Of Irony and Paradox
By: Jim Alseth
In this edition I want to pursue a topic which has occupied my thoughts of late; namely, that life is chalk-full of paradox and irony. But first let me take a quick rabbit trail to provide a thread.
You’ve probably noticed in this space we’ve spent considerable time on the theme of the “journey of life.” Occasionally the question may come to mind: What does this have to do with camping? The answer is easy--you know it; you just haven’t made the connection yet.
Personally, I have found our camping vacations give opportunity for two very important things to occur simultaneously: undistracted time with my wife and kids (often just hanging out, having fun) and time to reflect and prioritize, to consider the bigger questions—the “first order” questions, if you will. These are things which seldom happen in the rat-race of our culture, and our family is no exception. In fact, for many North Americans they do not happen at all. As Patrick Morley says, “The number one shortcoming of man at the close of the twentieth century (as it has been at the close of every century) is that we lead unexamined lives. Most men have not carefully chiseled their life view by a personal search for truth… Instead, we rush from task to busy task, but we don’t call enough time-outs to reflect on life’s larger meaning and purpose.”
If this is true then I ask where do you picture this kind of time-out for personal reflection best happening? In between the kid’s soccer double-header, or on flights between board meetings? Possible—but not likely. A lakeside campsite nestled up in the hills is a much better bet. So yes, if you will accept it, camping does have a connection with the bigger things of life. And, not unexpectedly, some of the fruit of my own personal reflection ends up in this column. And this brings me back, as I mentioned earlier, to the subject of paradox and irony.
Paradox can be defined as a statement of truth which appears to be untrue or contradictory. Irony is the quality of an event or situation which is the opposite of what is promised or expected. Have you noticed how life is so full of these, how they are practically hardwired into our existence like the law of gravity? Some of my favorite e-mails I receive (you know the ones which get passed all over North America) are the ones dealing with life’s ironies. I love them.
Take, for example, the pursuit of happiness, which has been compared to a man trying to catch his own shadow--as hard as he may pursue it, it is always just out of reach. Only when we abandon the futile chase and set our desires on a much higher object, can we actually experience true happiness.
How about the nature of true leadership? We all have in our mind examples of those whom we consider to be great leaders. What was their secret? Remember when some of the disciples posed the same question to Jesus, and the answer that followed? He made note of those in positions of power and how they exercised their authority. He said they (the disciples) “were not to be like that,” but rather to be “like those who served.” Interesting. Great leadership comes with an attitude of servanthood. How up-side-down this seems, but what an impact it has when husbands, managers and politicians adopt this attitude, making the success and well-being of others their highest priority.
There are many more examples of such paradox in life: the nature of true riches, finding life by losing it, becoming a fool to be wise, finding strength through weakness, etc. But there is another that perhaps you haven`t given much thought. Have you considered that truly good things can be either a tremendous blessing or our greatest enemy?
This is quite obvious in the natural world. A razor sharp knife in the hands of a surgeon can save life; in the hands of a criminal can bring death. A river flowing within its banks brings nurture to a whole city, outside its banks it sows devastation. Explosives can help find oil or destroy a village. While we readily acknowledge this in the natural, it is no different in the unseen realm—in our hearts and in our relationships.
The Apostle James reminds us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.” They (good things) were all meant to be an expression of God’s love--a child’s laughter, mountains, sunsets, sex, swans, careers, roses, art, fishing, baseball (you substitute your favorite activity), rivers, marriage; the list goes on and on, ad infinitum.
So what is it that causes good things to have such varying impact, either for good or evil in our lives? I have found the difference lies in what I ask of these things. For example, if I look at good things in the manner God designed—to be an expression of his generous heart, to be received with thanksgiving—then they are a source of great blessing. But if I ask them to fill some deep hunger within me or give me my sense of identity--needs which He intended to be filled only by himself—then they indeed become a curse.
This is the essence of idolatry. Have you ever read in the Old Testament about people carving idols out of wood and stone as objects of worship and wondered how they could be so stupid? We would never do such a thing, right? We are much too enlightened for that. Perhaps you are getting my point. Our idols are different, but they are idols nonetheless. Whether it’s my spouse, my career, golf or sex, when I ask of them to be more to me than God intended, I am bowing down to them as idols of wood and stone. I become closed fisted, fearful, possessive, clingy and controlling. I feel like a dehydrated man trying to quench his thirst with seawater.
And that is exactly what I love about the outdoors. Out there, I begin to perceive things as they really are. When I’m sitting on a trout pond and see a grizzly with her cubs foraging berries up the side of a mountain, I don’t need to own or possess anything of it—just enjoy it. When I see the beauty of my wife’s face sparkling in the sunlight and hear the laughter of my children playing in the water, it makes me cry out Father, you did this for me? My heart is filled with awe at the beauty and creativity of the One who made it all and owns it all. The “good thing” becomes exactly what it was meant to be—a gift of God, designed to bless me and inspire in me worship of the Giver.
Source: Great Camping Spots