Fear, humility, grace

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)

The summer storms are here.

At night, between sirens and tornado warnings, the chaos of noise outside blends rain, thunder, and wind into indistinguishable roar. We emerge in the morning to observe the displacement: flood debris — leaves, twigs, branches — spreading for twenty feet away from the banks of small streams; channels cut by rushing water to the bare earth on trails in the woods.

We learn on the news of injuries, destruction, death. And we are reminded once again that nature, as C.S.Lewis famously said of Aslan, the main character and symbol of God in The Chronicles of Narnia, “is not a tame lion.”

I wonder: can we really know the natural world if we haven’t been terrified out of our wits by it?

There are those who seek that fear, of course; they jump out of airplanes and off bridges, wrestle crocodiles and swim with sharks for the adrenaline rush of encountering fatal possibility. Sometimes, though, those people seem to me like the fans of searingly-hot peppers who have to keep upping the ante, chomping ever-spicier varieties to keep the thrill from peaking.

What I’m saying is that I don’t know if the crocodile-wrestlers are gaining a proper sense of humility in the face of nature’s dangers. Try spending a night in a small tent in a grove of tall trees, with storm winds bashing the trunks around more loudly than you could scream, knowing you’re defenseless from any large limb that might choose your meek nylon trapezoid for its landing zone. Or hiking above the treeline when a summer storm brings lightning, and there’s nowhere to hide on the exposed rock while the atmosphere buzzes around you.

In the end, we have to face the natural world as we face life: it’s dangerous and uncertain. We can try to make it cozy and comfortable, but in the end, we need to understand that this is our small construction that we inhabit while the big, dangerous reality goes on outside.

And while we can and should look for, and find, awe, wonder, and joy there, we need to remember that it doesn’t owe us those things. The beauty, thrills, and comfort we find in woods, mountains, and oceans are gifts to be savored and appreciated, and not anything to be taken for granted.

My dog Jackson spends stormy nights trembling and panting while the lightning flashes and thunder rattles the house. The next day he’s forgotten about all that as he splashes playfully through the swollen streams and grabs up sticks that are strewn across the trail. As usual, he’s a great example of how to live in the moment: smart enough to sense the dangers of the wildness about us, yet still able to cavort and frolic once the danger’s past.

That seems like a pretty good balance to me.