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On rats and sinking ships

July 9, 2019

I have for a very long time talked about a certain connection I have with rats. It’s not that I like rats; I don’t. I am not really afraid of them, but I don’t have any interest in sharing my home with one, or holding one on a visit to someone else’s home. At the same time, I have – for years— described myself as being perfectly willing to be the lead rat off of a sinking ship. I’m not fundamentally disloyal, but when things look bad, I have a very strong inclination to be headed out the door, and over the side.

This leads to a kind of interesting point and question: suppose you want to be the lead rat; suppose you make it off of the sinking ship. Now what? How long can a rat survive swimming in the vast ocean? Running from one hopeless situation to another works so long as you can run, and so long as you think you can get away from that situation, but trading hopelessness for more hopelessness (of a different kind) is not really much of a change—except, perhaps, a change of scenery.

Hope, so it has been observed, is a necessary part of life and survival. Experience tells us that it’s a necessary part of our life and survival; researchers have seen that people are more likely to die quickly of stroke or heart attack if they are given a lingering diagnosis of some terminal disease like cancer. Mothers are more likely to die not long after the death of a child, being overwhelmed with hopelessness and grief. Likewise, it turns out that it is also a part of rat life and survival as well.

An interesting (if somewhat disturbing) series of experiments was done with rats in the 1950s, where the head Rat Researcher studied rat responses to being placed in a large, smooth-walled jar of water. Wild rats (renowned for their swimming abilities) drowned in minutes, when placed in the jar. This didn’t match their known ability to swim, so the man conducting the experiment (Curt Richter, for you ratman enthusiasts out there) modified his experiment a bit: about the time when the rats were statistically likely to drown, he pulled them out of the water, and gave them a reprieve. He then put them back in the water, and discovered that the rats who understood that the situation was not hopeless did not give up, and did not go under nearly as soon as those who had not had a reprieve. They lasted more than twice as long.

Richter determined that when the rats were initially faced with the smooth walled jar, they concluded within minutes that the situation was hopeless, and so simply gave up. Having completed his experiments, Richter concluded that “After the elimination of hopelessness, the rats do not die.”
Clearly, then, if we are at all like rats, what we most need when faced with a tough situation is not some easy path to the exit. Rather, we need a way of knowing that the situation we are in is not hopeless—that it is endurable, survivable, and that life can continue if we just persevere.
This much is true for many of the struggles in life, and I could simply echo the words of countless worldly motivational speakers and say “hold on through this, because better days are coming.” I could probably encourage enough of the living out there with this message to make a small fortune. (After all, those times when that message turns out to be wrong, and people don’t see better days because their situation was hopeless, and it turned out to be the end, they aren’t around to complain or leave negative reviews on Amazon®.)

Nevertheless, we all know that one day whatever it is that we are facing will end up being the end. It might be the end of our lives. It might be the end of life as we know it—and leave us with a future that looks so very bleak that we cannot imagine even the best possible days ahead being worth living.

We know that, looking at this world, one day our hope of better days coming in our lives will ring hollow; with each passing hour, we edge closer to our hope for better moments running out.

That is to say, we edge towards hopelessness, if all we have to look forward to is this life.

The fact of the matter remains that this life is not all there is. We all will die; we all will go on to one destiny or another. We will face the Almighty, and either have to answer for our misdeeds and wrong, or else we will be told that all of those misdeeds were paid for by Jesus. Whether we get good news or bad news is, of course, a question of whether or not we believe in God’s promise of forgiveness in Jesus. (I am assuming that anyone crazy enough to get this far in a small church’s weblog knows about that promise, and the forgiveness that is ours because of Jesus dying on the cross. If there are any questions about this, feel free to contact me with them— please!)

If we have faith in Jesus, then we know that there are better days coming. There are better days coming for us with Him, after this life, if nothing else. There are better days coming if we are young people facing seemingly tough circumstances; there are better days coming if we are pushing 99 years old, on life support, and having a host of chronic medical problems. The hope that we have of this future with God is “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6:19). God, in fact, guarantees the hope of heaven to all who believe in Jesus with an oath—and God doesn’t lie. (See Hebrews 6:17-18). This is a sure hope, that we can look forward to. We can look forward to such a glorious future that we can endure anything that this life throws at us, knowing that something better will come—eventually— with Him.

So also, we are not alone in this life. “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39). God hasn’t just promised us to be with Him one day, but He is with us now, and His presence ought to be a calming and empowering reality. A moments’ rest was enough to give a rat that could see no hope of survival the strength to continue on far longer than any other rats in a similar situation. A continual loving hand and encouragement, combined with an eventual, guaranteed hope of a forever with God—this ought to give us the ability to swim our way through whatever ocean we find ourselves in.

It might even be enough to keep a nervous rat from abandoning a sinking ship –or anything that looks like it might be sinking– whether or not it is!
Psychologists will say that we all need reasons to keep on keeping on, in this life; we have the greatest reason of them all—a hope and a promise and a presence that carries us along to a guaranteed happy ending.

May this continue to give you hope and peace, whether you are a rat, or like a rat, or whether you’re made of sterner stuff.

If you want to find out more about the rat experiments and other studies, you can find them by reading this article, which helped to inform this particular piece: