Yesterday I stopped at a dried out wetland to see what shorebirds might still be lingering behind in Illinois. Most have moved through our region during July and August, as shorebirds are the first to head south in fall migration. There are typically some stragglers, so it’s often worth checking out watery places in case there is some interesting bird to be found.
The wetland I visited was nearly dried out. That’s often the case in August, when lack of rain and heat combine to evaporate what’s left. Then the mud shrinks. The earth cracks open.
Once the process of dehydration starts in earnest, the waters often recede quickly. This wetland shrank so quickly that I found a ring of bird feathers at the outer edges of the mudflat. Even that feathery edge wasn’t the true high water mark. Further up the low bank a thick mat of cattail stems lay choked among the bushes. Earlier this spring the wetland swelled with water. Over weeks and months, it shrank in size until there is only a broad puddle left.
Year after year, these events occur in varying fashion. Early in my birding career, I’d often visit a slough on a farmer’s property at the edge of town. In spring there were would be twenty species of ducks that stopped at the wetland in spring. In summer, I once found the tiny black chick of a Virginia rail, evidence that many species depended on that wetland.
These moments teach us plenty about nature’s movements. When the wetland would dry up in late July or August, there would be swarms of small catfish left to wriggle about in the narrow channel of water. Water birds such as herons arrived to glean them for meals. Then the water would be gone completely. So would the food supply. These are the rhythms of nature.
Yet they’d spring back again to life the following year. Frogs and turtles lived through the same big rhythms. Their evolution as a species is built from the process of natural selection taking place every moment in time. Those with instincts to sink into the mud and wait out drought conditions will live to see another day. Others take off in search of wetter places. Some make it. Others don’t. It is humbling work, this process of survival.
Yet those that die often leave traces of their lives and evidence of their former existence. The world is rife with fossil records that run thousands of feet deep. Layers sedimentary rock hold evolution’s grand story in place. These fossils tell a tale of lives come and gone, entire species that flourished into existence and vanished when conditions changed. It has happened before. It will happen again.
The earth cracks and absorbs the living and the dead. It humbles those whose arrogance ignores warning signs and whose instincts fail them as a result. The human race loves to think itself a bold and brave species, almost separate from nature. Yet the raw intelligence of history cannot be denied. The waters cover the continents or gouge the earth, creating great chasms like the Grand Canyon. These speak to the time and patience the earth embraces. Selfish believers may write these events off to sudden cataclysm in an attempt to own the narrative. But these selfish notions deny the reality of the ages, replacing them with literalistic notions of Great Floods and Rainbow Promises that are an insult to the massive grandeur and eternal flow of nature.
Even the human race is but a footprint in the passage of time.
The ephemeral mark of a bird on the surface of a parched wetland reminds us that life and time don’t owe us anything. Science pokes and prods at these truths while religion reflects them in prose and praise.
It is evidently clear that all depends on paying attention to the rhythms of time and place. That is all we have to discern our place in this world. If we respect that reality, and do our best to provide a place for the generations to come, that is what the religious among us love to call the Kingdom of God.
But from a more pragmatic perspective, caring about stewardship of the earth and those who live with us is the right kind of pride. Anything else is a sin of selfishness. Ignoring that fact, we have no meaning or purpose at all in this world.
In 1996 our family took a trip to Cortez, Colorado to visit the Crow Canyon Archeological Center under the guidance of Dr. Phyllis Pitluga, lead astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The center of our adventure was the study of the archaeoastronomy of the Anasazi, a native American tribe whose study of the sun and stars included landmarks that remain to this day. Those people disappeared more than one thousand years ago.
My own suspicions about their disappearance were never completely satisfied. There were hints of foul-doing in the burned wooden beams of their former residences and the small temples built from rocks and mortar. Perhaps they’d enjoyed a period of peace only to be wiped out by competitive tribes or worse, invaders from another continent.
Whatever the case, the legacy they left behind included a spiral carved into stone that was pierced by the morning sun on the summer solstice. The people of the region used signs like these to determine their schedule for planting and other tools for survival.
The morning we visited that site in 1996, we were accompanied by a trio of federal agents carrying assault-style rifles to protect us in the event that we encountered a pair of fugitives that had escaped into the wilds of Hovenweep National Monument after shooting a sheriff back in Cortez. Some things about the American West never seem to change.
In the moment
That was a distraction we were able to ignore as we arrived well before dawn with jackrabbits skirting ahead of us in the van headlights. We were all a bit sleepy as the group unloaded and walked to the rocky shelf overlooking the ancient spiral. Curious about what other wildlife might be around, I drifted into the surrounding brush only to be called back by the group manager. “The soil,” she whispered to me. “It’s cryptogamic. It takes centuries to build up. It’s best not to walk on it, please.”
I felt chagrined. My naivete about the nature of the desert was exposed. That said, I was rewarded with the song of a canyon wren ringing out from a nearby coulee when I rejoined the group.
We all stood with solemn concentration as the sun rose and its light crept across the face of the rock toward the carved spiral. It felt holy in its pragmatic virtues. This was a connection between the people of the present and those of the past. We could never hope to fully understand its significance, especially lacking the cultural reference and necessity of the solstice to those people, yet it felt important for once in life to bear witness to something beyond ourselves.
A bit later I did walk a hard rocky slope to do some birding. A gray vireo popped up, and rock wrens too. These western birds were surely present a millennia ago, and that felt like a connection too.
As we drove back to the ranch where we were staying that day, our guide explained that the funny-shaped rocks worn by wind and weather were called ‘hoodoos.’ Indeed, they created a mystique all their own. Apparently the people that once lived here crept among them and stored pottery and other artifacts in faraway places. Many composed of the pale clay and traditional criss-cross patterning like the photo at the start of this article still sit there one thousand years later. “Some people go out and take them,” she lamented. “But they have far more value as they were left there.”
We visited the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center for some deeper examination of the traditions and day-to-day lives of a vanished people. When the group took a break I went outside to sit in the white-hot desert sun. As I parked my butt on a hot rock next to the center, I looked down to see an apparition near my foot. It was a wildly colored variation of a common reptile called the collared lizard.
The colors were unreal, especially because I was tired form getting up so early, and my brain was not entirely engaged. Dreamily I sat looking at that beautiful creature. Then I absently reached out a hand as if to touch it. Instantly the lizard was gone.
Such is the timelessly ephemeral nature of the land of hoodoos and magic lizards.
While out conducting a breeding bird census in a forest preserve named after a legendary local botanist named Dick Young, I was wrapping up the count and walking back the asphalt path to the parking lot when an older couple on bikes rolled up behind me. They’d gone all the way around the loop through the restored prairie on a windy spring morning.
Our conversation started when they showed me a photo they’d taken of a bird perched on one of the count posts in the prairie. I identified it as a meadowlark and they were pleased with that. “I thought it was a woodpecker with that long beak!” the man observed. It wasn’t a bad observation. This photo I took that same morning of a meadowlarks shows the long bill. Probably if it chose to use it in hammering wood, it would work. But that’s not its evolved purpose.
After the meadowlark discussion, my new friend started chatting about how he actually knew Dick Young, who did so much to identify the plants that designated the Illinois Nature Preserve at the heart of the preserve named after the man.
Along with Dick Young, it turned out we had many mutual friends as a result, because he told me, “I’m Jerry Hennen. I was President of Fox Valley Audubon sixty years ago.”
“Whoa,” I chuckled. “I was President of Kane County Audubon probably thirty years ago.”
“I’m eighty-five,” he proudly told me.
His wife Delores smiled and told me. “And he doesn’t hear that well.”
In fact, I’d noticed the song of a sedge wren right behind them, and pointed out the bird. They’re a small species with a high-pitched song that goes ‘chapp-chapp-chapp-chapprrr.” But Jerry has lost that range of hearing, so he couldn’t hear it. We talked about the problems of aging, and I told him about a website for which I’d written the content about hearing aid technology and advances. He made me repeat the name so he could look it up.
Then he related that he has a son my age. “I could be your father!” he laughed.
I’m proud of all these longtime associations. Grateful that there are people I meet almost every day that can add to the breadth of life like this. It’s also interesting that our shared interest in birds brought us together one late spring day.
Over the years I’ve lost a few birding friends along the way. My high school teacher and birding mentor Bob Horlock passed away in 1993. He was only 53 when he had a heart attack while burning a restored prairie. By coincidence we’d met that morning at the same forest preserve where I connected with Jerry yesterday. Bob didn’t look himself that morning, a fact I related to my wife at the time. Were it not for that chance meeting in the field that day, I’d not have seen him one last time.
For all these longtime associations, one of my favorite things to do these days is share birding with people new to the activity. I get texts from people sending iPhone photos of birds they’ve seen. Two months ago I accompanied a newer birder into the field and she was so excited by the thrills gained from bird photography that she invested in a lens just like mine fo her camera. She instantly nailed some beautiful results.
That’s the ‘thrill of the new’ at work in her and others. Each and every bird we find is one of those chance meetings in the field. Like our human companions, their songs and visage give us a connection to all of nature. That’s why some of us get sad when we hear that a species of bird is struggling, or going extinct. That sense of loss is hard to reconcile.
That is why, during this period of greed and squander in America, when environmental laws are being tossed aside out of selfish pride and power, that our nature connections matter the most. The eagles we treasure as national symbols made a big comeback in the Lower 48 states of America because real Americans cared enough to end the practices that were polluting the environment and wiping out habitat critical to the survival of these and many other species. That was the right kind of pride, for sure.
During that critical period of environmental awakening in America, a certain man named Dick Young carried on a secret life of civil disobedience as an environmental activist. During the polluted late 1960s and early 1970s, wildlife was suffering and rivers were catching fire in Ohio, he started punishing the industry and politicians responsible for trashing the world. Under the guise of The Fox, his activist name, he’d collect gunk from the polluters and return it to them on the white carpets of their headquarters with a written reminder to clean up their act. He was an environmental patriot of the most sincere kind.
Though some had suspicions, and others kept quiet about the mystery of The Fox, no one ever figured out or revealed the true identity until the work was long done, and that was after the turn of the new millennium.
Real change did come to America through the actions of environmentalists such as Dick Young and my new friend Jerry Hennen. The quality of the environment in America improved through legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (by a Republican president, no less…) and protections such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty.
All our environmental protections are in the process of being trashed by a brutal narcissist with a reputation for selfish acts of power. His sycophants gladly carry out this work, and his beneficiaries gleefully relish the demise of regulations they consider fruitless. This must be stopped.
It is all our responsibility to play a role in protecting our earth. Sometimes that means dumping industrial pollutants on the carpet of a polluter, but other times it simply means voting for people who won’t destroy creation for egotistical reasons.
Why trust the future of the earth to economic zealots who can’t tell a robin from an rusted aluminum can?
Willful ignorance of nature and a selfish desire to wield dominion over it is not an acceptable way to live, in my opinion. That’s clearly not the right kind of pride in this world. Not by any means.
Which is why, every day that we can, it is up to all of us to resist these efforts to compromise the most important thing we all have in this world, the earth and its life, because it all comes down to the fact that every one of us is here just by chance, and this is the only one we’ve got.
I recently completed work on a book titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition. In recognition of Earth Day 2020, here is a short excerpt from a chapter titled Cause and Effect, which addresses human influence on the environment, and how people claiming dominion over the earth have gone so far it now presents an insult to God.
Cause and Effect
To answer the question of whether God is angry with one nation or the other, we need first to consider how we view natural disasters. Earth history has always been driven by events such as volcanic eruptions, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. These natural cataclysms have shaped the world. Some of these events we call an “Act of God” because their scale and impact is so sudden or massive that we feel moved to describe them in supernatural terms.
But the Dust Bowl was different. It was a prime example of an environmental impact caused by human influence. While natural droughts always occur on the plains, the Dust Bowl was a direct outcome of people plowing up the soil in regions that were ill-suited to their desired aims. Native plants on the Great Plains had evolved to survive in desert conditions and hold soil in place with root systems adapted to cope with a lack of precipitation. Cultivated crops offered none of those soil protections. Thus human beings were both the cause and effect of the worst problems associated with the Dust Bowl. That human impact upon the environment is now described as anthropogenic change.
The world is witnessing even more natural disasters caused by human activities. The increased frequency and intensity of storms and droughts, floods and heatwaves, tornadoes, hurricanes, and sea levels on the rise were accurately predicted by scientists studying the possible impacts of climate change. Much like the case with the Dust Bowl, the Earth’s overall capacity to repair and replenish itself in the face of human onslaught is being exhausted.
Given the wide range of deleterious effects caused by human activity, one can logically argue that the human race constitutes a plague of its own. The world’s human population currently stands at 7 billion people. The United Nations projects that the human population will reach 9.8 billion people by the year 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. At what point does the human toll on the planet reach a tipping point?
The Earth groans
The Earth’s capacity to sustain life and replenish itself is being sorely tested. Fish stocks around the world are suffering steady depletion. Coral reefs that act as fish breeding grounds are dying due to ocean warming. Plastic waste pollutes the ocean, killing fish and cetaceans that ingest it. Nuclear radiation from Japan’s damaged Fukushima power plant spreads across the Pacific. Drought-driven fires in Australia burned millions of acres. Fires set in Brazil’s Amazon jungles to clear rainforest for agriculture rob the world of oxygen-producing trees and plants. The planet is groaning under the burden of sustaining human consumption and greed.
These are all the outcomes of human influence over the environment. In combination, they threaten the existence of life itself. That is an insult to God’s creation.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregiving and Community available on Amazon.com.
On a flight out of London recently my goal was to use the time flying across the country to study the English landscape. Now that I had visited the country and seen its hills and creeks, listened to its birds singing in the hedgerows and wandered the streets of London in the sunshine, I wanted to see the country from above. To put it all in perspective. The visit. The return trip home from the land of my ancestors.
We were fortunate with weather all week. The English skies were clear and the temperatures cool and wonderful.
But there was something more. Coming east from America the country of Ireland had been obscured by clouds and I had not seen that landscape at all.
Going west again we soared 34,000 feet in the air and crossed the channel between Great Britain and Ireland. There was nothing but a few strings of clouds to block the view.
The coastlines were fascinating to me. They illustrate that habitable ground really does come to an end. From high up in the sky you can see the giant shimmering patterns of waves rolling up against the shore. It is humbling to realize that our view of the ocean by foot is always so limited. Yet there are truths to be revealed even in that narrow perspective. The breaking waves at our feet reflect principles of physics and laws of gravity replicated billions of times every second of every day, and for all eternity as long as the earth and water and sky have existed.
We know much about the visible consistency of our universe, our solar system and our planet. We also know that human beings evolved in concert with a very narrow band of physical properties that make life on earth possible at all. Some call that a miraculous circumstance. Others go a step further and credit it all to the power of God.
Science takes a parallel yet more verifiable view of such things, for our sciences measure the limits of all things as well as take measure of the infinite. That distinction is critical to our understanding of how things work. Yet it proves somehow unfavorable to people incurious about the material world and its deepest secrets.
An ideological divide
That divide between some brands of religion and the fields of study we call science is causing real problems with our collective understanding of our real position in this universe. Some people seem to have so much pride vested in the notion that human beings are specially created that they refuse to understand the real workings of creation at all. Yet nature truly is a creative, absolutely infinite source of invention if we consider both its power and its fragility.
Talk show enlightenment
On the radio this morning a pair of talk show hosts was leading a discussion with an astronomer from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. They discussed how much information the Hubble Telescope has provided the human race about the cosmos. It has helped us detect and trace the effect of Dark Matter, a source of activity and energy that is being studied for its effects on the expansion rate of the universe.
For 25 years the Hubble Telescope has also enabled astronomers to look for planets similar to earth that might hold life in other solar systems. That’s a pretty huge numbers game to be playing, with views from Hubble spanning eons of time. As light travels to us at astonishing speed it can tell us what was once there, but not what is there at this precise moment. It’s a conundrum of sorts to know whether anything truly exists or not.
Yet there is evidence of other planets out there, the astronomer admitted, but it’s so far away it would take perhaps million of generations of human beings to reach it.
This led to a short but revealing discussion about life on other planets and whether human beings will some day be forced to colonize other planets in order to survive. Our immediate choices aren’t that great. To our knowledge there are no other planets in the solar system that even offer oxygen as a breathing option. Human beings have evolved to need oxygen to live. So there’s not much encouraging news in the idea that we can travel to Mars or Venus and survive.
Those planets are also so far away that the first travelers will have to agree that they are going away and not coming back to Earth. They’d be chartered to somehow set up camp and possibly breed, while living on what? There are also no known sources of food or water (other than ice, perhaps) on Mercury or beyond. You want to live on a gaseous planet like Saturn or Jupiter? Pretty cold places people.
Considering the globe
The entire notion of creating some sort of time travel to reach distant planets has not one shred of possibility now. Our movies and shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars are fantastical lies designed to deceive us into thinking space travel is some sort of entertaining soap opera. It’s not. It’s a deadly universe in which we live compounded by a disgusting pride that makes us think we’re so important we can impose our pattern of existence on other planets.
That rude assumption makes it difficult for some people to take any sort of pride in in the notion of protecting and maintaining the one planet where we know that life can exist. That is, if we don’t screw it up. That’s planet Earth.
Yet there is long and conclusive evidence that human activity is adversely impacting our global climate system. We’ve already proven we can pollute the air at a local level to make entire regions of the world nearly uninhabitable. Look at China right now with its air pollution and water pollution problems. The more dense their population gets, the more demands for energy and its resultant waste products.
Profit and loss
The ugly pride that says near-term profits are more important than the air we breathe and the water we drink is the ultimate form of arrogance. Yet there are entire political parties formulated around these very ideologies. It comes down to a simple matter really. Would you rather be rich or alive? Because those are the choices we are making and have been making since the advent of human awareness. The acceleration of technology, miraculous as it is, cannot keep ahead of our wasteful consumption.
The earth can seem like a pretty big place if you fly around in an airplane looking down at the ground below. But go a little higher where the atmosphere runs out, which is where the Hubble telescope sits 360 miles above the earth, and you can begin to appreciate that the universe is as finite for the human race as it is infinite for God. The Earth is a very small planet.
We don’t need science or God to appreciate that if we mess up this planet badly enough, the entire human race is screwed. If that prick of awareness is not enough to warn us, and if our little light in the universe blinks out, perhaps only God will really care. But according to the Bible, there have been moments before in history when God has either let life be destroyed on earth or even rubbed it out in God’s own purposes. The Old Testament God was one rude sonofabitch.
But maybe God will not really be alone if the human race goes extinct. Perhaps we’re just one of many social and spiritual experiments he’s got swirling around in infinity. Perhaps God doesn’t really even want us to mix with life forms until we have actually figured out that being good stewards of creation really is the right kind of pride.
There are a whole lot of signs pointing toward that end. That if we cannot get along and be gracious to each other and the earth, then we do not deserve to exist. If that’s too depressing a thought for you to consider, then may I suggest writing your Congressman and telling them to stop denying the plain fact that protecting ourselves from self-annihilation and suffocating the human race in heat and poisoned air may just be the most important thing we ever do. That is true on a spiritual, ethical, social, political and religious level.
Or else you can tell them to pray, and hope to hell that God has the time and space to listen. But God track record is somewhat disturbing in that category. If the legend of Noah’s Ark is proof of anything, it’s that God does not have infinite patience with the arrogance of the human race. And like it or not, God does mess around with promises quite often. Hence the negotiations with Lot over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, which suffered a fiery fate not because of homosexuality but because the towns were so abusive of human rights in general God no longer felt they deserved to exist.
It’s time to stop foisting our arrogant pride on God and turn inward a bit. We need to do some real, productive soul-searching instead of the kind that depends on platitudes and political dogma. And we need to include science on this inner conversation to do the subject justice.
Because the real answers about why the earth is suffering under our hand do not come from God or the notion of original sin, but from our presents sins being committed toward creation. These are based on selfish aims and short term whims of profit and extraction. We’re taking (and emitting) far more than we’re giving back to the Earth. And the Bible always tells us that it’s better to give than receive. But that’s really true when you consider the possibility that our receipts may add up to a bitter and eternal end for human life on earth.
A sobering thought. Yet the right kind of pride when it comes to determining where to place our priorities.
Christopher Cudworth is author of two books. The Right Kind of Pride is a chronicle of cancer survivorship; character, caregiving and community and is available on Amazon.com. His first book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith inthe Modern Age, is being republished on Amazon in early July.
This coming Wednesday, March 4th I am speaking about the subject of loss for Lenten Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I have already met with the Pastor to orient the discussion, which will center on how our family dealt with the loss of my wife due to cancer. So the topic is fully on my mind.
Last night I woke up at 2:00 with thoughts rolling through my head. I grabbed my iPhone and entered them into the Notes app. If you don’t write these thoughts down somewhere it’s so easy to forget what they are.
This was stream of consciousness stuff, so it’s not grammatically correct. Not even complete sentences. In some respects it’s better that way.
Sometimes your gain is your loss (hiding cancer) and your loss is your gain (blessings from caregiving and community). Blessed to be a blessing to others. Loss of activity. Loss of identity. Careful to recognize loss of hope. Blessings are miracles in real time versus miracles out of time.
Here’s what it all this means.
I have a friend whose husband had cancer and chose to hide it from everyone for two years. She was imprisoned in this world where he suffered through treatments and she could not talk about it to anyone. His concerns over his own vulnerability were what motivated him. He did not want to be seen as a cancer patient. This approach was actually part of a larger pattern of controlling behavior stemming from his unwillingness to accept the very real fact of his underlying depression. His “gain” in protecting himself from outside scrutiny was actually a loss in terms of letting others truly help him and their family. That made it all the tougher for my friend to endure.
How different (and difficult) that approach was compared to choosing to share your burdens with others. The very first week my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one of her friends (actually her boss) reached out to our family. We were so grateful to have that support. To her enormous credit this woman guided us through multiple rounds of treatment and needs over the next eight years. That was a gift that can never be repaid.
At times the blessings of that care were so great we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. That opened up channels of communication for people who confided in us. Some of these needs were simple. People actually apologized for expressing concerns about their situation. “I know my troubles are nothing compared to what you’re going through,” they’d often begin. “But I’m worried…”
Worry is almost always over losing something in our lives. We worry that we might lose our jobs with an illness or other difficulty. We worry about losing money. We worry about losing friends or relationships. We worry about losing the respect, trust or love of our friends and family members. The feeling of loss in our lives is almost constant. We’re always losing something, aren’t we? And we worry about it.
Recovering from loss
There’s a great passage in the Bible where a woman loses a coin and tears her house apart trying to find it. When she does recover the coin she calls her friends together to celebrate. That’s a metaphor for how God feels about lost souls. There is a universal tie that binds us when it comes to loss of spirit. We even speak of “losing our way” in life. That feeling of being lost and knowing loss is most difficult to transcend. Some people never pull free. They live with the feeling they are losing the battle. God doesn’t want us to live that way.
But even if you are not religious, there is sustaining hope in the very fact of life. You are here. You exist. You are the miraculous product of billions of years of evolution. You have free will. The choices you make do matter. You can choose to live in accord with all of human life and all of nature.
I choose to draw strength from both those scenarios. For me, the defining unity between God and material reality is love. It’s a very real thing, you know. It exists. It does great things. It sustains hope and heals wounds both physical and material. And as far as I can tell, God is love.
It is what it is
In our case we objectified our losses to gain some grasp of where the blessings still abided. Our phrase was “It is what it is,” That meant the cancer. The treatments. The loss of activities and joy in life. All that constituted loss
Cancer even caused us to lose insurance. Lose jobs.
But we never lost hope. That was the one thing we refused to lose.
Identifying with hope
Ultimately my wife lost her life to cancer. But she never lost her identity in the journey toward that moment. She retained her character. Refined it, in fact. At times it was something to witness. At other times it was something to support, encourage and even cajole. It was not always easy.
When she lay in bed after dying I touched her lips and told her that I was very proud of her. Hence the title of this blog and my book about our survivorship journey. The Right Kind of Pride.
We’d seen miracles in our lives together. These were not miracles that necessarily broke the laws of nature. But they were miracles of love and beneficial consequence. Favors of love and care that transcended expectations. Money that arrived through gifts when we desperately needed it. All sorts of things transpired that left us in grateful, happy tears.
So you can see why that stream of consciousness at 2:00 in the morning feels rather profound. It may seem jumbled in the cold light of day. In fact it is clear that loss is real, but you can thrive in the face of it. We all must do that, for loss is everywhere. From small objects to entire dreams, hope and loss stand in delicate balance. Choose not to lose hope and loss becomes something you can handle.
Sometimes life does not seem fair. We still need to take responsibility and pride in our hope when facing difficult circumstances. Then loss does not possess us.
In college our dorm room was on the 7th floor of a tower overlooking the Oneota Valley in Decorah, Iowa. Our windows faced west and winter sunsets over the valley were often quite dramatic. When the sun went down and twilight was complete, the hills lining the Upper Iowa River a mile away turned purple in the evening light.
Or so it appeared one late afternoon to the eyes of all those sitting together in our dorm room as the sun went down. “Look how purple the hills are…” I pointed out the window.
“No they’re not. They’re black,” one person responded. We all looked at him.
“Are you color blind?” someone asked.
“No. I can see colors,” he insisted. “But those hills are black.”
The hills clearly appeared purple. But everything this fellow knew about the world was telling him the hills looked black.
We all argued the point for a few minutes and then someone changed the subject. We were getting nowhere in our efforts to help him understand the principles of shadow, light and the color spectrum.
Other than reality
His contention that the hills could not be anything but black once the sun went down were based on something other than a reality perceived by everyone else in the room. Perhaps he truly could not see the color purple and did not know that he was color blind in that way. None of us had any way of proving that to him at the moment. So from his perspective, he won the argument.
That tendency to argue something cannot be a fact unless you can immediately prove a contention wrong is quite common in this world. It helps explain why so many people have trouble grasping basic scientific principles as part of their worldview. Over time, people tend to build up a brand of pride in affirming their own worldview, no matter how wrong or shortsighted it may be. If they find enough people that share their narrow perspective, it becomes even more powerful a way to think.
Content in what they think they know
In other words, people tend to be content in what they feel they already know. Many feel like they’ve worked hard to assemble their worldview. They don’t really want to hear contentions to the contrary. They grow proud of their ability to defend this worldview to the death. One thinks of well-known creationist Ken Ham, whose arguments about biblical truth through literalism are popular with all who find solace and contentment in a simplified view of the world where God created the universe and nothing has changed or evolved since the beginning of time.
That’s very much like contending that the hills are black rather than purple at sunset. Or that they were green during the day, so how could they be purple at night? Nor could they be orange at dawn. Perceptions confined to simple rules quite easily rule out so many possibilities on grounds that cannot be argued away. They are matters of faith in how something is meant to be perceived. It’s a confining way to think, but some people like it that way. They’re proud of their surety, firm in their convictions, and nothing can make them change.
Not even the purple hills of sunset
Yet we also know from the Bible that not even God is depicted as changeless. The deity that appears in a cloud in one book and a burning bush in another takes apparent pride in shifting and playing with the perceptions of all those who would fix the Creator in one place, one form or one time.
God transcends all of that. So does nature. It is very clear that our perceptions of both are organically intertwined. It is also acceptance of one does not automatically cancel out the other.
We all proceed at times with theories that ultimately get proven wrong. It happens in faith as well as science. Among Christians the old religion gave way to a new understanding with the advent of Christ. Then Martin Luther came along to shake up the Catholic order and traditions. Now there’s a new wave of Progressive Christians tugging at the sleeves of believers to reform around an organic view of the Bible that allows scholarship into the mix to determine a better understanding of what scripture really means, and what it doesn’t.
The trick to a establishing a better understanding in life is to never be content in what you know. That’s what’s taking place every day in science. Some people point to that fact as the source of an idea that science cannot be trusted. But that’s a mistake in perception too. We depend on science for all kinds of trustworthy activities. From medicine to industry, biology to economics, our sciences deliver dependable if not changeless information about how we view and interact in this world. Without this source of humanistic culture, we are in essence reduced to tribal beings caught in a blind play in which we have no control at all over our destiny. And shockingly, some people still think God wants that for us too.
We need our moral traditions to be equally open to change. One could say that God expects that of us. The right kind of pride is having the humility to be awakened to new ways of thinking. God has never liked stiff-necked believers.
Proverbs 21: 9–– “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed–without remedy.”