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Camille Seaman sees interconnection while chasing storms. I value that, but I felt something different in the summer of 1980 -- perhaps because the storms hounded me. I bicycled across the United States and parts of Canada, down the West Coast, and back east. It was the year Mount Saint Helens blew up: Matronly Mother Nature mutated into Lizzie Borden with an axe. I touched transcendence and experienced frailty.
My first revelatory moment was wrapped in Midwestern hospitality while I bicycled west. I crossed into eastern South Dakota and knocked on a farmer's door with a well-rehearsed request for water from the garden hose. A woman insisted I come in and made me sandwiches and filled my water bottles. Her husband greeted me like I was long-lost Cousin Mike. They told me of a good camping spot just down the road, where there was a picnic table under a small pavilion near a shallow lake. I pedaled there.
It was then, while perched on that table at sunset, that I saw one of Seaman's storms: A massive, anvil-shaped, cumulonimbus cloud lumbered in about 20 miles to the west and tossed lightning bolts like neon spaghettis. Welcome to the Great Plains, where the weather is as pitiless as the Borg. I was a living triviality, as significant as a greasy spot under a shabby pavilion near a muddy lake.
And yet it was strangely beautiful. It possessed a stop-my-heart, fearsome splendor, complete with angry eyes and commands to kneel.
I pedaled west some more and eventually camped in volcanic ash. A family put me up in the Seattle area and a new acquaintance drove me, my bike, and my packs up to the 7,000 foot level of Mount Rainier. I hiked up a little further on blackened snow, where I met my second moment. A pretty woman ahead called out: "You can see Mount Saint Helens from here." I rushed to her -- to see the volcano, of course -- and turned around. There it was, the killer mountain: Lizzie Borden pausing for a cigarette, emitting a wispy plume. And she was near -- so near it seemed I could touch her. And I was on a bike. And volcanos often explode more than once ... My instinct for self-preservation quashed any longing for oneness. I pedaled south -- out of Washington and harm's way -- as fast as my finite legs would pump.
The third moment came about a month later, when I was biking eastward in Kansas. I was relishing it. The wind was with me, blowing so hard the corn lay flat. I sailed -- until I peeked behind and saw the squall line (a line of clouds bringing a torrential storm) and the aqua-colored sky. My stomach crawled into my throat because I knew that aqua skies meant tornados and I was five miles from the nearest town ... A ditch! Give me a ditch! Any ditch! My kingdom for a ditch into which I can hurl myself and my bike! But Toto, this is Kansas! And the postcards were no lie: Kansas is flat -- so flat I see no ditches wider than a grave, and graves are not the idea. So use that wind and race until your legs are Jell-O. Skid into the town with your heart racing at ten thousand beats a second. Accept the invitation from the car-repair guys who are watching the storm: "You'd better get in." I bring my bike into their garage and -- a moment later -- 60-mile-an-hour gusts plow through and the power goes out. Driving rain and hail slant sideways. Everyone's having themselves a nervous chuckle while doling Coors and yes, this future Baptist minister accepts the beer. So arrest me. The storm blasts and, after it's all over, I walk outside to see fallen trees and blocked roads. I also hear reports from local volunteers: funnel clouds did, in fact, touch down.
Such were my three moments.
Ancient thinkers would see no contradiction between Seaman and I: She spoke of nature through the lens of immanence, or nearness; I saw it through transcendence, or enormity. They saw the face of the divine and equally applauded intimacy, which wells from immanence, and the fear of God sparked by transcendence. Both are valid. Immanence and transcendence are woven into a complete mosaic.
I sometimes step outside my air-conditioned home and view the very sky that brought those storms and clouds of ash. I love its sun and clouds and rain, but I also hear of melting glaciers, heat waves, droughts, and rising seas. I remember my well-founded frailty and fear, and I can't help but pray that all will hear the twin messages of immanence and transcendence -- before the axe is wielded once more.
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