From Soren Kierkegaard’s “Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits”

(this excerpt is from Provocations, excerpts from Kierkegaard, Plough)

Once upon a time there was a wood dove. It had its nest in the fearsome forest, where wonder and apprehension dwelt together, among the erect, lonely trees. But nearby, where the smoke rises up from the farmer”s house, lived some tame doves. The wood dove would often meet a pair of these. He would sit on a branch that stretched out over the farmyard, not far from the two tame doves on the ridge of the roof. One day they were talking together about how things were going and about making a living. The wood dove said, “Up until now I have made my living by letting each day have its own troubles, and in that way I get through life just fine.” The tame dove, not without preening itself, answered: “No, we manage differently; with us, that is with the rich farmer with whom we live, our future is secure. At harvest time, my mate and I sit up on the roof and watch. The farmer brings in so many loads of corn that I know we are secure for a very long time. We two are well provided for and have our guaranteed security.”

When the wood dove returned home he pondered the matter. It occurred to him that it must be a great comfort to know that one”s living was secure for a long time, and what a wretched thing it was to always live in uncertainty. “It would be best,” he told himself, “to gather a great stockpile and store it here or there in some safe place.”

The next morning the wood dove woke earlier than usual. He got to work right away and was so busy gathering and storing that he scarcely had time to eat. But as fate seemed to hang over him, every time he had collected a little supply and hidden it away, when he came to look for it, it was gone! Meanwhile there was no actual change about making a living. He found his food every day as before. And yet a great change had taken place. He did not suffer actual want, but he had acquired the anticipation of need in the future. His peace of mind was lost. He had become anxious about the necessities of life.

From now on, the wood dove began to worry. His feathers lost their glint of color, his flight lost buoyancy. He was no longer joyful; indeed, he was almost envious of the rich, tame doves. He found his food each day, ate his fill, and yet he was not satisfied. In worrying about his needs he had trapped himself in a snare in which no birdcatcher could have trapped him, trapped as only a free creature can trap himself. “This securing of the future is constantly on my mind,” he said. “Oh why am I a poor wood dove and not one of those rich ones?”

He saw plainly that anxiety was taking its toll on him, and so he spoke seriously to himself, yet not so seriously that he could drive away the worry from his mind and set his heart at rest. No, he only spoke in such a way that he convinced himself that his care was justified. “I am not asking anything unreasonable or impossible,” he said. “I do not ask to become like the wealthy farmer, but only like one of the rich doves.”

Finally, he contrived a scheme. One day he flew over and sat between the tame doves on the ridge of the farmer”s roof. He noticed a place where they flew in, so he flew in too, because surely the storeroom had to be there. But when the farmer came home in the evening and shut the dovecote, he discovered the strange dove. He immediately put it into a little box by itself until the next day, when it was killed “ and released from its worries about the necessities of life! Alas, the worried wood dove had not only trapped himself in worry but also in the dovecote “ to its death!

The wood dove is like us silly human beings. When a person is content with the dignity of being human, then he understands that his heavenly Father feeds him. This he learns from the birds of the air. He does not live like the tame birds in the house of the wealthy farmer, but in the house of him who is richer than everyone, for heaven and earth are the house and possession of God, and humankind is his guest.

A person must be content to be as he is; a dependent being, as little capable of sustaining himself as of creating himself. If we choose to forget God and look after our own sustenance, then we are overcome with anxiety. It is certainly praiseworthy and pleasing to God when a person works for his food. But if he forgets God, and thinks that he himself is supporting himself, then he becomes burdened with the necessities of life. Let us not foolishly and small-mindedly say that the wealthy are spared this anxiety, while the poor are not. On the contrary, only he is spared who is content with being human and understands that his heavenly Father feeds him. And this is as possible for the wealthy as is it for the poor.

Worry about making a living, or not making a living, is a snare. In actuality, it is the snare. No external power, no actual circumstance, can trap a person. If a person chooses to be his own providence, then he will go quite ingenuously into his own trap, the wealthy as well as the poor. If he wants to entrench himself in his own plot of ground that is not under God”s care, then he is living, though he does not acknowledge it, in a prison. When the farmer shut the door on the wood dove, the wood dove believed himself to be safe, when in fact he was caught. Or to put it another way, he was shut out from the care of Providence and trapped in a life of anxiety. In a spiritual sense he made himself a captive “trapped himself unto death.”