You live your life with a lot of shortcuts.
In the day-to-day there is so much data coming at you from so many different places, that to just surviveâto make it down the street without an existential crisisâyou need to simplify and be selective.
As a child you asked millions of questions so that you could make sense of all the things you were encountering, but as you go on in life you work more based off a system of shortcuts.
Your brain organises information into schema, so that every time you go to shake someone's hand you don't have to stop to think: 'what is a person?' and 'how do I animate my arm?' or 'how come this subset of beings chose this method of greeting and not something with our feet instead?' or 'why am I wasting my time on this when my precious life is ebbing away with each passing moment?' Instead, you just smile politely and shake their hand.
In many ways we live our lives in this world much like we have entered someone's living room. There's a range of objects around us that we may have never seen before, but we get the gist of it all well enough to get on with sitting down and accepting the offer of a cup of tea. We don't need to know what's behind the sideboard, or who assembled the frame of the sofa, we've seen things like this before and so for the most part they fade into the background, out of mental focus, and we simply live.
There is a lot of utility to this way of living, but there are some important questions that we can't leave unanswered. At least at some point in our lives we need to sit down and interrogate our schema. But we don't need to make plans to do this because there are events that will automatically make you question your shortcuts. There are interruptions to the system that push you to look at the space between your assumptionsâa sudden accident, a serious sickness, the death of a loved one, an act of terrorism or tragedy on the world stage.
These events shake us awake, not to necessarily question everything we've known about the world, but they push us beyond the mechanics of the day-to-day to ask 'why?' Not that we all of a sudden reassess what a couch is, but we ask what we are doing in the living room to begin with.
If sickness comes to all of us, and none of us can hide from death, what's the point of this efficient method of living? I know what I am doing today, but why am I doing it at all, where did my existence come from and where is it heading? I may know what is right and wrong for me to do, but why is there right and wrong, ethical and moral?
We cannot live every day with these questions, we have our schema for good reason, but if we never look behind the system we will be missing something vital. We will be missing the meaning and purpose of the whole.
It's all well and good to sit on a lounge with a cup of tea, but if you're meant to be at work something has gone wrong. Or if it's not your house, or the house of any you know, you probably shouldn't be there. Or perhaps if everyone else is standing up, at one point you'll need to ask if you yourself ought to be sitting.
What I'm trying to say is that it is only once we have satisfactorily answered the bigger questions, and assured ourselves about why we are there and what our purpose is, can we get on with the functional shortcuts of living. And that it's no good pointing out how simple and relaxing it is to sit around a living room if you can't answer with confidence about whether you're supposed to be there or not.
Life doesn't require constant existential agonising, but it does require a degree of existential cohesion. The questions of life and death and God and eternity are the stage upon which the dramas of our lives are enacted. Nobody wants to see a play about stage being built, and yet to get on with all the poetry of theatre you need to have spent time building a stage.
You can carry on living with your system of shortcuts, only if you've taken time to examine the space between. It is here that you will find the author and perfector of realityâJesus Himselfâwho gives meaning, beauty, and coherence to every detail and dimension of your life.
Sam Manchester is currently a theology student with an inescapable sociology degree behind him. In an attempt to reconcile the two, he reflects and writes about their coalescence in everyday life.
Sam's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-manchester.html