I’d Rather Be a Stone than a Leaf
By Jane Tawel
November 16, 2019
Simon and Garfunkel have this great old song in which they preach to their listeners that they would “rather be a hammer than a nail” and they would “rather be a sparrow than a snail”. Good sentiments, sort of along the lines of Ghandi’s ubiquitous “Be the Change” exhortation. But you know, the problem is that most of us can only manage to fly like a bird for a very short time, and then we tire out. And being a hammer eventually just makes you an overbearing, hard-nosed, abuser of your power against all the little powerless nails. Being a hammer might be a Samson-like calling in the moment, but eventually all hammers hit too hard, just as much as the powers do who currently hold the hammers. We dare not forget the ends of stories like those of Icarus and Samson.
I have learned all of this, mostly from literature and other forms of great writers’ artistic endeavors. Stories and poems and authors like Homer, Tolkien, Rowling, and the writers of what we call The Bible, contain what C.S. Lewis calls, True Myth. These stories about hammers, or powerful heroes, or sparrows, high fliers, often end tragically or at least badly for all the little nobodies — that is for the nails who get wacked by the heroes or the people below the high fliers, who get pooped on from those soaring above the fray.
This is the truth that Orwell and Dickens meant to teach us when they wrote about power and revolutions against that power. Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities to help people understand that even a great cause, such as the French Revolutionaries had, will eventually fall by the way side when the weak become strongmen, and the powerless become power-hungry rulers. And I always loved to teach my students that Orwell was quite clear that Animal Farm was not simply about Soviet Russia, but also about Fascist Spain and Capitalistic America, and well, about all of us, everywhere, always. We have been warned — all humanistic, prideful power eventually is corrupted from within. One only has to look to the powers that those who claim God’s favor, ie all religions, but perhaps today, especially what we call “Christianity”. We have only to see what those in the name of religion or God have stolen, dictated, grasped, and abused, and continue to grasp and abuse, to understand that humanity is always falling prey to either an immoral sense of entitled faith in someone else doing the moral, salvation bit, or prey to a self-righteous sense of doing for God something that He refuses to do miraculously for our own entitled sense of greed or benefit.
I very often feel guilty and helpless and humiliated, that I am not out there hammering and soaring and fighting and shouting and pledging and contributing and warring and protesting and well, flying. It has helped me to read great story-tellers, who believe that getting rid of one power to be replaced only with another power will forever condemn history to more greedy and power hungry rulers. If you say you believe in Jesus, you should have no doubt that he believed this, even for himself, and he had the edge in being the Son of God, so….But we are not allowed to believe that we are to do nothing; that we were put on earth merely to save our own measly excuse for an individual soul and hightail it to a “Heaven” somewhere out there without all the mess we’ve created here. We are supposed to believe that we were put in charge on this planet, of these beings, and plants, and animals, and volcanoes, and lakes, and rivers, and children. We are meant to believe that there is a way humans were meant to “do good” and “act rightly and righteously” and to make this planet and world and other communities of humans better, more the way we would all like it to be, and that is what Jesus meant by telling us our job was to make “God’s Kingdom real here on earth, like it is in other galaxies, and places we can’t even imagine, ie, the “Heavens- Out-there- Where God is”.
So we seek metaphors, and stories, and poetic allusions to figure out how we are supposed to do this thing called “living”. I struggle at my time of life with seeing myself as a soaring eagle or a powerful tool of politics or religion. My nickname in my family is “Chicken” for good reason and I am definitely mechanically challenged at the best of times. Not sure any one wants me wielding a hammer, though I am prone to the occasional use of the metaphoric kind in conversation. The best metaphor I have recalled lately, for how I might make changes in the world as only one of the little people, a minor character in the plot, is the metaphor of the stone.
I think about that great line in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” spoken by a man who suffers death for the sake of his wife and other women, who back then were considered property, and who are accused and condemned unjustly by the over-powerful, over-zealous self-proclaiming evangelical politicians of the time. These abusers of power in Miller’s story, much like the regimes of Orwell’s Animal Farm, or the monarchy of Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities are up against, hammers and sparrows, and doves who carry secret messages, etc, but in the end the righteous refusal to budge on an ethical, moral response to wrong, badness, and evil, usually comes through those who simply lay down their lives, like a stone in the road, refusing to be carried away by the justifications of those who will not see the Truth behind the lies of the corrupted. Much like many of America’s past and present abusers of power, such as the current configuration of those like President Trump and Senator McConnell and Franklin Graham’s oligarchical Administration, and the Red Scared three-headed beast once seen in the U. S. Judiciary and FBI and Senator Joseph McCarthy during that Make America Great Administration, and the “Evangelical” Protestant Witch hunting White Settlers in the Administration who populate Miller’s play. And so, knowing that he would be condoning evil and doing wrong, by choosing the “lesser of two evils” and thereby, abusing his own power as a conservative, religious man who only wanted to save himself, Giles Corey, submits to being unjustly charged as a traitor and not Christian-like and is put to death via capital punishment by the state and modern inquisition by the Church. The Puritans did this by the placing of large, heavy stones laid on a man until they had crushed his chest into his heart. As the weight of the stones placed on Giles Corey, one after another, seem too impossible for his body to survive, and the political and religious leaders think surely this man will give in to their way of thinking and behaving now; Corey tells the “Christian” executioners that no, not only will he not join them for any reason but that they must add, “More weight. Add more weight.”
Add more stones. Arthur Miller, the playwright, would later, be a Giles Corey character in real life, when he refused to tattle to the corrupt “Un-American Activities Committee”, who after all were only trying to “make America great”. Again.
Dickens writes about a Christ-like figure who is innocent but allows the state to kill him in order for someone else to live. Orwell, however, has no such hero. In Orwell’s dystopian worldview, the Christian leaders, in the character of a black raven, symbolizing death, flies off with his share of the goodies; and the politicians, one after the other, are revealed to be not just literally pigs, but archetypes whose greed devolves them from being animals to, you guessed it, game-playing, powerful, greedy, over-fed humans.
And again, and again, and again and on it goes. No wonder we can feel so helpless and hopeless, and that we keep trying to tell ourselves that either someone like Jesus, already did all the work for us, and that the world can go to hell because we personally will be “saved”, if we only have a mindful acquiescence to some historical god’s reality; or that someone else, like a president or prime minister, or a Gates or Gandhi, will come along and be our world’s savior, and all we need to do is “pray” for them.
As for little old me, I do believe in the kind of Judeo-Christian worldview in which humans matter and that there is a God that cares about our world. I try to hang on to a belief that I find not just in stories from the Bible, but in the history books, and in Nature and even in other humans I meet now and then. I believe that Love matters most of all and that the small actions of small people matter. And that little actions done with love by little people can not only change the world, but that somehow, they have a larger meaning in light of God’s Kingdom and in some as yet, unrealized idea of Eternity.
I do believe that there is judgement and reward, for what we say, think, feel, and especially what we do or do not do. It seems clear that the consequences of one’s own life, and well as the tides of time and history are ultimately determined by those dueling sins of omission and commission that tug us as individuals, and sometimes confuse us as they pull us in different and seemingly contradictory directions. I believe we all sense the truth, that in some way, we have messed up what is fair and good, and this is true whether we believe in a reckoning in a God-futured heaven, or the more easily apparent judgement that Jesus did rightly warn us of. Jesus did warn his fellow humans that there is an inherent judgement in life that is an ever present danger. This danger comes when any one, any people pass the point of no return on earth by “losing our souls, losing what this life was meant to reward us with as individual human beings, and when we seek only to gain more and more for ourselves at any cost”.
Surely even the most foolish of us sometimes awakes in a terrified sweat to the recognition that we are becoming less human, less of what we want to be, more soul-less, and increasingly zombie-like. Surely even the most religious of us must stand aghast at what we have allowed to happen on our planetary home, as children kill other children, and farmers starve on what used to be their land, and the food we eat to nourish us causes us deathly illnesses, and whole species of animals die out, and people wear gas masks to breath, and fires rage, and sea levels rise, and those who are supposed to unite us, divide us for their own gain. Surely, even the most atheistic or immoral of us understand that there is something horribly, horribly wrong on our planet, in our species, in the inner most parts of who we are?
And like me, you may feel angry, depressed, frightened, sad, and helpless and hopeless. After all, what can you do? What can I do? What can we do?
It came as a consolation and a warning and a judgement and a prophetic goading to me, this past week to re-read the part of a story I was reading. I will share great swathes of it with you here, but I encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself. This is from C.S. Lewis’s Science Fiction Trilogy, and specifically from Perelandra. In it, the character of Elwin Ransom, a human being, has gone to another planet which has just been created by God, who Lewis calls Maleldil. On this planet, there is a sort of new Garden of Eden set-up, and there this traveling spaceman, meets this planet’s archetypal “Eve” character. Ransom also meets up with the only other fellow human, a man named, Weston, but who according to Lewis, has become an “Un-man”. Weston has allowed evil, “Satan” to take over his mind, body, and soul, but it happened incrementally over the course of time and Weston did it for all the right reasons, much like people today claim to do. The story’s conflict lies between these two humans, who have a different worldview of what God wants from us, although both claim the Bible and God as their source. They also have different ideas about what is the best way to make the planet of Perelandra and her inhabitants, “Great”. Oh, it is truly relevant, is it not? I encourage you to read the story. But what may encourage you today, as it did me, is C.S. Lewis’ own wrestling with his conscious and the pleading voice coming through in the character of Elwin Ransom. I have taken the liberty here and substituted Lewis’ name for God, “Maleldil” for the more earth-friendly one, “God”. Ransom is at a loss for how to stop the evil and “bad stuff” happening around him. He has tried and failed so far to save The Lady and the planet, and time seems to be running out. Now he is feeling helpless, and thinking dark thoughts in the darkness, thoughts and feelings much like mine at times. Perhaps much like yours.
Why did no miracle come? Or rather, why no miracle on the right side? For the presence of the Enemy was in itself a kind of Miracle. Had Hell a prerogative to work wonders? Why did Heaven work none? Not for the first time he found himself questioning Divine Justice. He could not understand why God should remain absent when the Enemy was there in person… Suddenly and sharply, as if the solid darkness about him had spoken with articulate voice, he knew that God was not absent… had never been absent, that only some unconscious activity of his own had succeeded in ignoring it for the past few days…. But where is God’s representative?
The answer which came back to him, quick as a fencer’s or a tennis player’s riposte, out of the silence and the darkness, almost took his breath away. “Anyway, what can I do? I’ve done all I can. I’ve talked till I’m sick of it. It’s not good, I tell you.” He tried to persuade himself that he, Ransom could not possibly be God’s representative… And then — he wondered how it had escaped him till now — he was at least as much of a marvel as the Enemy’s. He himself was the miracle.
Yes, we too often forget it. My life itself is a miracle. But we must be careful, for like Ransom, many of us who believe this today, stop there. Ransom tries to convince himself that this belief, this “faith” in God and in goodness and in his being in “God’s hand”, is enough. He pats himself on the back that he really has done “his best” and that “God would see to the final issue”. But Lewis, knows that really, honestly, this is not true-Truth, not even on a mythical planet.
Not one rag of all this evasion was left. Relentlessly, unmistakably, the Darkness pressed down upon him the knowledge that this picture of the situation was utterly false. His journey was not a moral exercise, nor a sham fight. If the issue lay in God’s hands, Ransom and the Lady were those hands. The fate of a world really depended on how they behaved in the next few hours. They could, if they chose decline to save the innocence of this new race, and if they declined its innocence would not be saved. It rested with no other creature in all time or all space. This he saw clearly, though as yet he had no inkling of what he could do.
As Ransom realizes, we must realize that God cares through Us, not just for us. We are each, each day, standing alone on the precipice between the salvation of the world within and without and the death of all that is in both me and the planet, all that is Good and Right and Healthy. I am the only person right now who is utterly responsible for what happens in my own soul, in the souls of others, and on the planet. This is not the vanity of the powerful nor the hubris of the hero, this is the reality of what it means to be a created human being, created in the likeness of a God. Ransom, however, can not accept this blithely, just as I can not do, maybe as you cannot do, and Lewis through his character, rebels and protests these thoughts.
The voluble self protested, wildly, swiftly, like the propeller of a ship racing when it is out of the water. The imprudence, the unfairness, the absurdity of it! Did God want to lose worlds? What was the sense of so arranging things that anything really important should finally and absolutely depend on such a man of straw as himself? And at that moment he now could not help remembering that men were at war and awaking, like him, to the preposterous truth that all really depended on their actions; and far away in time Horatius stood on the bridge, and Eve herself stood looking upon the forbidden fruit and the Heaven of Heavens waited for her decision. He writhed and ground his teeth, but could not help seeing. Thus, and not otherwise, the world was made. Either something or nothing must depend on individual choices. And if something, who could set bounds to it?
A stone may determine the course of a river. He was that stone at this horrible moment which had become the centre of the whole universe. The angels of all worlds, the sinless organisms of everlasting light, were silent in Deep Heaven to see what Elwin Ransom of Cambridge would do.
And so each and every day — perhaps moment by moment — one must ask oneself: Will I be a leaf, blown this way and that by life’s ebb and flow, to eventually be nothing more than the dust from which I grew?
Or will I be a stone? A pebble in the shoe of the king, can irritate him into stopping and perhaps, in that way, the pebble will upend the powerful forces marching towards destruction. A rock in the road, can cause the jeeps and tanks, to perhaps change direction, and in that way, change the direction of a war. All the little bits of gravel, can build each other up, and change the course of the mighty seas of history, damming the floods of greed, pride, and injustice, restoring the waters to their intended nourishment and life-giving abilities. And one little pebble found in a righteous slingshot, can slay a Goliath.
The Cornerstone of God’s Kingdom, proclaimed, that should we fail to be the stones of God, that God Himself could easily raise up actual clods made of dirt and minerals. Should I fail, God does not lack for hands and feet and wings and claws and trunks and even pebbles; for on Ransom’s Earth, on Lewis’ and my planet, a man once came to show us how to live. And this Son of Man, proclaimed that even “the rocks themselves can do our job of crying in praise, ‘Hosanna’! Blessed is the one who does God’s work on earth, as it is done in all the Heavens and in all the Cosmos!”
If I have delayed in my life, ’til now, skipping a rock on a lake, or dropping a pebble into a pool of deep water, I must delay no longer. I can not know whether my little stone of an action will create far-reaching ripples, the consequences of which I shall not know until Judgement day; or if my little stone will sink to the bottom of our raging waters, and there, perhaps, small and still as a god’s voice, will change the course of the tide, at least perhaps for someone else.
All I can know without doubt, with fear and even sometimes loathing, is that I must be the stone that God has created me to be. I must use the hands God gave me, the feet God entrusted to me, and the voice God expects me to use. And so, like a good stone, I cry, “Hosanna! Good news! God is with us. And the Gospel is — We are the saviors. We are the ones that God created us to be as the makers and caretakers and workers for Love on our planet. We are the Christ.”
We are not called to be innocent bystanders, like dumb rocks by the wayside. Because bystanders, are not innocent, they are just dumb. We neither are called to be dumb as in stupid nor dumb as in silent. I may be just a stone, but I am a stone that is resting on the Cornerstone, and that Cornerstone, called The Christ, Messiah, Risen Lord and King, has changed the whole course of Time and History. On Christ the solid rock, I stand. Or am crushed. My choice.
The next time you are out in the world, stoop down and pick up a little grey pebble. Is it not truly a miracle of creation? Each of us, too, can be that small little stone that is in Truth, a miracle.
Will I be a leaf or a stone? Daily, moment by moment, I choose. And though, I am not all that important in the great scheme of things, I am the only miracle I have today. But then again, I am the only miracle, I need today.
And in the end, after all, as Elwin Ransom realized, as C.S. Lewis, and George Orwell, and Charles Dickens realized, and perhaps as you have realized, accepting that I am the miracle God has sent is not only enough, it is everything. My being a small stone is everything. In fact,
The fate of the planet depends on it.