Sunday, March 18, 2012

Necessity's Children (Part One)

A well-known proverb tells us that "necessity is the mother of invention." There surely is some truth to that. Necessity has resulted in breakthroughs as useful as electic light and as controversial as the atomic bomb. Children's songs have turned on the idea. Those who grew up on Schoolhouse Rock are familiar with "Mother Necessity." But what about necessity's other children? Invention is not an only child. It's brother and sisters do not make great splashes on the pages of world history or win Nobel Prizes for inventors and scientists, but they don't sit idly by and twiddle their thumbs either. They silently influence our everday lives, whether we realize it or not. Consider this quote from Annie Dillard's essay "Living Like Weasels":

"The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons."

We need not get hung up on the fact that she is comparing herself to a weasel. In this context it could be any animal. Man is the only creature on earth that does not live by necessity and instinct. We have the freedom to choose to spend money on a movie though we know that we will need it for gas at the end of the week. We are able to fast, though our stomachs tell us to eat. We will even spend evenings watching meaningless television instead of doing the work that hangs over our heads. It may be work that we enjoy. It may cost us dearly to not do the work, but we would raher avoid it. Why? Dillard addresses this. She tells us that we instinctively hate necessity. The person who said "familiarity breeds contempt" should also have said "necessity breeds contempt." It is so true. This is necessity's second child.

Dillard's quote is insightful, but only half complete. We are told that we hate necessity and that we cannot escape it in the end, but we do not learn why. What makes us unlike the weasel? Why do we avoid things simply because we have to do them? Dillard was familiar with Christian teaching, but she was not one herself. Did she know that the Bible has an answer for her unasked question? I believe that contempt for necessity is two halves of a coin. Part of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. First of all, we are people of choice, because God is a God of choice. He did not have to create the world. He did so, because it was His good pleasure to make something beautiful, to express His nature in creativity. We are made in God's image, and so we love to do things that are expressions of ourselves, not merely because we have to.

At the same time, we are fallen beings, instinctively rebelling against anything that is godly. This is primarily why we hate necessity. We are commanded to follow God; this is something we need to do to fulfill our purpose in life. But, we would rather have our own way. As Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost said, it is "better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven." We would rather be independent, even if it means our own demise, than have anyone dictate our actions.

Necessity need not breed contempt. Freedom to follow God and do it joyfully is found in Christ, as we thank Him for enduring the punishment for sins on our behalf. We regain a little taste of what Adam and Eve had in the garden, when necessity and choice were one and the same.

Come back soon! My next post will discuss whether or not we can ultimately escape necessity, as Dillard claims.


  1. Hi Allison. Your uncle recommended your blog. I enjoyed reading this post. It was very insightful.

  2. Ah yes, a constant struggle. There is true slavery in that contempt, yet certain joy in doing the necessary with love for the one who gave the work.