I’ve noticed that when someone in a group casually says, “Oh, I live on my boat down in the harbor” everyone hearing him perks up with interest. Eager questions quickly follow. But when someone says, “I live in my car behind the supermarket,” people go quiet and someone changes the subject.
There are, of course, many differences between living in a car and on a boat, but I enjoy this observation by an author, Arthur Ransome, who plays a big role in my family’s reading. “The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.”
Someone living in his car is, well, living in his car. (Living in a fully-equipped RV is quite different.) But someone living on a boat is on a journey. At any point he could cast off the mooring lines and head to Haifa, Honolulu, or Hong Kong.
Feeling settled is very seductive but feeling unsettled is more productive. To their parents’ dismay, God arranged things so that when approaching those teenage years, children start feeling unsettled. Other than when with their friends undergoing the same stage, young people approaching adulthood often feel they don’t really belong anywhere. The last time they felt comfortably ‘at-home’ was as children cocooned in the security of parents and family. The next time they are going to feel ‘at-home’ will be once they’re in their own homes.
Without that God-given incentive, young people would likely want to remain as children in their parents’ homes forever. That symptom of teenagerhood, the vague indefinable anxiety of not belonging anywhere, eventually helps trigger the quest to find a home by building one’s own.
Regardless of how bad they may be, current circumstances possess inertia that is reflected in idioms like “Better the devil you know…”. A Jewish woman whose children live nearby us survived several years in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen concentration camps. She bore the number A-8603 tattooed on her arm. She used to say, “Being in the camps was gehenom (hell) but emerging from the camps after liberation in 1945 was almost as bad!” While the concentration camps and slave labor were absolutely horrific, and life was always in jeopardy, at least there was an infrastructure. Freedom was frightening; there was no structure at all.
Whether you are a single person vaguely contemplating matrimony, a harried mother wishing she could get her household under control, or a business professional struggling to build a profitable enterprise, just continuing to do the familiar exerts a powerful appeal, even when the familiar is unpleasant and unsatisfying.
Desiring tranquility is chasing an illusion. It contradicts the reality of life which is not meant to be a relaxing snooze on a sunny beach. Wanting to be settled in that way is a little like someone feeling so secure that he unlocks his door, turns off his intruder alarm, and goes to sleep. Nobody is surprised to hear that uninvited nocturnal visitors inflicted losses upon him. Ancient Jewish wisdom is quite specific about the negative effects of seeking tranquility.
Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned…
The Hebrew word for “settled” is VaYeSHeV and it hints at seeking tranquility. Ancient Jewish wisdom points out that after Jacob ‘settled down’ the disagreements between his sons, between Joseph and his brothers, escalated to tragedy. In other words, turning off and tuning out (as the Hippies used to say) is not an option for live people living life passionately. If you decide to withdraw from the ever-fresh opportunities and challenges of life, God sends something your way in order to get your attention.
Let’s see another instance of where Scripture uses that word ‘settled’, VaYeSHeV: י-ש-ב
And Israel settled in Shittim whereupon the people began to [behave immorally]
with the daughters of Moab.
Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that on their lengthy journey through the desert, Israel usually ‘encamped’. They didn’t usually settle. Encamped suggests an awareness of the temporary nature of one’s condition and a heightened state of alertness. By contrast, settling hints at complacency which can invite problems. Sure enough, settling in Shittim brought Israel a whole heap of problems.
The opening verse of the Book of Psalms:
Happy is the man who didn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked and didn’t stand in the ways
of sinners and didn’t settle in the company of scoffers.
Ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizes that if life forces you into proximity with less than ideal people, keep on walking. If you have no choice but to talk with them, don’t sit down, remain standing in order to remind yourself that you’re not joining them. Finally, whatever you do, never settle down with those people. Of course, the Hebrew word for settle is again that same word we’ve seen before; the word that suggests throwing in the towel and giving up the fight.
It goes without saying that we all need our anchors in life. As I repeatedly remind listeners to my podcast, the more that things change, the more we must depend upon those things that never change. It is only by knowing exactly what anchors in our lives never change that we are liberated to embrace change. It is what allows us to escape the tyranny of our current condition. Having those anchors allow us to cast off the mooring lines that tie us to yesterday and thrill to the fight and challenge that is tomorrow’s journey.