In these later decades of life, I have come to see even more fully the value of being immersed in the natural world. The lessons I learn from being among nature’s small and large wonders form the basis of this series of blogs. Today’s thought: Nature inspires vast thinking.
When I’m out in the natural world, vast often comes to mind, carrying two interrelated meanings: Immense/huge/extensive and desolate/unoccupied/empty. One definition—the big one—feels like a comfortable sweater to my older adult sensibilities. The other—emptiness—conjures up a fearsome darkness where I’d prefer not to live. On the one hand, I like to wander into thought-spaces where immensity invites expansive imagination and wonder. At the other end of the definition is a premise that makes me shiver: Life itself can sometimes seem full of emptiness. The natural world provides ample evidence for both meanings.
In the presence of substantial natural vistas, we come into nature’s measureless spaces and realize how small we are inside our skins and skulls. Know this feeling? You’re looking up at a dark night sky that stretches across every horizon. Everywhere you look, you see the punctuation marks of incalculable numbers of heavenly bodies. Knowing that each point of light is actually another limitless vastness takes you into realms of thought way beyond the limits of your usual considerations. Or this one: Peering into the fractal folds of a fern, you realize that the pattern in the shape of its fronds repeats itself, growing smaller but seeming never to end. You realize that there is exquisite, beautiful order in the tiniest specks of life. Here vast describes a phenomenon that’s both boundless and infinitesimal!
In both cases, you and I probably come to think about our place in the cosmos, knowing that time and space are both infinitely larger than our imaginations. We’re invited to imagine: What/who is bigger than all this? Who/what could carve a living thing into intricate configurations that no human hand could fashion? Where is our place/role in all this vastness? And why would God consider us worthy of consideration, grace or love?
The empty/desolate/unoccupied understanding of vastness also brings home those places in our lives where emptiness seems to stretch in every direction, where we ache for connections with others, where we want to fill/occupy our lives with purpose and people. Where we see our responsibility to fill others’ possibly desolate lives with care, concern and companionship. These might be temporary desert experiences, forays into bleak mindsets about our futures or even short-term stays in places where our lives feel barren, unproductive and vastly wasted.
One thing I like about both considerations of vastness: they serve as “intensifiers”—adjectives and adverbs that increase the scope or emphasis of other words. (“Very” and “really” are easy examples.) So when “vast” is added to my estimate of how we think, it’s as though our minds’ capabilities have expanded to fill some indescribably large space. We are no longer small-minded and no longer want to think small thoughts. When we see God’s callings as vast, we can feel more free from constraints, barriers or impossibilities. When we sense that our life journey is vast, we can be more patient with the stutteringly slow steps we may be taking at this stage in life. When we understand that what appears to be empty, desolate or unoccupied is vastly full of life—think of the desert’s flora and fauna here—we can refocus our outlooks so that we can see more signs of life everywhere around us.
The natural world is vast, and so inspires us to think over the horizon, beyond what’s easily apparent. No matter how small we may be in comparison to the wide scope of the natural world, we are also part of that vastness, joined to it by the creating hand of God. Like the fern fronds, we repeat the pattern of God’s character as we live our lives to God’s glory.
And that’s no small thought….
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