Music of the Week — September 23, 2007
Ken Burns: "The War"

Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2007

Nature’s Indifference?

I think every person has a sense that he is at the center of a world which exists mainly in relation to him, that he is the main character in a novel or play. And that’s because he is. We understand that a human author imbues, as far as possible, everything in his composition with significance for its limited set of characters, and that the same event will have a real but different meaning for each of them. So it shouldn’t be difficult for anyone who believes in the infinite creator God to accept that our lives are filled with significance, even at the most mundane level; that we are constantly being spoken to by everything around us.

I don’t mean, of course, that we should try to get a specific message or a bit of instruction out of every little thing that happens. That’s a bad idea, partly because we are likely to hear what we want to hear, as when someone says something like (and I’ve heard this) “God wanted me to have that parking space.” And partly because our minds are too small, our ignorance too great, and we get caught up in trying to unravel things that we simply can’t know—why was this person killed in the airplane crash, while another was briefly delayed by a telephone call, missed the flight, and lived?

Moreover, very little that life is telling us, great or small, is comprehensible till after the fact. Mainly, I think, and most of the time, we’re invited first of all to attend to existence of so much that is not ourselves, and to enjoy our contemplation of it. It’s not just your imagination; the great show really is being put on for your sake—only not for yours alone.

Last night it was nearly midnight when I walked the dogs down to the bay, and I ended up staying there longer than usual. The very bright and nearly full moon was in the southern sky, to my left, just beginning to descend. In spite of the fact that we had been under a tropical storm watch, there was almost no wind, and the soft ripples coming in to the shore did so at a slight angle away from the moon, so that as they rose onto the sand their faces were painted silver by the moonlight. Directly across the bay, in the west and low in the sky, a heap of anvil-shaped clouds rose from the horizon, growing smaller toward the top in a sort of rough pagoda shape, their upper surfaces glowing in the moonlight. Now and then there was a very faint flash of lightning, so far away that I couldn’t tell what direction it was coming from and never heard the thunder. Very thin fast clouds were blowing in from the east, from the direction of the storm, trailing across the moon. Otherwise the sky was mostly clear and when I looked straight up I could see a few stars, in spite of the moon and the lights of town. There was enough moonlight that I could see gulls flying out over the water. The great dark silhouette of a heron came gliding silently into the branches of a nearby magnolia tree, then glided away again a few moments later.

In short, it was hypnotic, and that’s why I stayed so long, even though the little dog, who has to be kept on a leash because we haven’t trained him very well, grew impatient to move on. It was as if the picture was being painted for me. And it was—but not for me alone.

It’s a familiar rhetorical tactic of materialists to point out the indifference of nature to suffering and any human concern whatever—which only serves to show how much one’s philosophy determines what one makes of the facts of the world. We often speak of natural beauty as a sign from God. I’ve begun to think it’s something more: not so much a sign, which implies a distance, as his very voice and face, shown to us in a form that we can see and understand, perpetually speaking to us of who and what he is.

Nature is for all of us; it ought to be unaffected by the fortunes of any one of us. Suppose something bad had happened to me while I stood by the water last night. It’s extremely far-fetched but not utterly implausible that I could have stumbled upon a fifteen-foot alligator and been dragged into the water and drowned, or perhaps just had a limb torn off, or that I could have been bitten by a cottonmouth, or simply fallen dead of a heart attack. Why should the beauty of the night have been spoiled because something bad happened to me? It was entirely possible that a couple of hundred yards downshore, in the city park that also borders the bay, two lovers were enraptured almost as much by the moonlight and the water as by each other. Should my pain have spoiled their delight? Should the moon have vanished from the sky because I was suffering?

No. What we call nature’s indifference is its constancy in beauty, intended to represent that of God himself, a reminder that no matter what happens to us as individuals his presence never fails and his nature never changes, and that beauty is a part of the very deepest fabric of what is. It would be dreary, in fact it’s almost frightening, to think that my own pain could undo it. Where then would be my hope of escape? No, I want nature to be untouchable by my mind, the vast space and time of the cosmos to remain utterly independent of me, and all this imperturbable persistence a promise of eternity and infinity. I’d like to think that if I should die at such a moment as the one I’ve described some corner of my consciousness would, in spite of the pain and fear, still know that I was in the presence of beauty as the darkness came on.



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