We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
Probably any serious Star Trek fan is able to cite these words. The Borg, an enemy of the Federation, is a species that operates as a collective, united by one mind. As such, each member of the Borg is not alone in his/her thoughts since he/she experiences the experiences of all other members of the collective. The members are linked . . . connected.
The stark contrast of the Borg to an individual is seen in a particular episode of Voyager (“Scorpion”) in which a Borg member (a drone) is disconnected from the collective (the hive mind). The drone, realizing her new reality, responds in anger: “What have you done . . . [This is] unacceptable. You should have let us die . . . This drone cannot survive outside the collective.” As this scene unfolds, we observe the attempts of the captain of Voyager (Janeway) striving to connect with the Borg drone (Seven of Nine):
Janeway: I want to help you, but I need to understand what you’re going through.
Seven of Nine: Do not engage us at superficial attempts at sympathy.
Janeway: It’s obvious that you are in pain. That you’re frightened. That you feel isolated. Alone.
Seven: You are an individual. You are small. You cannot understand what it is to be Borg.
Janeway: No, but I can imagine. You were part of a vast consciousness. Billions of minds working together. A harmony of purpose and thought. No indecision. No doubts. The security and strength of a unified will, and you’ve lost that.
Seven: This drone is small now. Alone. One voice. One mind. The silence is unacceptable. We need the others.
For much of the remaining seasons of Voyager, we watch Seven discovering her humanity—what it is like to be alone with the need to communicate outwardly her experiences to those outside of herself; who is she is as a person; from where does her sense of security and trust derive; and what is the meaning of her life.
Upon being disconnected, Seven immediately discovers an aspect of humanity…to be alone in her own being. For those of us who are not Borg (and I would guess that would be all of us), we are accustomed to the isolation of our own thoughts. It is all we know. When I have an experience, I am the only one who is intimate with that experience as I experience it. Even my words in this blog pale in comparison to the actual experience of which I attempt to communicate. I am alone. You are alone. We are not Borg.
Take, for instance, Kate Bowler’s words in her recently published book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved: “I sometimes feel like I’m the only one in the world who is dying.” In Bowler’s writing of her experience of living with Stage IV cancer, I believe she has captured a reality about humans. That is, our own disconnection from the other. When I experience something, I am wrapped up in that experience, creating a sense that I am the only one experiencing it. And in some way, I am. No one else feels like I feel. No one else thinks exactly like I think. No one else is me. So, in the experience I have, be it one of mourning or celebration, I am alone in my experience because I am the only me. No one else is inside of me experiencing it with me (i.e., we are not Borg); thus, my experience consumes me in the moment. I am alone. We are not Borg.
Not only has Seven discovered what it is to be alone, she has also experienced a monumental loss. At the same time, she is grieving the loss of her identity, security, and meaning. She was Borg, as she repeatedly reminded the Voyager crew. She had security in the collective because it was a stable and safe environment. She had a purpose, to assimilate other species, and she had a designation, which described her specific job within the Borg collective. Not only did she lose the Borg collective, but she also is grieving these other losses.
So it is with us when we experience a major loss. It may be a physical death of someone close to us. A divorce. A long-term goal met. A purpose unfulfilled. Unemployment. Retirement. These major losses are not just limited to individuals but may include groups as well. It may be a nation that grieves the death of their leader; a company which undergoes a takeover; or a church whose pastor takes a different call. These losses generate questions such as: “Who am I?”; “Where do I fit?” “What is my purpose?” “Who do I trust?” Both the major loss and the secondary losses may generate feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety, confusion, discouragement, or even relief.
I am in this place. On the twenty-first of May a year ago, I was traveling to my graduation (a completion of a long-term goal) when my siblings and I made the decision to place our father on comfort care at the suggestion of the medical community. Our father passed away eight days later. Two major losses. While I grieve these losses, I am also currently undertaking the daunting, slow task of grieving the loss of my previous identity, security, and meaning while I am also teaching and writing. These are the hidden losses that few people discuss but are nevertheless very real.
As I ponder such losses at this time, the church is also approaching an event in its liturgical calendar called Pentecost, and I find myself drawn to the Gospel of John’s emphasis on the Spirit, and I am encouraged. In chapters thirteen through sixteen, we observe the disciples experiencing a major loss: Jesus is departing. Imagine the connection they have with Jesus and the expectations they have formulated. They have an identity as Jesus’ disciples (13:15; 18:17, 25), and some had even given up their identity as disciples of John the Baptist to follow Jesus (1:35-40), and Peter got a new name (1:42). For the disciples, Jesus had become their Teacher, Lord (13:13-14), Messiah (1:41; 4:25ff), and friend (15:13-15). Now, he announces he is leaving??? During the Passover? After he has just washed their feet and expressed his love for them? Dare I say that their world is being turned upside down?
This is a major loss, and John gives us signals that the disciples react with feelings of grief. In chapter 14, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be distressed” (v. 1) and “Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage” (27). Jesus even acknowledges their current sadness (16:6). There is an indication of confusion and perhaps anxiety, as Peter says, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” (13:37); when Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5), and when the disciples keep asking, “What is the meaning of what he says, ‘In a little while’? We do not understand what he is talking about” (16:17-18). Could it be they have entered into the fog of grief?
When considering their loss, it is not a surprise that after Jesus died and was resurrected that several of the disciples returned to what was familiar: fishing (John 21). As fishermen, their identity, security, and meaning were predictable and stable. I mean, let’s face it . . . right now . . . Jesus is unpredictable. He appears. He disappears. Things are not like they were . . . but yet they are. Jesus is back . . . but not. So much ambiguity and uncertainty. Why not return to a path that is well worn?
While I have no idea if this is what the disciples thought, it is a human tendency to go back to the familiar amidst ambiguity and uncertainty. If I am to be honest in this blog, I, too, have toyed with returning to what I know: my father’s farm. It speaks identity, security, and meaning to me. Yet, I know, “This is grief talking.”
But in John’s Gospel, Jesus is one step ahead of his disciples. In these chapters (13-16) Jesus offers reassurance: His disciples will not be alone. There will be one who will be with them, even more intimately than Jesus has been; thus, it is better that Jesus goes away so that this one can come (16:7). John calls the one who is coming the Paraclete, a name referencing the Holy Spirit in the Fourth Gospel. The Paraclete will not leave them (14:16) and will teach them (14:26), and they will join the Paraclete’s ministry of testifying about Jesus (15:26-27).
According to commentators, the title, “Paraclete,” is difficult to capture in our English language. While words such as Advocate, Counselor, or Helper have been used, each of these words is insufficient in and of itself; however, for this blog, I will highlight Advocate. Concerning the word “Advocate,” there is overlap in the Johannine writings between Jesus and the Spirit both being an Advocate. Jesus is described as a Paraclete (Advocate) in 1 John 2:1, and as Pentecostal Craig Keener notes, we see Jesus being an advocate in John 9 as he comes to the aid of the man who was born blind who Jesus had healed [see Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 965-966]. Unlike the man’s family and the religious leaders, Jesus does not abandon the man, but becomes the man’s advocate by being present to him. The stress on presence is immediately seen in chapter 10 as we learn that Jesus’ presence is one of abundance, which is not like the hired man or that of thieves (the religious leaders). This is also the type of presence of the Spirit, the Advocate, who will never leave them (14:16).
But why send the Spirit? I think I would be remiss if I did not also mention a commonality among the three words of Advocate, Counselor, and Helper. They implicitly recognize human limitations. Our own finitude. Our lack of omnipotence. Our need for another. In other words, through the sending of the Paraclete, the triune Godhead recognizes our own inability, and God seeks to come alongside us and dwell in us (14:17). This is a connection so deep that the Spirit is in us, sharing our experience of an experience. In short, God sees our limitations and sends the Spirit who abides in us.
May we take courage, Church, we are not alone. God has sent the Paraclete, an intercessor, a teacher, a deposit of what is to come, and one who is ministering in and to the world with whom we have the opportunity to participate in that ministry.