Friday, August 8, 2008
One of my all-time favorite poems has to be Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of the Wild Things.” In it, he speaks of the despair and fear that so often characterize our world. His response to the overwhelming weight of life’s agonies and anxieties is to take refuge in the natural world, to experience the “peace of the wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
It is both humanity’s blessing and burden that we live our lives with “forethought of grief.” In moments of morbid imagining, I sometimes ponder what my life would be like if someone I love died. Of course, this will inevitably happen, although almost certainly not the way I envision it. This “forethought” is quite taxing on the spirit. When I catch myself slipping into this premature grief, I attempt to do what Berry suggests, and immerse myself in conscious awareness of the daily rhythms of my fellow earth creatures who live and die unburdened by the knowledge of death. Berry is right. It is a comfort.
But not all grief is preceded by anxious forethought and too-soon tears. Sometimes, we find ourselves blindsided by unexpected tragedy. Learning of the church shootings at Knoxville, Tennessee in the U.S. last week left me in a state of stunned disbelief. Since (like the victims) I too am a Unitarian Universalist, I found myself empathizing and identifying with the church members. Unlike some tragedies that seem sad but distant, this one felt close to home. But this particular grief was not preceded by forethought of any sort. It suddenly appeared, an unexpected and unwelcome guest in my psyche. Yet one more “unthinkable” thing had suddenly entered the realm of possibility. In such moments, can we find the peace of the wild things? Is it enough?
Much as we might try to re-situate ourselves among our animal kin, it still remains that our human minds crave explanations. We long to make sense of it all, to find patterns in the chaos of our world. What we need is not so much an alternative to Nature’s peace, but to broaden our notion of what it encompasses. Compared to Berry, my poetic skills are sadly lacking (nonexistent is more like it). So instead of my own poetry that inevitably would fall short, I will build my thoughts on his foundation, and seek my comfort in the “peace of the emergent cosmos.” To envelop myself in this peace requires not that I set aside my human proclivities, but rather that I embrace this moment in time.
Only now in the history of humanity can we begin to grasp the span of the Universe’s story. Out of the primordial Big Bang our world was forged from the remains of long dead stars. Humanity itself is the direct result of the disaster that blindsided the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That violent catastrophe opened up a niche in which our mammalian ancestors thrived. Throughout natural history, violently destructive events have catalyzed new life and creative change. After the devastation of a forest fire, eager new green shoots inevitably emerge and push toward the light.
It is this consistent pattern of violence, disaster and death followed by renewal, creative emergence, and healing that gives me hope. Looking to the Universe as our example, we can work to bring the phoenix of renewal from the ashes of our grief. For my fellow Unitarians in Knoxville, my wish is for their church and community to find healing through compassion, understanding, and dialogue that would not have otherwise occurred. This is a slow process. Fresh grief is like a still smoldering ember. It will be a while before the green shoots come. But, as surely as day follows night, they will come.
Rebecca Hecking is an eco-spirituality writer based in northwest Pennsylvania, USA. She is a proud member of the Meadville Unitarian Universalist Church. This column is dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in Knoxville, Tennessee on July 27.