- We can attempt to bury the recognition of our powerlessness by proving our potency — e.g., by relentlessly pursuing achievement so we can churn through that list of necessary successes: university degree (or two), travel abroad, career, spouse, mortgage, etc. All the while measuring ourselves against others. Congratulating ourselves when we’re out in front (because we’ve risen above our circumstances) and mentally qualifying the achievements of others out of existence (because they had an unfair social, financial or genetic advantage).
- Or we can do it in search of security — finding that ideal person or job, the respectable equivalent of an underground concrete bunker kitted out so we can survive the harshest nuclear winter. If not that, then perhaps we cling to being free from attachment, risk, commitment. Never opening ourselves up, making ourselves vulnerable, or trying something at which we might fail. Impoverishing ourselves, for sure. But never getting hurt in the process.
- Or we can try to cheat death in pursuit of pleasure — throwing ourselves out of aeroplanes or into anonymous sex or into a never-ending parade of experiences (food or wine or whatever). Grasping at every passing scrap of enjoyment in an otherwise nasty, brutish and short life. And certainly not trading it in for more long-term things like character, integrity or investing in people.
Not that achievement, security or pleasure are necessarily bad things. Far from it. They’re good gifts from God. Rather, it’s the sheer desperation with which we tend to pursue them that’s the problem.
This desperation speaks of our headlong flight from our powerlessness before death, our failure to own our creatureliness and limitation — the fact that we’re dust and destined to return to dust — and our refusal to join the Psalmist in asking God to ‘teach us to number our days aright’ (Psalm 90.12). And its consequences are just toxic as too readily coming to grips with death.