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Nature and Nature's God

[Our hearts and prayers are with all those affected by the tornado in Oklahoma and their families. In light of this tragedy, here are some comments we made on the eve of Hurricane Sandy on natural disasters and our relationship to the higher powers around us. The disaster is different, but the message is just as pertinent today as it was then.]

While the lights went out across Manhattan tonight, and the city that calls itself the capital of the world was cut off from the mainland as flood waters thundered through its streets, many people around the world watched the spectacle and were reminded just how fragile the busy world we humans build around us really is.

Manhattan is one of those places where nature seems mostly held at bay. Except for the parks, oases of carefully preserved nature deliberately shaped by the hand of man, every inch of the city’s surface has been covered by something manmade. The valleys have been exalted, the mountains laid low and the rough places plain.

Those who live and do their business there pay very little attention to the natural world most of the time. It can be hard to get a taxi in the rain, and the occasional winter snowstorm forces a brief halt to the city’s routine, but the average New Yorker’s attention is on the social world, not the world of nature. What’s happening to your career, your bank account, your friendships and loved ones, the political scene and the financial markets: those are the concerns that occupy the minds of busy urbanites on their daily rounds.

Into this busy, self involved world Hurricane Sandy has burst. Sharks have been photographed (or at least photo shopped) swimming in the streets of New Jersey towns; waves sweep across the Lower East Side; transformers explode on both sides of the Hudson as salt water surges into the tunnels and subways. For a little while at least, New Yorkers are reminded that we live in a world shaped by forces that are bigger than we are; tonight it is easy to identify with the sentiments in John Milton’s paraphrase of Psalm 114:

Shake earth, and at the presence be aghast
Of him that ever was, and aye shall last,
That glassy floods from rugged rocks can crush,
And make soft rills from the fiery flint-stones gush.

Soon, though, the winds will die down and the waters recede. The bridges will open, the roads will be repaired, the water will be pumped from the subways and service restored. New Yorkers will go back to their normal pursuits and Hurricane Sandy will fade into lore.

But events like this don’t come out of nowhere. Sandy isn’t an irruption of abnormality into a sane and sensible world; it is a reminder of what the world really is like. Human beings want to build lives that exclude what we can’t control — but we can’t.

Hurricane Sandy is many things; one of those things is a symbol. The day is coming for all of us when a storm enters our happy, busy lives and throws them into utter disarray. The job on which everything depends can disappear. That relationship that holds everything together can fall apart. The doctor can call and say the test results are not good. All of these things can happen to anybody; something like this will happen to us all.

Somewhere in the future, each of us has an inescapable appointment with irresistible force. For each one of us, the waters will someday rise, the winds spin out of control, the roof will come off the house and the power will go out for good.

We can protect ourselves from a storm like Sandy by taking proper precautions; at the Mead manor we have candles, firewood and food stocked against the possibility that our power will go out. But one day, dear reader, a storm is coming which neither you nor we can survive. The strongest walls, the sturdiest retirement plans stuffed with stocks and CDs, the best doctors cannot protect us from that final encounter with the force that made and will someday unmake us.

Coming to terms with that reality is the most important thing that any of us can do. A storm like this one is an opportunity to do exactly that. It reminds us that what we like to call ‘normal life’ is fragile and must someday break apart. If we are wise, we will take advantage of this smaller, passing storm to think seriously about the greater storm that is coming for us all.

A grand and powerful woman I once knew died after two encounters with cancer and a devastating stroke took her from the realm of normal life into the storm tossed waters that surround us all on every side. She’d never been a religious woman and, growing up in a segregated South where so many churches and churchgoers defended a brutal system of institutionalized injustice and cruelty, she was always a rebel against the conventional piety and ritualized religious life she saw around her.

But late in her life when the winds around her howled and the dark waters were rising, she was driven to face the truth behind the illusions and the pretense, and told the person she loved best in all the world that “I’ve made my peace with God.”

That is something we all need to do. It involves a recognition of our helplessness and insufficiency before the mysteries and limits of life. Like the First Step in the Twelve Step programs, it begins with an acknowledgment of failure and defeat. We each try to build a self-sufficient world, a sturdy little life that is proof against storms and disasters — but none of us can really get that done.

Strangely, that admission of weakness opens the door to a new kind of strength. To acknowledge and accept weakness is to ground our lives more firmly in truth, and it turns out that to be grounded in reality is to become more able and more alive. Denial is hard work; those who try to stifle their awareness of the limits of human life and ambition in the busy rounds of daily life never reach their full potential.

To open your eyes to the fragility of life and to our dependence on that which is infinitely greater than ourselves is to enter more deeply into life. To come to terms with the radical insecurity in which we all live is to find a different and more reliable kind of security. The joys and occupations of ordinary life aren’t all there is to existence, but neither are the great and all-destroying storms. There is a calm beyond the storm, and the same force that sends these storms into our lives offers a peace and security that no storm can destroy. As another one of the psalms puts it, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Accepting your limits and your dependence on things you can’t control is the first step on the road toward finding that joy.

Via Meadia hopes that all our readers survived Hurricane Sandy with their lives intact and their property whole. And more than that, we hope that our readers will take the opportunity that a storm like this offers, step back from their daily lives, and reach out to the Power who plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm. Getting the right connection with the highest power of all not only gives you a place of refuge when the big storm finally comes; it transforms daily life and infuses ordinary occupations with greater meaning and wonder than you ever understood.

The world needs people who have that kind of strength and confidence. Storms much greater than Sandy are moving through our lives these days: the storms shaking the Middle East, recasting the economy, transforming the political horizons of Asia. It will take strong and grounded people to ride these mighty storms; paradoxically, it is only by coming to terms with our limits and weakness that we can find the strength and the serenity to face what lies ahead.

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  • Anthony

    Is there a special reason why Via Meadia chose to re post this?

    • Corlyss

      Just guessing but it probably has to do with Moore, Ok. I’m sure this sounds churlish, just the kind of thought Dems love to hammer conservatives senseless with, but those sturdy Okies skeptical of big government have hardly dried out before they too went whoring after all the disaster goodies the Feds have to offer. “Why not? Why deprive themselves of existing programs even if the programs are wasteful, indulgent, and unsustainable?” is certainly a legitimate question to pose. My response is, “Granted, but the role the government has appropriated is one that should be filled by insurance and charities. Our spending problem has to stop somewhere. If conservatives aren’t going to stand out and declare “Not me!” there’s little hope of fiscal sanity. Of course there will be a Congressional rush to stump up funding for relief, and like Sandy, the Republicans will be bullied by charges of meanness if they even so much as question where the money is going considering there’s already low cost loan and temporary housing programs on the books. Naturally I sympathize with the families who’ve lost everything, including loved ones. It’s not a matter of how much sympathy I have. It’s matter of when is this country going to get serious about its dismal fiscal condition and stop profligate spending even when it has an ostensibly worthy basis, and I DO emphasize ostensibly. The Sandy spending has gone to all manner of non-Sandy related programs that should have been funded out of the general revenue fund, but as soon as NY legislators and executives spotted that wall of money headed in their direction, they syphoned it off to pet projects while the Sandy victims still sleep in the dark and the cold.

      • Preston Pate

        Umm … You’re right. It does sound churlish. I’m not sure that the good folks in Moore would consider themselves to be “whoring” when their entire community has been wiped out. As a generally conservative member of society (from Texas no less), I do feel that charities, insurance and religion play a large role. However, there is also a necessary role which only government can assume to provide for the common good and help these people get back on their feet. Appropriate Local, State and Federal agencies can and should be made available to assist where needed.

        • TheCynical1

          I feel disappointed that the beautiful spiritual message of the Professor has to be politicized in this discussion, in favor of any ideology.

        • Corlyss

          As I said, I think this disaster job is for charities and, to a very limited extent, local government (strictly for restoring infrastructure, not for relieving individuals of their rightful burden of care and due diligence – just off the top of your head, ya think people who live in Tornado and Hurricane allies ought to be required to build to a stricter code than, say, people who live in a desert? Com’on, what’s the first answer that pops into your head?)

          The “necessary role” for government has been expanded exponentially by the greedy middle class and their enabling pols till there is nothing that is not an appropriate sphere of government self-serving meddling. If the fact that I can’t see the usefulness of encouraging more reliance on government that swings between the corrupt and the incompetent makes me churlish, then churlish I am. I’ve become jaded both to the sanctity of the middle class instincts and to the good-naturedness of the ever present “helpful” government.

  • Anthony

    “Human beingswant to build lives that exclude what we can’t control – but we can’t …. To open your eyes to the fragility of life and to our dependence on that which is infinitely greater than ourselves is to enter more deeply into life.”
    Joy cometh in the morning; very gracious repeat WRM.

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