Unfolding the Map
We are going to be cold and wondering about our own mortality in the Cedar Breaks. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) just gives in to whatever happens, and lives. I reflect on what it means to face mortality, even symbolically, on this Good Friday, the most apt of days. To see where we confront these important issues, click on the thumbnail of the map at right.
"At any particular moment in a man's life, he can say that everything he has done and not done, that has been done and not been done to him, has brought him to that moment. If he's being installed as Chieftain or receiving a Nobel Prize, that's a fulfilling notion. But if he's in a sleeping bag at ten thousand feet in a snowstorm, parked in the middle of a highway and waiting to freeze to death, the idea can make him feel calamitously stupid....
"....Perhaps fatigue or strain prevented me from worrying about the real fear; perhaps some mechanism of mind hid the true and inescapable threat. Whatever it was, it finally came to me that I was crazy. Maybe I was already freezing to death. Maybe this was the way it happened. Black Elk prays for the Grandfather Spirit to help him face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet...."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 3
As I write this, it is Good Friday in the Christian tradition. Most of us raised in the Christian faith know the generalities of the Passion of Christ, and even it weren't laden with so much symbolism that occasionally gets in the way of its message (depending on one's interpretation), it would still be a good story. The narrative basically comes down to this: a much revered man, a teacher whose growing name and popularity is a threat to the established power structure, is betrayed by a supporter and is punished with the ultimate sacrifice - his life. However, his fame and his influence outlast his death and a movement begins that will ultimately claim billions of people.
The part of the story that always interests me is the decision that Jesus of Nazareth made, amidst very human fear, to go ahead with his part in the story even though he knew it meant death. I am a person who believes that at times, we all face fears about our decisions. Even if we know the path we must tread, we might still have a moment of indecision, doubt and fear. Jesus prayed a long time in the garden, and could have taken the opportunity when his disciples fell asleep to leave and save himself. But he didn't. He accepted his role come what may.
We are asked in any religion to compare ourselves with the important people who have made those kinds of decisions. We are told to put ourselves into their places and do as they would do. We are judged by how close we can get to following their example. In my Christian tradition, we are exhorted to be Christlike. Followers of Islam strive to live up to the ideals set forth by Mohammed. Buddhists seek to reach the enlightenment of Guatama Buddha. Nearly all of us fail in some way or another, but we are judged worthy if we continue to try.
But I believe that we all, at times in our lives, face that Jesus moment. We look back at what brought us to the place that we are and question why we are there. We look forward and maybe we see what's ahead and maybe we don't, and we are afraid. It is in those moments, I believe, that we show our true courage as humans if we continue on the path before us. Some of my proudest moments are the ones where I have taken the path ahead despite my fears, and some of my bleakest moments have been the ones where I have not because of my fears. As I was thinking about this, I remembered a passage in On the Road where Sal Paradise turns back in a storm at the Bear Mountain Bridge, cursing himself "for being such a damn fool."
It is a bit of a stretch to put LHM's situation in the Cedar Breaks on par with a man who, the stories say, sacrificed himself in the name of humanity. But in the Cedar Breaks, as LHM was faced with spending the night on a cold summit buffeted by lightning, wind and snow after not expecting such a storm, he confronts fears and demons and questions his path. He can't move forward and he can't go back, as much as he would prefer to do so. He fears his demons, symbolized by the bears he thinks are lurking outside and ready to tear him apart. At some point, he gives in. Whatever happens will happen.
Of course, LHM's story does not end with his ultimate sacrifice. The storm abates, and he drives away cold but alive in the morning. But when he went to sleep, he was somewhat afraid for his life. Those moments, I believe, are some of the most important points of our lives. We don't actually have to stand perilously between life and death like LHM did, but symbolically we will face decisions that may mean a kind of death: a death of our old comfortable life to something new and unknown, such as a new job or relationship; or a transformation of our old thinking to a new perspective; or perhaps the actual passing of a loved one whose loss leaves us empty. In those moments, I believe that we are most fully human and most fully divine when we display that courage to step across our fear and doubts and go forward to wherever our path leads. It is in those moments that our life truly changes, we take the risk to learn and grow, and ultimately, I think, we see the paradox of our lives: our complete insignificance in the the context of the forces greater than ourselves at work in the universe but also our incredible significance in whatever sphere of influence we occupy in this reality.
What would Good Friday and a post about sacrifice, fear, courage and transition be without Monty Python, particularly The Life of Brian. Often, when life gets me down, I try to remember this little ditty, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, which always makes me smile. With a wonderfully simple tune, it gently reminds us to keep our head up and laugh even when everything seems dark and absurd.
If you want to know more about Cedar Breaks
Next up: Cedar City, Utah