Firm Foundations

Global politics can sometimes have unexpected, and very local, side effects. I guess it’s a bit like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in the Indian Ocean and causing a tornado in Kentucky. Events that seem remote and impersonal can cause tidal waves in the lives of very small people.
Let me share with you a story of something that happened to a very small person (let’s call him Josef) in Berlin during and after the time of the Communist regime in the former East Germany.

Josef was just a humble citizen who, like many of his generation, became disenchanted with the way things were going in his home country. Along with many thousands of others, he decided to make a break for the West. He packed his bags and made his escape, leaving behind him just a small, well-tended garden in the heart of the city, where he grew his vegetables and dreamed his dreams.

Now, these few square yards of earth sparkled not just with the abundant harvest of beans and cauliflowers and cucumbers, but also with the promise of seriously profitable real estate. In short order the state authorities seized this opportunity, appropriated the little garden and erected no less an edifice upon it than the East German television tower. The specification was adamant: the tower was to be higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but suitably lower than the Moscow television tower.


And that might have been the end of the matter, had the regime not collapsed a quarter of a century later, at which point the humble gardener returned to his roots to take possession of his vegetable plot once more, only to find it occupied by the huge bulk of the national television tower. The ensuing clash of wills has been keeping the legal profession gainfully employed ever since.

This incident has often given me pause for thought. The television tower was actually built on stolen groundon a dishonest foundation. What about my own life? Have I built my life on values and principles that were not truly my own? Or, as one person once said to me: Have I spent my life living someone else’s dream? Has anyone taken over my heart’s soil and used it for his or her own ends? Have I done this to anyone else? These are searching questions, to which each of us must discern our own answers.

I recall another incident that happened when I was traveling once in the former Yugoslavia. We were camping beside a river. One of my companions was paddling barefoot in the shallow waters, hopping from rock to rock. The rocks were easy to identify, with their smooth gray bulk rising above the surface of the water. But one of them wasn’t all it seemed. He was just about to jump onto it when it swam away, baring its reptilian teeth as it went!

We make many leaps of faith as we go through life, trusting that the rock we are trying to land on is solid ground. Perhaps we have trusted the rocks of health and wealth, of status and power, of the undisturbed continuance of familiar relationships, career and established securities, only to find that these footholds have crumbled beneath us. We learn to our cost that they are not as reliable as they seem.

On one unforgettable occasion I also discovered how it feels to be sucked into quicksand. It was on an innocent-looking sandy beach. The tide was going out and the sand was uniformly firm and smooth, or so I thought until I found myself up to my ankles in shifting sand. I lived to tell the tale, but it was a scary moment, and what shocked me most was the fact that there was no way, by merely looking at the sand, to tell where it was truly on a firm foundation and where it was quicksand. The surface appearance gave no clue as to the possible hazards concealed below.

The sands of time are no less deceiving. Sometimes our journey will be safe and sure. Sometimes it will have the potential to suck us deep into destructive places and situations. It is rarely possible to see in advance which paths are which. It calls for constant attentive awareness to notice the destructive suction and step back from it promptly. And this in turn is possible only if we are not obsessed with a blind desire to walk precisely there, perhaps because there holds out some promise of short-term gain or pleasure for us.

St. Ignatius Loyola includes at the start of his Spiritual Exercises a meditation he calls the First Principle and Foundation. Among other things, this is an invitation to reflect on the foundations upon which we have built our lives, and on which we desire to build our future. We do well to ask ourselves these questions, not only personally but also collectively, as the whole human family. Are we building upon values our hearts know to be true, even if these run counter to popular opinion and culture?

Are we building on the values that are truly ours, or on secondhand principles passed on to us by someone else, and perhaps uncritically assimilated? Are we attentive to any signs that the basis of our lives may not be as sure as it looks? Are we taking risks and short-cuts that may lead us into quicksand? Is the tower of human achievement being constructed on a foundation we have stolen from the planet’s futurestolen from our grandchildren?

In the heart of a city under occupation lies a tiny garden, where a man grows his food. In the heart of each of us there is also a garden where all that is true and genuine within us and among us is seeded and nurtured by God. Let it not be usurped or compromised. It is our Eden.

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