Sometimes I find myself walking through my South Philadelphia neighborhood, alone, in the dark. It’s generally okay, even pleasant, but occasionally I’ll see or hear something that makes me nervous. Later, when I’m sitting safely at home and scrolling through headlines and blog posts about things like gun rights or, more recently, refugees, I try to remember that feeling of fear and vulnerability.
I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I suspect that us humans are wired to be afraid of each other. We’re suspicious of unfamiliar experiences or people. And why shouldn’t we be? We have no reason to trust that which we don’t know, or to believe that it won’t harm us. Our bodies and minds simply desire self-preservation.
The desire for self-preservation is what makes me walk a little faster at night. It’s what makes people want to carry guns or turn away refugees. But when I start thinking about it this way, I hear Voldemort’s voice in the back of my head, saying “There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” To which wise old Dumbledore replies, “You are quite wrong…Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”¹ What Dumbledore means is that a life lived without love, or friendship, or remorse for things like maybe accidentally killing your sister, is actually worse than death. Self-preservation is important, but it’s even more important to live a life worth living.
Socrates – an arguably more significant pillar of western thought than Albus Dumbledore – had a similar mindset. Socrates was put on trial and ultimately executed for basically annoying important Athenians with his subversive questions about virtue. He refused to stop altogether, or even leave town and live in exile, because what he was doing was literally worth dying for. At his trial, he explains this at great length. Quotable gems include:
“I would much rather die after this kind of defense than live after making the other kind. Neither I nor any other man should, on trial or in war, contrive to avoid death at any cost. Indeed it is often obvious in battle that one could escape death by throwing away one’s weapons and by turning to supplicate one’s pursuers, and there are many ways to avoid death in every kind of danger if one will venture to do or say anything to avoid it. It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.”²
We go to great lengths to keep ourselves alive, and not only is that understandable, but it’s really great! The Christian narrative is all about life, and for us one of the most important things (if not the most important thing) is that Jesus is alive. But I suspect that our meek and humble savior, who amongst other things physically reassembled the man who was arresting him, wouldn’t want us to sacrifice our goodness, virtue, and lives-well-lived for the sake of mere self-preservation. Living a whole, abundant life means striving for things like virtue and flourishing. It means trying to identify what people were made for and living accordingly. Dumbledore would say that you should try not to kill people, because that’s bad for your soul. Socrates would tell you to examine your life and everything in it. Jesus would tell you to love your neighbors…and your enemies.
Although I understand that policy makers must focus on keeping their constituents alive (though not necessarily flourishing), I worry about Americans as individuals. The way that we talk about things like guns, borders, and now, Syrians, sometimes sounds like we care more about sleeping soundly or breathing easily than maintaining our very humanity.
A lot of the chatter that’s come from Christians this past week or so has focused on love, hospitality, and having no fear. My addition to that chatter is even more basic than all of those nice things. In times like these, we need to remember that our end-game isn’t avoiding death, but living.
¹Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
²Apology, Plato, 39a