Living Adventurously in a Dangerous World

Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak. When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God’s guidance and offering counsel to one another? (Advices and queries No. 27, Quaker Faith and Practice)

I grew up in what felt like a very safe world. I had a very comfortable upbringing. I grew up in a safe, loving home, with parents who only ever wanted me to be happy. This is an undeserved, wonderful fact about my life that I will be forever grateful for.

It was also a home where grief and sadness were uneasy guests, and angst-inducing questions were covered in a blanket of ‘it’ll be alright’. I am so thankful that my parents’ home is full of laughter and warmth. At the same time, I need more than ‘it’ll be alright’ to help me live in a world faced with a host of difficulties and dangers. ‘It’ll be alright’ is too small a box to fit things like climate-change into.

When I found religion[1] in my late-teens, I felt I’d discovered something expansive enough to fit all of the worlds’ troubles into. Early on in my Quaker journey, I read these words by the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly. He delivered this lecture in 1939 to Quakers in the United States, after travelling amongst German Quakers in the Third Reich the year before:

An awful solemnity is upon the earth, for the last vestige of earthly security is gone. It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but we haven’t believed it. And some of us Quakers are not yet undeceived, and childishly expect our little cushions for our little bodies, in a world inflamed with untold ulcers…

The heart is stretched through suffering, and enlarged. But O the agony of this enlarging of the heart, that one may be prepared to enter into the anguish of others! Yet the way of holy obedience leads out from the heart of God and extends through the Valley of the Shadow.[2]

I found these words to be terrifyingly exhilarating. Here was someone speaking truth in a way I’d never heard it at home. Far from religion being an escapist fantasy, Thomas Kelly showed me that religion was able to capture the complexity, danger, fearfulness and wild joy of life that ‘it’ll be alright’ could never grasp.

This is what I think religion should do: speak truthfully about the world and show us how to live well in it. As Kelly says, a truth about the world is that it is a dangerous place. There is much to be afraid of. How can we live well in such a world?

To help me explore this question I want to talk about rabbits. Richard Adam’s book ‘Watership Down’, and the incredibly frightening animated film it spawned, tells the story of a community of rabbits whose warren is destroyed to make way for a housing development. They search for a new warren, finally making their home on the eponymous Watership Down. I tried to read it when I was 11 and gave up after a few chapters. On picking it up again in my mid-20s, I was captivated. A few years ago, a whole new dimension of the book was opened up to me when I read the thoughts of Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas, where he says that ‘Watership Down is meant to teach us the importance of stories for social and political life.’[3] The Watership Down rabbits know how dangerous the world is, they know how to survive in it, and they do this by telling stories.

Their creation myth is ‘The Story of the Blessing of El-ahrairah’, which tells how the legendary Prince of the Rabbits was both tricked and blessed by the sun-god Frith.

And Frith called after him, “El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”[4]

The story teaches the rabbits how dangerous the world is for them, and teaches them how to survive in it. They need to be watchful and prepared to work hard, they need to cooperate with their fellow rabbits, and most importantly they must be tricksters.

Later in the story, the rabbits take refuge in the warren of a stranger named Cowslip. It is a spacious, comfortable warren. The rabbits of Cowslip’s warren are large and well fed, dining daily on such luxuries as carrots, food the Watership Down rabbits have rarely tasted. They want for nothing, and hop about in the open without fear of enemies. Along with this care-free lifestyle, the rabbits of Cowslip’s warren exhibit lots of un-rabbity behaviours. They carry food in their mouths and store it underground. They push stones into the wall of the warren to make pictures of El-ahrairah (called ‘shapes’), they even laugh and sing. They are also totally disinterested in their visitors, and they avoid answering questions. Strangely, they are sad, ‘like trees in November’. Worst of all, they no longer tell stories:

‘We don’t tell the old stories very much,’ said Cowslip. ‘Our stories and poems are mostly about our own lives here. Of course, that Shape of Laburnum that you saw – that’s old-fashioned now. El-ahrairah doesn’t really mean much to us. Not that your friend’s story wasn’t very charming.’ He added hastily.

‘El-ahrairah is a trickster,’ said Buckthorn, ‘and rabbits will always need tricks.’

‘No,’ said a new voice from the further end of the hall, beyond Cowslip. ‘Rabbits need dignity and above all, the will to accept their fate.’[5]

It transpires that Cowslip’s warren is kept by a farmer, and is set with traps. The rabbits have everything they want, as long as they never speak of the snare, or those rabbits that disappear. The rabbits of Cowslip’s warren no longer tell the stories of El-ahrairah because they no longer need tricks to survive. Indeed, they no longer need each other to survive. The stories don’t connect to their life of comfort, security and denial. In a way, they are no longer rabbits.

The message of Watership Down is that the stories we tell shape the people we are, and the people we are shape the stories we tell. So we must choose our stories wisely. The artist Banksy says that art should ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ Do the stories we allow to shape us do that too?

The stories I choose to shape my life are those that are centred on Jesus. Jesus continually tells his disciples to not be afraid. At the same time, he asks them to do quite dangerous things. He tells them:

‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.’[6]

Whilst also telling them:

‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’[7]

Quakers speak about living adventurously. Adventures are dangerous things. Stanley Hauerwas writes that:

Adventure requires courage to keep us faithful to the struggle, since by its very nature adventure means that the future is always in doubt. And just to the extent that the future is in doubt, hope is required, as there can be no adventure if we despair of our goal. Such hope does not necessarily take the form of excessive confidence; rather, it involves the simple willingness to take the next step.[8]

I don’t want to be numb to danger, or wave away fear as some sort of illusion. I want the fog of complacency to clear so I can see what I really should be afraid of. At the same time, I don’t want to be paralysed by fear, like a rabbit in headlights. I want to have the courage, the hope, the confidence to take the next step. I want to move from the shallows of ‘it’ll be alright’ to the depths of Julian of Norwich’s ‘all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well’[9], because for Julian these words were hard won. Julian knew about the reality of living in a dangerous world:

And these words – ‘You will not be overcome’ – were said [to me by God] very insistently and strongly, for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. [God] did not say ‘You will not be troubled, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted’, but [God] said ‘You will not be overcome’.[10]

(A version of this presented as part of the recent Woodbrooke retreat ‘To Save From Fear: Spiritual Practices for Difficult Times’.)

Mark Russ, 2018

[1] I understand ‘religion’ to mean a collection of beliefs, symbols, texts and practices that bind a group together.

[2] Thomas Raymond Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Reprint edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1941), 39–43.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, ‘A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on “Watership Down” (1981)’, in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 172.

[4] Richard Adams, Watership Down (London: Penguin, 2012), 28.

[5] Adams, 99.

[6] Matt 10.16-18

[7] Matt 10.29-31

[8] Hauerwas, ‘A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on “Watership Down” (1981)’, 172–73.

[9] Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 225.

[10] Julian of Norwich, 315.