Tuesday, 31 March 2015

In Defence of YOLO

I usually have to confess to not usually being very #downwiththekidz but that doesn't mean that the newest cultural turn of phrases are entirely lost on me. For some years now I have been aware of YOLO: you only live once, for the uninitiated.

It doesn't sound very godly, does it? All this jumping off cliffs and making headstrong, impulsive decisions because, y'know, YOLO, man. (I'm going to stop with the 'I'm not a teenager any more' self-deprecation at this point). YOLO would seem to be a recipe for disaster - or, if not for disaster, at least for a shirking of the measured, principled and rather mellow life that ostensibly marks out the Christian as a man of virtue, not easily swayed by the tides of the world. A step made in haste, we would generally conclude, is a foolish one. No, no - the walk of Christ is instead marked out by patient prayer and humble submission.

A pirate's life for me? No, thank you. Or at least I'll pray about it.

As I've already hinted at, I wouldn't usually consider myself to be the foremost advocate for YOLO. Yet I'm not altogether convinced that the alternative which I've set out, somewhat clunky and satirical though it is, is a more Christian alternative.

When I was 16 I went to a youth camp where the main theme of the week was faith. Somebody gave a talk where they said that faith is spelled r-i-s-k. Part of me wants to dismiss this as a tossaway platitude. But I can't help feeling that, in much the same way as YOLO, it actually has something to contribute as a viewpoint. Or even as a slogan for life.

When did we allow 'thinking about it' to be a stand-in for faith? It's a really poor substitute! Does the Scripture say, "It was by faith that Abraham fully evaluated his options before eventually concluding that leaving the land of his forebears was actually the right thing to do"? (It doesn't, for the record). Faith doesn't bring with it any guarantee of success. Heck, for that matter faith doesn't bring with it any guarantee of dignity, security or an easy life. I think that often it's meant to be edgy, unintuitive, unnatural but still right. Often it calls for a trust which doesn't make any sense, which we wouldn't have if we gave ourselves half a chance to change our mind.

I don't want to endorse the other extreme either. I have no intention of embracing the aimless hedonism which YOLO often implies. There are plenty of actions which are stupid, and no less stupid because they were done with a devil-may-care attitude. The fact that the devil actually does care is one good reason why mindlessly applying YOLO to any given situation isn't a good idea. And there most certainly is a place for measured and careful decision-making, for treasuring wisdom above the superficially appealing. Thankfully, we don't always have to make our minds up in the blink of an eye. 

I think, though, that I'm in danger of being altogether too comfortable with my 'careful now' status quo. I'm reminded that our mortality as humans is not only a truth but a very Christian truth. One could even make the (pretty spurious) case that Jesus in actual fact coined the idea of YOLO 2,000 years ago. The principle that we only have one life to live should make us think more carefully, not more recklessly, about what we are in actual fact living for. "This is your life, and it's ending one second at a time" - so runs one of my favourite film quotes, from Fight Club. It may be morbid but it's as undeniable and it is unpalatable. The truth is that we do only get one life this side of heaven. Whether we spend it in manageable safety or radical trust has got to count for something.

Some time ago I jumped off the bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia at Victoria Falls with nothing but a bungee cord keeping me from a 100m+ plunge into the icy depths below. A true YOLO moment if ever there was one. Whilst I was waiting to get to the front of the queue I saw quite a few people, including some friends of mine, successfully make the jump. Some people were certainly enjoying the luxury of time on the edge to psyche themselves up and put themselves in a proper frame of mind for what they were about to do. When you walk out onto the platform which you're about to jump off a certain tingling engulfs the stomach, no matter how determined you are to go through with it. I remember stepping up to the precipice and feeling a sense of blind panic as a man put his hand on the small of my back and said, "Right - 1, 2, 3...". All rather quickly. What?! What about getting my moment on the edge? The same moment you gave to that lady ten minutes ago. All those thoughts disappear very rapidly as your mind concentrates on the whole falling-through-air thing.

But how's that as a definition of faith? Making the jump, insane though you feel, with or perhaps especially without the time to weigh up your options, trusting beyond hope in the reliability of the bungee-cord that you're tied to and which will very shortly bear your full weight, wrenched utterly from the securities of having things under your own control.

Life doesn't always deal you rock'n'roll cards. But then YOLO needn't be about stories to tell the grandkids; it can be a lifestyle of healthy divine dependence which lasts all the way through this life and into the next.

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