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Thoughts on religion, politics, life and death. And other banned topics.

Forward Motion, or the Snail in the Well


There is an old riddle about a snail crawling up the side of a well. It starts 20 feet down and crawls 5 feet up by day but slides back down 4 feet by night. How long does it take the snail to climb out of the well? The riddle reveals the danger of abstract reasoning. The snail makes a net gain of 1 foot every day, so it is tempting to reason that it will take 20 days to exit the well. In fact, it only takes 16 days because on the morning of the 16th day, the snail is 5 feet from the top of the well, a distance it can travel in one day. If we forget the actual conditions of the problem and abstract only the information that the snail travels 1 foot per day, we get the wrong answer.

However, I want to consider the snail in the well as a metaphor for life. Most everyone expends some effort trying to better themselves or better their circumstances in some way. Even reputedly lazy people expend effort to avoid the work they dislike in favor of the leisure they love. Almost all of us also experience the pull of gravity, something that pulls us or holds us back and causes us to lose ground toward our goals.

For progress to have meaning, it has to have goals. Without goals, there can still be motion, but it cannot be described as forward motion1Of course, one could think of forward motion simply as any motion in the direction one happens to be facing, but for progress to have meaning, it needs “an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”. Forward motion is movement toward a goal. Moreover, the goals—or at least some primary goal—must be fixed. For the snail, the primary goal is getting out of the well. If the goal changes, then the meaning of progress changes with it.

One of the things that makes progress difficult is that our achievements often do not bring us the happiness we desire. We reach a goal only to discover that the goal was not as rewarding as we had imagined. So in addition to making sure our goals do not drift, we must also make sure they are worth the effort we expend to reach them. For example, living a long time might seem like a worthwhile goal. Eating right, getting enough exercise, and taking sensible precautions against the world’s risks may all contribute to a long life. But a long life of misery must surely be worse than a short one. Mere longevity loses its appeal when we consider the pain and suffering it might entail. This is one of the reasons people opt for do-not-resuscitate directives as part of their end-of-life care. It’s also the reason some people choose to end their own lives when faced with a prospect that seems to them to be unrelievedly bleak.

Progress is a journey toward a goal. Every narrative of such journeys includes distractions and setbacks. The Israelites become nomads in the Sinai desert for 40 years because they refused to undertake conquest of Canaan when they first arrived at its border. Odysseus spends a year on Circe’s island even after he saves his crew. Bilbo spends months as an invisible presence in the halls of the wood elves while trying to find a way to rescue the dwarves. Those who persevere reach their goals. Those who give up, besides failing to reach their goals, also don’t make it into the stories we keep telling. We all struggle with forward motion. There is always some gravity pulling us back into the well.

The problem with gravity is that there is no respite from it. No matter what we do, gravity is a constant drag on our efforts. To stop struggling is to let death overtake us. Only dead fish go with the flow.

When Jesus appeared his central message was, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We have become so inured to this message that we no longer hear it. It conjures images of sinners weeping at an altar over their sin and deciding to be baptized and join a church. But Jesus made it clear that traditional paradigms of how to live a life pleasing to God were broken. The repentance he spoke of was more than remorse over sin. It was a complete change of thinking about how to live and how to relate to God. That’s why in his Sermon on the Mount he began so many of his teachings with, “You have heard that it was said….” It is also why the Pharisees, steeped in their traditions, were so offended by his teaching. He sought to transform the traditional concept of God as a vengeful judge into a loving father always on the lookout for his lost children.

The church has often misrepresented God the way the Pharisees did. It has clung to man-made traditions and portrayed God as distant and wrathful—at least toward those who have not yet acknowledged him. Being ‘saved’ has become a ticket to heaven after death instead of a radical call to a life lived in service to others in this world. How hard it is to hear such a call when the very people who should be supporting and amplifying it are instead undercutting and attenuating it! How can God’s name be honored, his kingdom come, and his will be done, when those tasked with lifting him up, living by faith and love, and doing his will in the world instead promote themselves, advocate violence, and work their hardest to get what they want for themselves?


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    Of course, one could think of forward motion simply as any motion in the direction one happens to be facing, but for progress to have meaning, it needs “an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”

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