A story that has circulated in the circles of social work and not-for-profit organizations for years begins, “Once upon a time, there was a small village on the edge of a river.” Summarizing, the story goes on to tell of how the villagers awoke one morning to find a number of crying babies floating downstream in the river!
After the initial shock of seeing such a thing, the villagers organized a relief effort to save as many of these infants as they could. Watchtowers were built on both sides of the river; rescue swimmers were trained; 24-hour surveillance teams with zip-lines and rescue baskets manned their stations.
Yet, the number of babies floating down the river only seemed to increase. Thus, the villagers built orphanages and took the babies in, and life in the village found a new normal as enormous resources were used to save the babies from the river.
One villager finally asked the obvious question: “Where are all these babies coming from?” No one knew, so he decided to go upstream to find and remedy the cause, but not everyone agreed with his plan. “If anyone goes upstream, there won’t be enough help here to pull the babies from the water,” they said. “Besides, it’s too dangerous,” they added, “because there must be something terrifying upstream to cause all this suffering.”
Undeterred, the lone villager set out on the long, difficult journey up river. He didn’t know what he would find, nor did he know if he would be able to do anything about it when he got there, but he had to go. It was the only way to get to the source of the problem, where help was most needed.
This story represents the perpetual tension found in every society. We must alleviate immediate suffering to be sure, but without getting to the root causes of suffering, the long-term prognosis will be an unhealthy one. It’s not unlike visiting a physician. A sick patient desperately needs relief from her symptoms, but her future wellbeing requires a cure of the disease causing those symptoms.
Spiritual health works the same way, though we are sometimes slow to recognize this. Even we who are spiritual “practitioners” are prone to focus on behavior modification, symptom relief, and “saving” people from their current troubles at the expense of journeying “up river” to the source of unhealthy spirituality.
Jesus, speaking to his contemporary religious leaders, made this abundantly clear. One’s external behavior is not the real problem, he told them. Rather, “evil comes from within” he said, “from the heart,” which can be the source of trouble or the fountainhead of wellbeing.
If any person – or whole society for that matter – will experience whole and healthy living, yes, some attention will have to be given to addressing the urgent symptoms of our troubles. But the future depends upon our willingness to go further, to go to the source of these troubles, where help is needed most.