Life of Pi by Yann Martel: a book that I read when it first came out about 10 years ago, but has leaped to the top of my all-times favorite books list since I recently reread it. This is a book that I think I will reread many times in my life. This story loudly resounds with my faith journey right now and I think it will continually impact my faith throughout my life. So if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. And after you read it, let’s have a book/life discussion.
It’s the story of a young man who grew up in India where his family managed a zoo. As a young inquisitive boy, Pi learns about Hinduism, Christianity and Islam and decides to follow all three religions. When people told him that he couldn’t practice several religions and that he must pick one, Pi says, “If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?” The boy simply loved God and experienced him in different ways as a Hindu, Christian and Muslim.
As the story unfold, Pi’s family ends up moving to Canada on a ship with many animals in tow. When the ship sinks, Pi is left stranded on a life boat with three other animals. And eventually it is just him and a Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. A tiger and a young teenage boy stranded in the Indian Ocean! Pi’s father always warned him about the danger of the tiger even in the zoo. He was not to be trusted and not to be crossed. The tiger is not your friend, his dad told him. But circumstances have landed Pi in tight quarters with this tiger and he is now forced to survive with Richard Parker.
At first Pi tries to avoid Richard Parker completely by constructing a small raft that he can tether to the boat and stay on at a safe distance from the tiger. But sharks lurk in the water and thunderstorms violently toss his little raft around. He finally realizes that he cannot survive on the raft and he must coexist on the boat with Richard Parker.
So he trains Richard Parker and earns his trust by catching fish and feeding him. They each understand and respect one another’s roles and space. At one point, Pi has the opportunity to abandon Richard Parker in the ocean and let him drown, but instead of getting rid of him forever, Pi decides to help the tiger back into the lifeboat. He is quickly realizing that he needs Richard Parker to survive. Loneliness and fear could easily destroy him and he knows he needs a companion with him on this journey. Trying to survive in the middle of the ocean alone is not appealing to him and at times seems physically, mentally and emotionally impossible. Pi finally hits land and is rescued. By the end of the difficult and draining journey, Pi believes that having Richard Parker on the boat with him saved his life.
When Pi tells the story of his 227-day journey on the ocean with a Bengal tiger to investigators, they don’t believe him. So he tells them another story that doesn’t include any animals and in which Pi ends up in the life boat on his own; while it is less far-fetched, it is also more disturbing. He lets them chose which story to believe. They chose the story with the tiger.
The symbolism between Pi and Richard Parker’s relationship and our relationship to God is stunning. The essence of the deep meaning in this story is this: For unexplainable reasons, we’ve found ourselves stranded in a life that is chaotic, dangerous, threatening, scary and often quite lonely. We can either choose to believe that we are in it on our own, or we can choose to believe that there is a God who is in it with us.
Like Pi’s somewhat far-fetched story of a tiger in a lifeboat, sometimes our faith seems a bit difficult to grasp and even unbelievable to others that we try to explain it to. But the truth is that at some point, we’re each going to be in a lifeboat stranded in a sea of doubt. It’s going to be lonely and scary. At times we might think this is the end; and at times we might throw down our oars and give up. But hopefully we each come to the realization that we don’t have to be out there on our own; we’re not on our own. We have a companion in the life boat with us. He may be a scary and intimidating companion at first, but he is good and he takes care of us, and feeds us and keeps us from drowning.
But we as individuals get to choose the story we live into. I choose the story with the tiger.