfect beast in the jungle. Whenever the landscape even slightly begins to resemble a jungle, a stray branch here and there, our hearts turn to look for the beast.  Here comes unhappiness. We expect nothing less.

This fear can happen equally in moments of happiness. You’re driving down the freeway in your new car. Your hand rests on the thigh of the spouse of your dreams as you hurtle toward the beautiful city of your ideal job. The promotion you just received at that job is what paid for the car- in cash. You just got accepted to the graduate school of your dreams. Key relationships in your life are on the mend…Where does your mind go? If it’s anything like mine, it goes immediately to the fear of losing it all, or any of it.

British pop star Natasha Beddingfield sings these lyrics in one of my favorite songs: “I see the girl I want to be, riding bareback, carefree, along the shore.” Sure, they’re silly, hip-hop, late teen angst lyrics. So? I’ve been that girl: I’ve ridden bareback, carefree along the shore. Literally. It was glorious. Yet I immediately distrusted my happiness. I can feel the tendency acutely, the automatic, almost assumed, fear: loss of the present good. In that moment of abundance, when our entire lives are almost exactly how we want them to be, we look for the beast.

I’m not even addressing the fleeting joys of material possession. Relational & spiritual statuses are included. We are talking about experiencing a good and real and total kind of happiness, and still fear comes instantaneously. Why do our hearts turn to this doubt of continuance- that what is, won’t endure? Rather than looking for the abundance of God’s love poured out to us in ways that are obvious and tangible and in our native language, we search for the hidden terribleness beneath it all.

This is a not-so-subtle subversion of the Gospel. The tenets of our faith are exactly the opposite: Beneath all the evil we see, the great love of God will triumph. Satan prowls the earth, but Christ holds the keys of hell, and against the gates of heaven the devil will not prevail. Where do these fundamental gospel beliefs go when we stare in the face, not of evil, but of good?

They dissipate. At their base, the subconscious beliefs driving the distrust of present goods stem from bad theology of two kinds. The first is a complete reversal of the belief tenets laid out above: Evil is rampant and God’s goodness is only a break point in a monotonous routine of Satan’s ultimate triumphs. Heaven may be heavenly, but hell is more widespread. When goodness happens, it’s bound to be fleeting.

The second perversion of the truth is more subtle, for it has more of a biblical ring to it: the Lord is Lord of good and evil. If “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” sums up our entire theology, we may as well abandon any auspices of a unique worldview and join the Stoics. The Lord does give and the Lord does take away. One cannot read the entire Bible and not be fully impressed by that fact. But there is a clear hierarchy and a uni-directional timeline.

“For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” the Lord tells the Israelites in Isaiah. Be shocked by the supposedly all-loving Lord’s admittance of desertion, but be aware of the details. Brief moment. Great compassion. The moment of desertion is not greater than the following compassion, nor are they equal. “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” Paul tells us in Romans. Not. Worth. Comparing. The language here does not allow the experience of suffering to be isolated, exalted, or equalized with the glory. Lamentations offers a similarly obvious ordering: “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth… For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion.” The Lord causes grief, no denial there either. But he will have compassion “according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” The flood preceded the rainbow and a new life. The cross led to resurrection. The Babylonian captivity transitioned to the return to Jerusalem. Every ancient biblical story embedded in our culture follows this narrative arc. Moment of grief, then the great compassion. 40 days of flooding–a new population. Death for three days–the path to eternal life. There is reversal of neither order nor apportionment of glory.

There is a great correlation between the man who stands in his soul’s dark night and despairs of God’s presence, and the man who stands in great abundance and despairs of God’s impending absence. The former man fears God will never return; the latter man fears He will soon leave. Both are the renderings of that union with God which Aquinas calls Love. Both are a reversal of the truths described above.

So why do our hearts look for the beast in the jungle to spring? In other words, why do we anticipate in wealth the sudden Job-like stripping of our experience of God’s manifold blessings? The fact that it would be Job-like is not enough to justify such a worry. The belief re-creates narrative lines in the Bible where God performs the role of the feared blessing-stripping. However, Scripture also supports a deeper view that God also, and more ultimately, wants us to experience His blessings.  The great and arduous expressions of His love throughout the Bible should make us look for the bountiful feast when we see a jungle, and nothing less. ‘


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