Caged and Insignificant
Last week, I went to this zoo that’s not exactly a zoo. It’s a place called Tiger World. While I don’t know much about it, Tiger World bills itself as a preserve or refuge for various animals. Some of the animals have found their way to Tiger World through zoo closings or downsizes or, and, apparently this is true, (well, maybe it’s true,) some people keep exotic pets until the landlord or the neighborhood says Tigger and Mufasa have to go.
At any rate, it made for a good opportunity to get some unique pictures. At first, I was disappointed. The animals were all caged. (Had I been expecting them to be uncaged?) But it was worse. Many of the animal cages were separated from the viewers by a second fence several feet away from the cage. They were caged inside of a cage. The more I looked at the animals and the cages, it became apparent that some animals were caged more than others.
Take the tiger pacing back and forth, about to explode with frustration. The lion who, if facial expressions do in fact translate from a big cat to a guy with a big camera, was bored indelibly into a torpid retirement. The panther gnarling his teeth at the sound of my foot moving. The tortoise who wouldn’t come out of his shell—save just once. The liger’s conceptions (a lion/tiger hybrid) could not have occurred if it weren’t for cages—the paradigm for all existence.
Then look at the tiger chasing vultures. I saw her, defend her food, knock a vulture out of the air, and sat on a squealing bird. The tiger must have enjoyed slapping the birds because she started using her lunch as bait. And the dumb birds, governed exclusively by appetite, stayed in the cage. It went down like this: The birds gathered; the tiger pounced; a bird hit the fence like a cannon shot; feathers exploded, the bird crashed on patches of grass and dirt, apparently knocked out. The tiger then decided to take a break by sitting on the vulture. After the tiger was done sitting on the bird, the bird, if it had regained consciousness, righted itself and shook its head exactly like a cartoon character. I watched the tiger slap no less than three vultures into the fence. How none of them died is a mystery.
This is the part of my blog where I usually swing to the metaphorical—the truth behind the truth. But not this time. My thesis: just as the lions, tigers, and other animals, we are all in some kind of cage, we are caged animals too. Maybe we are in the terrible job cage or the busy schedule cage. The cage of addiction, physical limitations, the cage of disconnection and loneliness. Maybe you’re in the cage with the racist or the homophobic. Or maybe you’re in the victim cage, the one who bears the scars of intolerance and deliberate misunderstanding. There’s the cage of not giving a shit or the cage of empathic overload. Some cages can be escaped, like the cage of fast food. But even when you escape one cage, you find yourself in another cage, the cage outside the cage, and cage after cage until you find the cage that can’t be escaped, the ever-living cage of death.
When I say we are in cages, I don’t mean this in some sort of abstract, fanciful way. Just because you can’t touch your cages doesn’t mean there isn’t real substance to them. Escape the cages you can. Prison breaks are a wonderful thing. But it’s not the only thing.
The first thing to do is to actually notice that you are in a cage. How many of us pace back and forth and can’t see the fence in front of our nose? This remorseless lifestyle: satiating internal vacancy with demoralizing choices, the material requirements, gratify this moment, defer the future, pseudo narratives, life automated, the politics of ascendancy: who has time to read poetry or paint swirls of intrinsic meaning or journal for self-discovery? Why hunt for wildflowers or wade knee deep in a mountain stream? Plato or Aristotle, Dionysius the Areopagite and Julian of Norwich, names we’ve heard of? How many of us don’t know that we keep turning around and around, going the other way and then backtracking because we aren’t really conscious? The humdrum parade, workaday concerns, the doleful winter rain whose season never ends: it’s all gray or monochromatic and self-referential—we have anesthetized any sort of introspection, if we ever had it to begin with. And I point this out without blame or accusation. Unless you can escape your cage, seriously, who has time to be artsy or dive into the marrow of life? We are an ego driven society trapped by a singular notion: importance.
Let me tell you what all these religious strip-teasing performers, who are oh-so concerned about your skin-and-bones ego, won’t tell you. Your worse fears are true. You are a limited, finite being, whose existence, in this unfathomably big universe, is immeasurably insignificant. You don’t matter. I don’t matter. None of us really matter. We stand in the penumbra of sheol; we are turning to ghosts. Wisps, half-heard voices, a patch of chilled air.
In a cosmos whose age is measured in the billions of years, it is doubtful that we will be remembered 100 years after our death. Even our existence in the memory of those behind us is quickly erased like the footsteps we leave on the beach. One high tide, just one, and it’s as if we never were.
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. My lifetime is as nothing…surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Surely everyone goes about like shadow…they heap up, and do not know who will gather. What are human beings that you are mindful of them…
Only when you come to grips with your cage can you truly fathom escape. But this sort of escape doesn’t release you from your cage. This escape lets you know how tiny and insignificant you are. And if it is truly an escape, and not mere escapism, you will gain self-possession, dignity, and an enthusiasm for living. Escaping the need to be important, to be something we’re inherently not, becomes a kind of freedom and surrendering to our cage.
The miracle of Christ, the miracle of God-with-us, the holy incarnation is not that we mattered enough to be saved. God came to the poor, the downtrodden, the insignificant, the caged. God came to those who don’t matter. If God chose the foolish and the weak, the low and despised, doesn’t it stand to reason that God also chose the unimportant? God chose…things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. How much greater, then, is the miracle of Christ when we are saved because we don’t matter? Only after we see and touch our cage, only after we come to accept and even love our cage, do we know salvation.
Yet you have made them a little lower than God. I think it matters that we don’t matter.