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The Need to Be in the World

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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

When I was young, the world was too much for me. I wanted to transcend my way out of here. But the years have made me root more firmly in the life of experience. I've come to understand that heaven reveals itself through how we love our way through our time on earth. This reflection speaks to this.

"Have you searched the vastness for something you have lost?" -- Robert Service

As astronauts spend time in space, weightlessness causes muscle atrophy. With little or no resistance required to move, their muscles and bones harden and retract. Astronauts in their thirties can return to Earth with the bone density of people in their seventies. Specific biological and chemical reactions cause this, but in our conversation with the elements, we can perceive something deeper: that yearn as we do to shed the weight of the world, we need to be in the world to realize our dreams. Just as too much gravity is oppressive and crushing, the loss of gravity doesn't free us but causes us to atrophy and disintegrate at an accelerated rate. Paradoxically, the only way to make it through the weight of the world is to stay in the world.

An ancillary paradox is at work in the kinship between light and dark. We yearn so hard and long to be rid of darkness. Yet without dark, there is no shadow. And without shadow, there is no depth perception. Without any depth perception, we have no sense of direction, no sense of what is near or far. In our need to find our way, we are asked not to bypass darkness but to work with it and through it.

Still, it is humbling to realize that, though we need the elements of nature, we cannot survive their pure force. Ten years ago, I made my way to the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, through Estes Park in Colorado. I've always been drawn to wide-open spaces and was eager to ascend, away from the human tangle. But as I made it past the tree line into the tundra, the bareness was as cold and forbidding as it was magnificent. It made me dizzy.

I stopped and sat in the crook of a large rock overlooking a vast canyon. I sat there long enough to regain my balance. By this time, the glare of wonder had evaporated. Just then, a mountain jay teased its way near me, swooping higher in the mountain air, where humans can't go. At that moment I heard the jay and mountain air and the cold stone holding me say in utter silence, Go back among the living where you belong.

I was shocked, but it was true. It made me realize that we are welcome to make pilgrimage up this far in the thin majesty of things. We are welcome to be humbled and cleansed, but we are meant to live lower; moving among the roots and branches; following the elusive songs of birds and the tracks of shy animals; all calling us to remember our fundamental nature.

Excerpt from Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, just published from Simon & Schuster Oct. 9, 2012.

A Question to Walk With: What has nature said to you about life? Share one lesson along the way.

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