We spend much of our lives avoiding conflict if we can, a noble aspiration. We settle family disputes, avoid war, and hope for reconciliation within and among nations. The manic-depressive election cycles drive us crazy. Pharmaceutical companies promise to eliminate pain and extend our lives. Are we hard-wired for perpetual turmoil? Or is there a cure for our restlessness?
Perhaps an old sci-fi film will help us begin to place human conflict into perspective.
In the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, the main character, Scott, is on vacation with his wife. A strange mist covers him, and six months later, Scott notices his clothes are too large. He is shrinking. Scott’s steady decrease makes him a national curiosity. He shrinks until he is small enough to live in a dollhouse. The family cat attacks him. He survives a battle with a spider. Scott eventually accepts his fate as he shrinks to sub-atomic size, a size useful for our purposes.
(Warning. Overweight people cannot use the mist selectively. Seek treatment for sub-atomic obesity.)
Let’s hire the sub-atomic Incredible Shrinking Man as a war correspondent and send him to war zones. Let’s equip him with tiny communications gear and inject him into a young, healthy human body. The Incredible Shrinking Man soon radios the medical authorities with headline dispatches. War is raging! Terrible carnage! Antibodies are battling viruses! Monstrous deformed human cells are attacking the good cells! Antibodies prevailing! Enemies destroyed down to the last cell! The antibody warriors are triumphant, surrounded by dead viruses, infections, and mutant cells. Hooray for the miracle of a strong body with a healthy immune system! The antibodies conduct a military victory parade.
The young man celebrates by running the Boston Marathon.
Let’s inject the Incredible Shrinking Man with his gear into a middle-aged human body. Our hero again radios the medical authorities with his reports. War! Antibodies are battling viruses! Monstrous deformed human cells are attacking the good cells! This time the infected cells burst and counterattack, releasing clusters of infection into the bloodstream. These cells rapidly reproduce, destroying the red blood cell hosts and unleashing many diseased cells for further damage. The Incredible Shrinking Man calls for air support. Doctors send in antibiotic reinforcements that lay waste to the contagion. Hooray for the immune system and the pharmaceutical allies! The victory parade begins!
The mother celebrates by driving the kids to school.
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.” We inject the Incredible Shrinking Man into an elderly and feeble person. War! Viruses and infections are formidable enemies of healthy cells, and the Incredible Shrinking Man again calls for reinforcements. Doctors send in antibiotics to no avail, and the Incredible Shrinking Man reports the bad news. The battle is lost. Death comes with pneumonia, cancer, or a myriad of deadly afflictions. The near-miraculous power of man-made pharmaceuticals cannot save. The strife is over.
The Incredible Shrinking Man anxiously radios for a rescue team. He doesn’t want to go down with the ship.
These war stories of the Incredible Shrinking Man teach us a valuable lesson. Conflict is inevitable, and even our bodies engage in daily turmoil. Death is our destiny. Health foods, salt-free diets, Botox, tummy tucks, red meat (at last!), radioactive mist, vegetables, and fruits, will not save us. But they may prolong the conflict or at least improve our looks. Our Incredible Shrinking Man war correspondent reports that while we live, we gaze on the certainty of death with restless hearts.
The melancholic philosopher Ecclesiastes observes that everything is vanity: “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; …the hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.” (Eccl. 9:1-2)
Genesis and the account of the fall of Adam and Eve reinforce the conclusions of the Incredible Shrinking Man. Sin, suffering, and death distort our integrity before God. Conflict is unavoidable. The dispatches of the Incredible Shrinking Man provide the biological metaphor for the battle between good and evil that wages in every human heart. Death is inevitable. But is death a dead end? Like Ecclesiastes, the Incredible Shrinking Man is at a loss for words. He needs the Cross and the suffering of Jesus for an answer.
The thieves crucified on the left and right of Jesus also gazed at the certainty of death. Like the Incredible Shrinking Man, the Good Thief was also something of a war correspondent as he reported his surprising reactions to the suffering of Jesus (cf. Lk. 23:35-43). We know Innocence intrudes on the sufferings of the Good Thief, and the suffering Jesus impels the Good Thief to measure his own broken life by the Divine Innocence that mysteriously confronts him.
Infused with sorrow for his sins, the Good Thief recognizes that he deserves the punishment of the Cross. He asks his partner in crime: “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?” Infused with justice, he acknowledges: “Indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes.” Infused with compassion, he recognizes the innocent suffering of Jesus. “But this man has done nothing criminal.”
Infused with faith, the Good Thief mysteriously has the eyes to see that Jesus will soon enter into His kingdom (even before the glorious Resurrection!) and dares to ask, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
As a war correspondent, the Good Thief transcends the materialistic dispatches of the Incredible Shrinking Man. The peace of death cannot satisfy. There is only one path to overcome the restlessness of human existence: The narrow gate of the innocent Cross of Jesus. The Good Thief reports we are restless until we rest with these eternally consoling words of Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
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