Feature image is of the Old Playground Pavilion in Tower Grove Park, St. Louis
I sit to write this brief reflection as I work a shift for a colleague trapped on high ground somewhere South of St. Louis, the water of a swollen Meramec River keeping her at home. Another friend upstream posts pictures of the water that has trapped her family near where the same river passes just southwest of the city. I, myself, though largely dry, save for a trickle in my basement, stare at MoDOTs highway closure map, zooming down on red and yellow lines slashing the lower half of the state that block my easiest routes to a weekend retreat, placing my trip in jeopardy.
Contingent: “dependent on or conditioned by something else”
It is not a feeling that we like to have–being reminded that we are not the free-agents that we think ourselves to be, that despite having the car that will take us to the Starbucks on the other side of the highway, that it sits useless in the driveway, except to get to the edge of the sub-division, unable to take us to the grocery store, to the movies, or even to work.
Agency: “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power”
This feeling comes from lack of agency, from a lack of power to exert one’s will. Of course, this lack of agency and the feelings of powerlessness that come from it are commonplace for those who have fewer means, in this country and the world at large. If I want to go to Chicago, there are a number of ways that I might reasonably choose to go–car, bus, train, plane, or even an expensive week long bicycle trip. When one is poor the options are severely reduced or disappear altogether. However, just now, if I were in the straits of one of my fellow Missourians trapped by the floods, I could not go to Chicago at all, unless I had the wealth to hire a helicopter or a boat. I would be trapped by the inability to move my body where I want it to be. If the flood were more severe, I might eventually have the inability to feed my body.
With the Internet we have additional illusions of agency, at least for our minds. We carry around the ability to stream images and converse with people from around the world. But what if the waters were to rise to cut off the power? Then that agency, too, would dissipate with the draining of a cell-phone battery, the running out of gas of a generator, of the car parked in our driveway.
Please know that I am not gleeful of the hardships that people are experiencing–may God be with the souls and families of those who have lost their lives; may God and others be with those who have lost all their worldly goods–but I also think that herein there are lessons to reminded of, lessons about our contingent nature, about our creatureliness.
With the exponential growth of information technologies, there will be an increasing push to develop ever more tools to enhance or transcend our biology (in the distant past I wrote a story about this). I just told a class the other day that with our cellphones in our pockets to which we off-load a goodly portion of the tasks we need to remember, the images we wish to cherish, with the Bluetooth device in our ears with which we communicate, that many of us are well on the way to becoming cyborgs. As someone who believes that we were created to be beings with souls and spirits which are intimately ensconced in flesh, in bodies, without which we are incomplete, I think that extreme efforts to over-leap our biological limitations are grave errors, even as I feel their pull, as I use them to pass along my thoughts in this post, to broadcast the images that I capture with my digital camera.
These are some reasons why I think these slowing downs, these reminders of the provisional quality of our agency, with all the hardship and boredom they may entail can, indeed, be a blessing that can remind us of ourselves. Then again, one might also get the same effect by simply going on a camping trip and leaving one’s cell phone at home, choosing to get rid of a car, planting a garden, or making a hundred other choices to simplify one’s life. Whatever the means, it may well be a good thing to reflect upon one’s creatureliness, one’s contingency.