Are We Lost in the Wilderness?

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This morning dawned in a real Wyoming blizzard, with snow blowing in sideways on a howling north wind, and the temperature dropping as fast as the snow. The weather was so bad that there were only five of us filling the pews at the eight o'clock service at Christ Episcopal Church. 

Still, today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, which in the Christian calendar marks the forty days and nights in that Jesus spent in the wilderness, so our rector, Reverend Mary Caucutt, spoke on wilderness as the white flakes piled up outside. She talked about the contradictory connotations of the word, and how the metaphor of being sent to the wilderness to be tested affects our lives. 

Her topic was relevant in light of the events of the past week, the roiling of bad news from Washington DC, including the failure of the Senate to cooperate on an immigration bill, the revelation of another Trump extra-marital affair, the Russia influence-peddling investigation, and more rolling back of environmental protections. Plus another horrible and heart-rending school massacre.

It feels like we, the American people, are stumbling in some moral wilderness, numb to the decency and compassion that makes us human. Numb to the effects of our profligate, selfish, resource-wasting lifestyle. Numb even to the outrage the teenage survivors of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida are expressing in our silence. 

If this is a test of our humanity, it seems to me that we are failing. And if we don't pick ourselves up and act, demanding better behavior and more principled and enlightened action from our representatives and leaders, from our society, we may never make it out of this hell we've driven ourselves into. 

The word "wilderness," Rev. Mary reminded us this morning, has opposing meanings: It is seen as a place of solace and retreat, of spiritual and emotional cleansing from the noise and chaos of modern life. It is also seen as a place of danger, of anxiety, of trial and tribulation. 

Thus, wilderness is both a place we flee to for succor and surcease, and a place we flee from because we fear its very wildness, its trials; we fear we may lose our way and perhaps, even our lives. Like so many of our metaphors, wilderness offers both opportunity and challenge. It is somewhere we could end up eaten by a grizzly bear, or find enlightenment, inner strength, and courage. 

A young brown bear (coastal grizzly bear) fishing for salmon in the wilderness of the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska.

Like many westerners, I have fled to the wilderness at times when I needed clarity, or simply to hear my own voice amid the babel. I twice backpacked solo across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, trekking more than a hundred miles each time. The days of traversing the big wild, crossing icy rivers and climbing mountain passes on my own reminded me forcefully that I am small, and that my life is but one track among many, some of whom would not hesitate to make a meal of me.

Those sweaty days of walking alone, carrying all I needed on my back bared my fears and my dreams. In the wilderness, I could not escape myself, the parts I celebrate and the parts I prefer to hide. I had to rely on who I really am, not who I'd prefer to be. Wilderness time taught me how precious and precarious is this life we often take for granted: One misstep and we may truly be toast, lost for good. 

This morning, Reverend Mary also challenged us to take the lessons we have learned from times we have been thrust unwillingly into the figurative or literal wilderness and put those lessons to use. Lent is a time of searching, she said, a time of change when we are called to be "God's people" in the world. 

What does it mean to be called to be God's people in a world that seems to have gone mad? (Or Jehovah's people, Allah's people, or the Great Spirit's people?) What are we to do, exactly? 

There is no single, simple answer for that. Because each of us bring different skills and talents and beliefs to the test. I believe that if we are to make it out of the metaphorical wilderness where America finds itself now, we must resume behaving like human beings in the best sense of our capabilities.

Which to me means acting from love and compassion. Respecting our differences but refusing to allow them to be used to harm even the least among us--not just we humans, but all species. 

Having the courage to speak truth to power, to say that global climate change and the extinction of species and cultures is criminally and morally wrong. That owning automatic weapons is not a constitutional right. That just because you have power or money does not mean you can demean or exploit anyone, no matter who they are or what you believe.

That we are stronger and better people when we work together, when we help each other, when we all rise. That the world, as biology teaches us, is one enormous community. That what makes this planet home is the interrelationships between humans and all of the other species, from the microscopic plant plankton in the ocean who respire 50 percent of the world's oxygen, the same oxygen we need to breathe and live, to the oldest elephants.

It is how we behave that matters.

Lewisia rediviva, or bitterroot, the native wildflower that "rises again" to new life, reappearing as if by magic each spring. 

If we humans are not to be lost in the figurative wild of meanness and violence, it is time to step up and grow up and be the best of our species, not the worst. To act with our hearts outstretched, with our compassionate brains, not our egotistical, self-centered ones. It means being people we can be proud of. Showing our children, our neighbors, and all of the other species with whom we share this planet a good example, not failing them yet again.

Perhaps we need to be lost to see what has gone wrong, and to find the courage and strength, the passion and compassion, to make our way out, whole and healthy and determined to stand up for what is right in our country and our lives. To be what is right and good. To be the shining examples.

To be, simply and beautifully, human. 

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