I was raised to be cautious, physically and morally: “Be careful! Don’t make a mistake! Be safe! Don’t do anything for which you’ll be sorry!” I inhaled those words, literally, through my years of childhood, my years of seminary training, and through most of my years in the priesthood.
In fact they were the last words that my father, one of the truly moral men I have known, spoke to me. He was dying of cancer in a hospital and as my brother and I left for the night, not knowing that he would die before morning, he cautioned us: “Be careful!” He was referring to our driving on icy winter roads. But this caution marked his character, his moral sensitivity, and his healthy solicitude for us, his children, and it was meant morally: “Be careful! Be safe!” This was his habitual warning.
Those words are now part of my genetic make-up. You inherit more than simple biology from your father, especially if you are lucky enough to have one who was uncompromisingly moral. And that caution has served me well. I’m grateful for it. I’ve made it through more than half a century essentially intact, physically and morally. No small gift.
But that caution sometimes brings with it other things for which I am less grateful. One can be intact, but so cautious and timid that fear rather than love becomes the compass for one’s life. The occupational hazard in always being scrupulously safe is that one can easily end up like the older brother of the prodigal son, that is, rigidly faithful in all things, but judgmental, jealous, and bitter of heart, dogmatically and morally uncompromising, while envying the amoral and being too paralyzed internally to truly dance. Sometimes a long, practiced caution in our actions makes for a heart that is more cautious than generous, more envious than affirming, and more judgmental than forgiving. Sometimes too it makes for a heart that understands love and forgiveness as things that must be merited rather than freely given and received. Too often too it results in a heart that is secretly gleeful when things go wrong for those who aren’t living as we are. That isn’t always the case, but it can easily be, and, speaking frankly and humbly, it has sometimes been the case in my own life.
The German poet, Goethe, once wrote: The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers. For some people perhaps the reverse warning might be more appropriate. But for those of us who were raised to be good and religious persons there is a disturbing truth in Goethe’s words.
Are we living too safely? Do we have the courage to look at our inhibitions, jealousies, and religiously-sanctioned angers with real honesty? Are our lives driven more by fear than by love? Can we enter the dance without judgment and bitterness? Do others perceive us as rigid? When is the last time we could truly forgive someone who hurt us? Are our lives really about love and generosity rather than fear and self-protection?
The danger in living too safely is that sometimes when we think we are defending life we are really defending the poverty of our own lives, sometimes when we think we are defending virtue we are really defending our inhibitions and fears, and sometimes when we think we are speaking for God’s healthy concern for the world we are, like the older brother of the prodigal son, really speaking of our own hidden jealousy.
The hero of the movie, Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell, a wonderfully moral young man, was an Olympic runner who because of religious sensibilities refused to run an Olympic race on Sunday, even though he was heavily favored to win the gold medal. It would be easy to judge his action as stemming from moral and religious rigidity. In somebody else’s case that might be true. It wasn’t for Eric Liddell. Why? Because he wasn’t driven by fear or rigidity. He was driven by love. “When I run,” he famously said, “I feel God’s pleasure.”
Sometimes I ask myself that same question in relation to my religious and moral inhibitions: Does God take pleasure in my caution? Does God take pleasure in my sacrifices? Does God take pleasure in my anxieties about the world’s moral failings? Or is the Father standing with me, outside the celebration, pleading with me, as he once pleaded with the older brother of the prodigal son, to let up a little and come inside and join the dance?
I am grateful for my upbringing, despite the congenital reticence with which it has left me. It’s good to be careful. It’s a responsible and loving way to live. But I am growing more honest about its dangers. I am pretty intact much of the time, but sometimes I’m more fearful than generous, more self-protective than loving, more jealous than healthily solicitous. Sometimes caution doesn’t leave me with a big heart. Safety too has its dangers.