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~ Wilderness Wisdom ~
"The screams began at midnight...I reached for my pocketknife and
stumbled over my gear,
peering out into the foggy dark. Now, it was quiet, the deep silence of
wilderness. The only sound was my adrenaline-crazed heart, thumping
Clutching my knife, I pulled my sleeping bag around me and convinced
had been dreaming. But in moments, the screams started again. Something
trickled down my hand -- in my terror, I had cut myself. Sucking the
felt pure fear. And I realized I was helpless to do anything to
Excerpts from "Live Like You Are Dying"
Finding wisdom in wilderness.
"In The Wisdom of Wilderness, the final book
penned before his death, he writes about his own baptism of terror. He
in his tent, alone — but not alone, because a growling bear is brushing
the canvas. 'For the first time in my life, I am experiencing pure
fear,' he writes. 'I am completely present in it, in a place beyond
all coping because there is nothing to do.' When the bear leaves, he
experiences overwhelming gratitude. 'Fear, like any other strong
can make you exquisitely conscious of living, perfectly aware of being
My first reaction to this book review was of
amusement. I camped in black bear country where the bears would
delightfully come up to sniff at my tent. Of course, I knew enough to
hang all food high up on weak tree branches when backpacking or lock
the enticing delights in
our vehicles when driving in. They left without needing to pull out
penknives. In Glacier
Park, Montana, grizzlies were interested in my camp. After passing
by my sleeping bag on a tarp (I didn't use a tent) they examined the
camp and decided they were not hungry enough to try to climb the bear
poles the park service provided at designated camp grounds.
Pulling out a pocket knife in response to a threat
of attack by human or beast is a futile response. Of course, this
little knife could be used to cut open the rear of the tent and allow
the person to scramble away. After all, the bear was not interested in
him, but in the content of his tent, namely smelled food. If I had
forgotten to empty my tent of all foods and a bear decided to
investigate for such, I would have made my exit and watched the bear,
not in fear in but exquisite delight of this encounter of God's
creation. I would have been caught in the moment, not out of fear but
out of awesome wonder.
"We don't like for things to be out of our control [like wandering bears]. We don't like to feel things too deeply. It hurts. It frightens us. May, a psychiatrist and theologian, writes that he spent much of his professional life helping people cope with their emotions, tame them. But he comes to believe that coping can be a bad thing. 'Wild, untamed emotions are full of life spirit, vibrant with the energy of being. They don't have to be acted out, but neither do they need to be tamed.' What he's advocating here is not letting it all hang out in a hurtful way (such as screaming at our spouse) but staying in touch with our deeper self. Letting ourselves feel, and giving ourselves enough room — apart from busy schedules and demanding people — to stay in touch with our God-given inner life. For May, wilderness was where this happened.
"Letting ourselves feel our emotions is only one piece of wisdom May says he learned from being outdoors, where he encounters what he calls the Power of the Slowing. He writes that he had many experiences of what he'd call Divine Presence indirectly — through the birth of his children, the love of family and friends, the beauty of sunsets and music. These he saw as evidences of God. But he yearned for more: 'I could not help my desire.' He feels the Power of the Slowing as a feminine presence, which, although it will trip some Christians up, is a helpful way to free us from some of our ingrained preconceptions about how God works through creation.
"And perhaps nowhere does God seem so present to some of us as in nature. May went to the wilderness almost a decade and a half ago, feeling an increasingly passionate yearning for … something. I called my longing for God, and of course that's what all our deepest longings really are, but I could have just as well have said it was a longing for love, for union, for fully being in life, for being vitally connected with everything.' The precedent is a good one. Christ had a pressing agenda, crushing demands, and a strong sense of purpose concerning what needed to be accomplished during his short time on Earth. Yet, Jesus modeled for us that these desires to do what is right and good must be balanced by times away in solitude, in wilderness.
"May's writing is invitational, and his dry humor
he plans one solo camping trip, he regrets he ever saw the movie Deliverance;
'I actually thought about buying a gun,' he confesses. He writes with
joy and awe, but also unsentimentally. Unlike many nature lovers, May
afraid to look at the darker side of his experiences in the outdoors,
times become almost too painful to read (as in the story of a tortured
"It's not always pleasant or easy to strip ourselves down to the place where we live in a state of attentiveness. Gerald May had his bear. Mark Buchanan had his lions. I had my night with the screams. Several days later into my hike, I heard them again in daylight with a Park Ranger. 'Oh, that,' she said. 'The wolves killed a moose. The screaming is the sound of the ravens fighting over the remains.' So much for the serial killer I had envisioned.
"And what are we afraid of, if not of death itself? Even if we talk about our yearning for our eternal destination, we're not so happy to have a ticket dated for the next heaven-bound train. This fear of death can keep us busy coping, running, drowning out our anxieties in a welter of activities, afraid to be in touch with what we feel in any given moment. Perhaps May's book is so authentic, so vibrant, and so vulnerable because as he was writing it he was aware of his own impending death from cancer. When we 'live like we are dying,' as Tim McGraw sings, we are in touch with what is most important. And perhaps that is the biggest piece of wisdom that wilderness teaches us."Cindy Crosby is the author of three books, including By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer (Paraclete), and editor/compiler of the upcoming Ancient Christian Devotional (InterVarsity Press).
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Spiritual Resource Services © August 31, 2006