I’m beginning to suspect that God is in charge instead of me. I know, I know, you’re saying, “But Paula, you have such clever plans, with bullet points and everything.” However, the evidence is starting to pile up. For example:
If I ran the zoo, cheaters would not only have to return my money, but be forced to apologize by giving me their mouse ears, which I would plop on my head as I march straight through every point on my list: Cure Cancer End Poverty Commence World Peace. Not a bad day’s work if you ask me, which God hasn’t. Instead he says, “It’s time to go on a years-long wild goose chase which may or may not end the way you desperately want, and will probably scare your pants off, at which point everyone will see the tear in your underwear.”
Incidentally, If I Ran the Zoo is the name of a Dr. Seuss book about young Gerald McGrew who stands at the entrance of the zoo and declares, “I’d make a few changes. That’s just what I’d do.” It also contains the first incidence of the word “nerd” in the English language. I know that because I am a nerd, who delighted in reading my children McGrew’s tales of a bird called “the Bustard” who truly loves mustard, and the “family of Joats” who sit like dogs, “but wear squirrel-skin coats.” But for all the boy’s detail about his magnificent zoo full of fantastical creatures, never once does he mention how he might actually take care of such a wildly diverse and exotic population. At the end of the book it’s good to remember that Dr. Seuss is no slouch; he writes to children with one cheek, and to adults with the other.
What if I really did run the zoo? Let’s say God agreed to give me a city, just a million people or so, an educated, vibrant population situated in a fertile area by a sparkling river. “Do your best for them,” he’d say. Of course I will, because I truly want them to be happy.
Having been through cancer, I would spend my first day eradicating disease. Then I would remember the horrors of divorce, and would devote my second day to incentivizing couples to stay together, rewarding good behavior with more abundance, and bad behavior with poverty. Naturally, I have to address hunger. How could I let anyone go hungry on my watch! I create a system which ensures everyone will have three square meals every day, no matter what.
That’s just three days work, half the time God took to create the world. It must be those bullet points, making me so efficient. It was hard work, so I’ll just take a little rest, and a mere two hundred years later I revisit my beautiful city, excited to bestow more gifts. However, my lovely, energetic citizens appear to have been replaced with people I don’t recognize.
They’re certainly strong and healthy, which makes me smile, until I notice a fine strapping man shoving aside a ragged, barefoot young girl begging him for money. I secretly follow him home, and notice that his broad, hero’s smile fades as he enters his house. His family meets him in the dining room, a photo perfect dinner for a photo perfect family. Before any potatoes can get slopped on the tablecloth, the mother holds up her phone, and on cue they all suddenly grin for the camera, though the light in their eyes dims as she dives into the internet to post it on social media.
Frightened I move swiftly from house to house, relieved to see it is not quite so bleak in every dining room. But overall, I sense that the basic foundation of the family has grown a barbed and twisted horn, entangling the business of family with the business of social success.
Somehow a slum has developed on the swampy west side of my shining city. In spite of all my generous perks, there were some who could not make their families work, sending earthquakes through ensuing generations, creating a different set of disadvantages I had not anticipated. Surely these people would receive support in a city with so much, but I soon saw the problem. With no sick to care for or hungry to feed, far fewer people had had the opportunity to develop compassion, a terrible loss I mourn alone because the citizens seem oblivious.
At this point God taps my shoulder, and I jump, spreading my skirts to hide the view of my people. He smiles kindly. “You drew a straight line from Point A to Point B,” he says “It’s a rookie mistake.”
“How’s that?” I ask.
“You were born in Idaho, then you moved to California, then to Utah, to Pennsylvania, back to Utah, off to Brazil, to California again, to Utah again, then China, and back to Utah. It’s only 288 miles from Rexburg, Idaho to your house. Just think of all the trouble we’d saved if you’d gone straight from one to the other.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Although I know I gained important experience with every move, so I understand the analogy perfectly well, but I am frustrated by my failure with my city. “I wanted people to be rewarded for good behavior and have consequences for bad. People who hurt me get to walk away free, while I’m left to suffer for their sins. It’s not fair.”
He took my hand with the most exquisite empathy in his eyes. “You assumed their needs were based on your pain. Look at your city and tell me if it was wise to shorten the road by removing their right to struggle. You understand hunger only theoretically, Paula, but for you cancer and divorce are twin disemboweling dragons that have torn your flesh and left terrible scars. They also left behind a treasure of knowledge you would never give up. You robbed them of that opportunity.”
This is a sore spot, and I feel tears welling in my eyes. “You knew, you knew about the dragons! I did everything you asked of me! Why? Why?! Did you allow me to go through cancer and a divorce at the same time?” My voice breaks to a whisper as my tears begin to run freely. “It ripped me so thin I truly wanted to die.”
He put his arms around me and spoke as a father into his daughter’s hair. “You knew I never left you. I was there for every tear and every word of every prayer, granting you the tools you needed in the moment you needed them. Eventually you will write your story, and someone melting in terror will read your words and take heart because you will teach her things only a dragon slayer could know. Even now, as you are still aching and bleeding, you suspect that one day, when your mortal life is laid bare, you will rejoice in all you have won.”
In many ways this article is an embarrassing failure, and I don’t particularly want to post it. It’s clear at a glance that I started writing one thing, and ended up with something entirely different. It also worked itself into a lather of maudlin silliness which I don’t appreciate in anyone’s writing, especially my own. Yet the questions in my little thought experiment are all too real, and when I think it all the way through I realize that if I truly did run the zoo, I would not be so different from young Gerald McGrew who populated his world with fabulous creatures, seeing only how they looked and what he wanted, while knowing nothing of what they might need. I’ve decided it’s best for God to remain in charge. My clever bullet points can wait for another day.