by Charles Bowie

Youth is a fascinating time. It is a time of firsts. We encounter several objects without too much mental baggage. Those encounters get stored in memory and we carry them with us for a lifetime. Today’s reflection is on one of those firsts for me.

It was my first encounter with a snake. School science classes introduced me to various animal species such as frogs, lizards, and yes, snakes. I was in 3rd grade. I had not quite come to understand snakes under moral language, as I was introduced to later in life through various Christian traditions.

The snake I have in mind is the Boa Constrictor and its relatives, the Python and the Anaconda. While the snake itself caught my attention with its beautiful colors (golden brown with dark spots), I was more captured by the moment of feeding. It is this moment of feeding that has led me later in life to understand the nature of the Boa’s name. It is a Constrictor.

As I watched the handler drop a mouse into the aquarium with the Boa, I noticed the animal move swiftly to surround its prey. Within seconds the mouse was wrapped and squeezed into non-being. The Constrictor’s grip caused the eyes of the mouse to protrude and even turn red as if they were about to burst. While fascinated, it was somewhat traumatic to see at such a young age.

My recollection of the Boa Constrictor and the mouse stands in memory as an analogy for the way human life and experience unfolds. Our experience of the world and ourselves is one of constriction. Sometimes these constrictions keep us out of current trouble. Sometimes they suffocate the process of personal growth. For instance, when a parent tells a child, “you are too loud, keep quiet” the child then holds him/herself in the world a certain way such that as that same child becomes an adult people are requesting that he/she speak a little louder please. Or it is the language of God hates, “divorce, fornication, adultery” and so a young person may simply avoid people and possible instances where this can happen and even if I does happen, then he/she holds him/herself in the mode of alienation and under the mode of condemnation and depression. Or, some people remain in situations that are not good for their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well being because “God hates divorce.”

I want to be clear that constriction is not always a one-way street. With the examples just cited one could go in the opposite direction. Rather than becoming soft spoken and silent, one could get louder and obnoxious. Rather than avoiding fornication and adultery one might go on a frenzy of sexual conquests. The point here is that often times we find ourselves at extremes due to being constricted in some way.

In a recent accountability group gathering one of the members said, “I’m afraid to have a kid because I’m afraid I’m going to mess him up.” His language reveals the roles that we play, namely, that of Constrictor and the one being constricted. We are constricted by family, religion, race, nation, political affiliation, and a host of other things. The task is to become aware of these constrictions and then try to find a way to loosen the tight grip that has been placed on us and the vicious grip that we have of ourselves. One way that process theology helps is by giving us a different image of God and a different image of human beings and their relationship with one another; the environment and other animal species.

Like the mouse we are constricted. Unfortunately, the mouse could do nothing except for accept its fate as it was within the iron grips of an unrelenting predator. We have an opportunity to ease these circumstances and position ourselves for growth. I use the words “ease” and “loosen the grip” because the nature of constriction is that it is ever present. It is, “the thorn in the side.” At best, we can ease its grip. Ultimately, we do share the fate of the mouse in the sense that there is no escape from constriction (whether we are a constrictor or the one being constricted). While there is no escape, there is ease.

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