Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Golden Gate Solution

Did you know that more people commit suicide at the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco than any other site in the world? While I cannot account for the many reasons behind this statistic, I would suggest that the Golden Gate may well be the final destination for those who have been unable to find peace in other places.

The story could go something like this: one morning, you wake up in your home town—let's say it's New York. You are unhappy with life and have been for a while. This morning, however, you come to a realization: New York is to blame for your problems. The city is too big, with too many people who are unfriendly and hostile.

After thinking about it, you decide to move to, say the Midwest. A country lifestyle will be a change, a fresh start. So you pick up, say goodbye to your life in New York, and move to Kansas. For the first year or so, it's heaven: open skies, open spaces, open and friendly people. Then unhappiness starts to creep in again. The life you have chosen is dull. You don't like the weather. The people are getting less friendly by the day...

One morning, you wake up, still unhappy, and decide that Kansas is to blame for your problems. Perhaps it's time for a move, say to California. It's sunny and warm there. You hear that the people are fun-loving and open-minded, quite unlike the residents of Kansas. So you pack up, say goodbye, and relocate to San Francisco.

Can you guess what happens next? After a time, the unhappiness returns, but tragically, there is no place left to blame. You're in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. You're in California, where it's almost always sunny and warm. You're on the Pacific ocean, with nature's beauty on full display. If you can't be happy here, where can you be happy? If you can't find peace here on the West coast, where else can you go?

My flippant answer is, right off the Golden Gate bridge.

Whether this account reflects an actual sociological process or not is irrelevant. I believe that it speaks of a very real spiritual process, which I frequently witness as a pastor. When life becomes a struggle, we too easily look to other places, people, and circumstances that we believe will ease the pain in our hearts. It's the Golden Gate solution, also known as the geographical solution. A better life, a fresh start, always exists somewhere else.

The problem with the Golden Gate solution is that it doesn't work, at least not for very long. Once the superficial pleasures of new-found relationships wear off, we discover that people are essentially the same wherever we find them. If they caused us difficulties in New York, they will probably cause us similar difficulties in San Francisco, simply because they are human beings. Can we really blame our problems on the rest of humanity? Furthermore, if we find ourselves just as unhappy in the sunshine and surf of California as we were in the snow and wind of Kansas, can we really blame our unhappiness on weather and geography?

The reality is, our problems don't lie 'out there,' but within our hearts, in our own fears, resentments and desires. To quote the poet John Milton, “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.” The Big Book of AA puts it in more basically: “I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”

No truer words have ever been set down on paper.

Apart from not working, the Golden Gate solution has another, more dangerous effect: it confines us to the shallow end of the spiritual pool. Jesus' two fundamental commands are love God and love your neighbour. In the Christian understanding, this love has nothing to do with warm fuzzy feelings and everything to do with action—sacrificing one's time, energy and material resources to secure the life of another human being, preferably one who is a stranger. That effort will cost us; it will be painful, stressful and unimaginably difficult.

If, however, we keep on uprooting and moving elsewhere whenever we face this challenging test of love, we can never really know the meaning of Jesus' command, let alone follow it with any real consistency. When we live in continual movement, engaging in relationships that don't have an opportunity to deepen and grow, we are deprived of the opportunity to truly love others and ultimately, to truly know the love of God Himself.

Saint Anthony the Great once said, “Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.”

Anthony's words are simplicity itself, but they require us to be steadfastly courageous. We must have the courage to reject the temptations of the Golden Gate solution and stand our ground, whether it is in New York or San Francisco or Cranbrook, so that we can find God in the most rewarding territory of all: our own hearts. As the Elder Makarios put it: "Within the heart are unfathomable depths. It is but a small vessel and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there.”

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