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: The natural world reveals our vulnerability and inspires our humility.
Let me ask you a personal question: When and why do you ever feel vulnerable? (The same question for experiencing humility….) I’m wondering how similar those circumstances might be. Is it possible that the feeling of being helpless or exposed connects pretty quickly with a view of yourself that’s a little more modest in its scope?
Naturalists talk about the awe that comes from being in nature. These natural historians also talk about the source of that feeling: Nature’s raw, untamed power. Its otherness, its beyondness. We are astonished—for any number of reasons—and we quickly realize how vulnerable we are.
Think about any of these situations:
• A thunderstorm approaches–High winds, heavy rain and frequent lightning are part of the forecast. You stay glued to the TV or weather app. As the radar pattern grows nearer, what thoughts go through your head?
• Your entire home—and the ground under it—suddenly begins to shake, perhaps violently. Depending on the duration and character of the temblor, your sturdy, safe dwelling now seems weak or defenseless. What are the first and continuing thoughts that come to mind?
• You’ve been privileged to experience a rare natural event—an unusual cloud formation, a predator catching its prey, the sudden blooming of a prairie, desert or forest, a flock of birds in coordinated flight. You’re not in any danger, but wonderful feelings well up inside you. How would you describe them?
• Late at night, you hear unrecognizable noises coming from a living thing out there in the dark. Crashing in the brush, a deep snort, an anguished call, quiet rustlings or the fluttering of something flying nearby. Your first reactions?
• Snow slowly accumulates until the beauty of gently falling flakes yields a different feeling: These small miracles are steadily piling higher and higher! At that moment, what changes inside you?
In each of these cases, there is strong reason for awe—the size and scope of each natural phenomena is almost beyond words. As we observe or participate in any of these events, we grow quiet—what is there to say? Soon enough, the tiniest notion of vulnerability begins to enter our minds. We are small boats on a large ocean. Our human inventions—homes, cars, equipment, technologies—may suddenly seem inadequate to meet the challenges that the natural world presents us. We are exposed. We are susceptible. We are weak.
Soon enough, the awe may yield to fundamental humility: Compared to what we experience in nature, we are nothing. We are not in control of what will happen, and we cannot claim otherwise. Humility enters our spirits as surely as the awe.
As older adults, we have experienced vulnerability for any number of reasons NOT having to do with the natural world. We have been called to humility many times over. We understand how useful each of those feelings can be: False pride is diminished; appreciation of God’s protective grace grows. We understand the plight of those whom nature places perpetually in harm’s way —those who are poor, oppressed, weak or alone. We see how precious every day of life can be. We live more gratefully, more gracefully, more joyfully.
In the natural world’s embrace, each of us can come to find our place in God’s amazing will, our need to confess self-idolatries, our calling to approach all of life—including our own—with reverence.
We can welcome our vulnerability as a gateway to humility.
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