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Last week in New York City prior to the Pope’s arrival there was momentary buzz around a rat and a piece of pizza. As a CNN article put it,
“It can be argued that there are fewer things more New York than a slice, the subway and a rat. Combine the three, and it’s magic. Behold Pizza Rat, the world’s newest viral star and, for some, a symbol of the ultimate New Yorker.”
That’s hard journalism people.
The gist of the story is a New York City rat tries to eat garbage.
A fuller description is a piece of pizza, an entire slice, had fallen to the ground. A rat found this slice and attempted to carry it off down an East Village subway stairwell. A hubristic act? Perhaps. Eventually loosing confidence in his/her ability to carry the entire slice or overwhelmed by the media attention—some dude with an i-phone who films this entire episode—the rat drops the pizza and scurries away.
You can see this episode here.
I was in the East Village last night myself relating this story to a friend who had somehow missed the coverage. On our way to dinner we stepped over three slices, cheese smeared into the sidewalk, about a block from the now famous subway stop where the action had all gone down. Incidentally, we did not eat pizza. A few blocks later however, we did pass quite the window display of plastic rats and mounted insects—beetles, roaches, and whatnot. It was an exterminator shop.
For some the presence of rats signify filth and vermin, disease and decay, all that’s bad about urban congestion. They’re bad. For others they are simply accepted as part and parcel to life in the city. They come with the territory
I find myself somewhat in the ambivalent middle. I generally do not support the rats, Pizza Rat excluded of course. I’d prefer that there would be fewer of them. I understand the disease vectors they are. All that said, they serve a purpose and fill a role in the wider ecosystem. Obviously. This is a no-brainer, right? What I find most important about rats is that they demonstrate a particular kind of interconnectedness of the larger system, and by implication, something about us as humans too.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA, which operates trains and busses around the area including our subways is currently broadcasting this announcement on the subway:
“One-thousand, four-hundred forty-three tons of trash were removed from our subway’s tracks in 2014.”
Tons! That’s a lot of garbage. The most significant problem of this accumulated trash is that it causes fires that take place in the tunnels that delay and damages the train system. The rats are there because the trash is there. Get rid of the trash, you’ll also get rid of most of the rats. The trash comes from the people. Get rid of the people… But that really wouldn’t be helpful. But how do we change human behavior? And how do those changes affect rat populations and disease transmission.
(Of course, this is not a closed system and I’m speaking only of our underground subway rats and trash ecosystem, and not the above ground ones. Or city hall.)
Often we work really hard at fixing that one thing but it doesn’t usually work the way we want it. It’s the interrelatedness that is so amazingly challenging. We spend an exorbitant amount of resources in getting rid of rats while our refuse accumulates around us.
And this is not just an urban rat situation.
National Geographic Fellow, Dan Buettner, author of “Blue Zones,” studied communities around the world where the people live longer and healthier lives. What ought we to do to live to a ripe old age while keeping relative health and vitality? Can we learn something from those people who are doing it? What’s their remedy? What should we eat? Where should we live? In a 2012 piece for the New York Times entitled, “The Island Where People Forget to Die,” he concludes,
“The big aha for me, having studied populations of the long-lived for nearly a decade, is how the factors that encourage longevity reinforce one another over the long term. For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay. If there’s anything close to a secret, it’s silver buckshot.”
Mr. Buettner is speaking about human health in a particularly physical but interrelated sort of way. I can’t help but think of what this means spiritually, how this is related to our lives of faith and our faith communities. I repeat his line that stands out above, “The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices.” What does this mean for the church? A lot like human health, it probably means there will never be a silver bullet, rather we need to work at silver buckshot.
The other day I was racing around from one meeting to another, from a hospital visit to a dinner engagement, somewhere along also planning Sunday worship and beginning a sermon. As I was racing off the train at my home stop and coming down from the platform, hurried and rushed, I was greeted by one of my homeless neighbours, Louis. “Pastor Tom, are you ok?” he asked, obviously observant of my rushed state and genuinely inquiring. I relaxed a moment, responded, and chatted with him shortly, grateful for the pause and exchanging kindnesses before going our separate ways.
Let me firmly express that I mean no association between the issues of homelessness and rat population, none! Rather, what is relevant is the interconnectedness of things, the belongingness of relationships, one to another, somehow I belong to Louis and he belongs to me and somewhere our mutual health will be found in that same interrelatedness of our wider community.
Leaving dinner last night we progressed through the Lower East Side to our respective trains. Did not see the Pizza Rat. Did pass Our Lady of Sorrows Church where the street had been closed off and they are preparing for a carnival celebrating St. Francis of Assisi, a Ferris wheel with bright lights already in place for the festival. We are connected, interrelated, all of us, from Brother Sun to Sister Moon and even Pizza Rat, these “mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices” that we get to participate in working towards health and vitality.