Soul Traps and the Parable of the Zoo

One day a squirrel and a blue jay, who often saw each other foraging for food in a secluded corner of the park, struck up a conversation. The squirrel had noticed that, like a typical blue jay, the shy bird fled and hid in the foliage each time a human came near. Curious, he asked why.

“They’re scary,” the bird said. “They’re dangerous. I’ve been taught to avoid them more than any other creature.”

The squirrel laughed. “I used to think so too, but now I hardly notice them. They usually ignore me, and they’re a great source of food. Nothing tastes better than what they leave behind.”

The blue jay was fascinated by the squirrel’s perspective and courage in the face of extreme danger. “Tell me more about humans,” she begged.

So the squirrel told her all he knew. And eventually he mentioned a wonderful place called the zoo, where all the animals were under the care of humans and no one ever had cause for fear.

This sounded too good to be true, and the blue jay was understandably skeptical. So to prove his story, the squirrel led her across town to the zoo so she could see for herself. Sure enough, without getting too close, she caught sight of a complex of dazzling habitats with—as far as she could discern—no predatory behavior at all. The lions were sitting contentedly on their rocks, the bears were sunning themselves. Penguins and otters swam playfully in pristine waters, and antelope grazed without concern. And the birds! She saw birds of all kinds, perched, swooping, darting, and gliding, looking as if their hearts and their bellies were full.

As the blue jay fought an urge to join her winged brethren at the zoo, a group of humans approached and instinctively, she flew away to protect herself. She called good-bye to the squirrel and glided above the trees absentmindedly. She was dizzy with wonder over the place she had seen. But her instincts told her the proximity of so many humans meant danger. Over the next several days, looking for food and fending off attacks from gangs of birds who hovered around backyard feeders, she kept thinking about that zoo. The more she thought about it, the more the specter of human danger faded and the place grew even more glorious in her mind. After all, the animals had looked safe and comfortable.

Freedom! she thought. It’s a place of freedom, where all the animals can relax and enjoy a life of luxury. No more scrabbling for food, no more living in fear of sudden death in another creature’s jaws. It would be wonderful to live in such a place.

Finally the blue jay determined she would return to the zoo and take up residence there. What’s stopping me? she thought. As she journeyed back toward the paradise she had seen, she spread the word among all the other animals she encountered. The legend spread, and as it spread it grew. Other animals were drawn to the promise of freedom in the paradise of the zoo.

Eventually, the legend reached the ocean and its creatures, who regretted they could not travel overland to the utopian place, but who spread the word to shore-dwelling creatures in other lands. Soon animals all over the world were planning their journey to the zoo. Some volunteered for traveling circuses or stowed away on ships, just to gain passage across the sea. Others heard, through the grapevine, of zoos closer to home and headed toward them.

Some of the animals were skeptical. “It sounds too good to be true,” said a council of horses.

“We don’t have time for such nonsense,” the busy beavers said.

“There’s no such thing as a free fly,” the frogs grew fond of saying.

Some of the more traditional animals—owls, ants, rabbits, and turtles—questioned the rightness of the great exodus: “We weren’t created to live that way. It isn’t natural.”

“It sounds like a trap,” said the foxes, who had seen a trap or two in their day.

But other animals left home with unbridled optimism. The lions, who were tired of working so hard for their food, couldn’t wait to get to the Land of Meat that Didn’t Run Away. The antelope, so tired of being hunted, ran day and night in pursuit of the Great Field of Plenty. The giant pandas and koalas were lured by the prospect of endless supplies of bamboo and eucalyptus. Some of the younger penguins and meerkats were especially eager to take up residence in this place of freedom where they would not be plagued by the same dangers that worried their elders.

As droves of animals began to arrive at zoos around the world, zookeepers were alarmed. What was driving these hosts of creatures to throw themselves on the mercy of the zoos? At first they tried ignoring the beasts in the hope that they would go back where they belonged. But when the animals didn’t go anywhere, they decided something must have gone terribly wrong in their natural environment and caused these animals to lose their ability to live in the wild. So they took them in.

At first life in the zoo was great. As the legends had promised, food was plentiful and came easy. The days of playing hunter and prey were over. Life was predictable and soothing; their homes were kept tidy and clean. But as the animals began to grow restless and indulge their curiosity, the terrible truth became apparent.

For some animals, the awful realization took only a few days. For others, it took months or even years. But eventually all realized they were in beautiful, comfortable cages. They could never leave.

Unfortunately, our friend the blue jay, who had started the frenzy with her tales of what she had seen from a distance, was the first to recognize the truth. On her second day in the zoo, she attempted to express her joy by flying higher than she ever had before. When she slammed into the well-camouflaged netting, she was so shocked she didn’t realize what it was and kept trying for a while to fly through it. Finally she stopped when that terrible word entered her mind, a word birds rarely dare to say aloud: captivity.

This bird, whose anxiety had made her so susceptible to the promise of relief in the zoo, was trapped. She had volunteered for captivity, flown right into a cage she hadn’t suspected was there. She had led countless other animals to the same fate—and she would never be able to warn them against following her. She never lost her fear of humans, and she lived out her days hiding in the tallest trees, huddled against the nearly invisible barrier, dreaming of freedom.

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Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about soul traps. This is mainly because I’ve spent the last two weeks on a family road trip, covering 3,500 miles in the kind of whirlwind trip designed to be taken with eyes wide open, seeing and learning as much as possible before moving on to the next destination. In this take-it-all-in mode, it’s hard to overlook some of what we often look past in the usual groove of our lives.

We’re all desperate for freedom. Freedom from fear and worry, futile work and blinding grief, pain and numbness alike. Some of us will do almost anything in pursuit of freedom from that terrifying emptiness that creeps in and settles on us when we’re alone or lying in the dark. And sometimes we think we’ve found it, only to run enthusiastically into a trap for our souls. A deeper and crueler enslavement than we thought possible.

Soul traps were obvious in New Orleans’ French Quarter, walking past Bourbon Street with its stumbling yet determined partygoers. At an innocent-looking Shell station in Texas, where I walked in with my daughters to use the restroom and buy some bottled water, only to cringe at the life-size mostly-naked women on display in beer ads throughout the store. On the casino billboards lining the drive through Oklahoma, promising easy money and glamorous fun, just above the phone number for problem gamblers to call. In the writing my kids noticed on a bathroom wall, extolling the virtues of a certain controlled substance.

But soul traps aren’t always so obvious, and most of us are probably more likely to fall into the well-camouflaged sort—like the self-righteousness that can come with judging others for falling into soul traps. Like living for ourselves. Like living to please others. Like envy, greed, and craving what I don’t have—just one more thing to make me feel satisfied. Ignoring others’ needs in favor of my own wants. Pursuing happiness at the expense of righteousness.

When the world around us dangles promises of freedom in our faces, we must be skeptical. “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12). What we think will bring us happiness and freedom may actually enslave us in bonds we cannot loosen. Thank God for freedom in him! How much better to be obligated to Jesus, rather than to this world: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18). Ironically, this kind of voluntary captivity results in true freedom. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

© 2012 Amy Simpson.