To the Edge of Life and Death

(this is a very personal reflection, and there are some painful images)

Have to agree with my friends with faith that “the unseen” is of great importance in matters of the heart (I’m learning to point at my head when I refer to “heart”). I surmised years ago that 99% of life on earth is never noticed by humans. Even what we think we see and sense is probably not all that accurate. Shouldn’t that humble us?

You don’t have to be a supernaturalist to grasp the truth—a lot of what is happening in our world is just out of the range of our attention. Yet, the unseen matters. It takes extra effort to focus or re-focus and awaken—if that’s the word for it.

The unseen is not otherworldly; it’s as close as a heartbeat.

I’ve lived with depression for years. As I told someone, it’s always just below the surface. Most would never be aware of the silent suffering that I, and many like me, live with—and that’s the truth of it: we live with it, or face the alternative, which is never pretty.

Standing outside on a rainy afternoon, the rain, thunder and lightning flashes were mirrors of inner storms. Troubled by thoughts and feelings of both inadequacy and insecurity, I inched along the ledge of life and edge of death. It’s an awful place to be. That edge can be sharp, it can cut, pierce and convince there is no reason to see another day, especially if the day dawns on more pain.

For me, Nature offers solace and a salve.

That day, a pair of bright yellow finches landed just feet in front of me, apparently unaware of my presence. The male was nearly as bright as the late afternoon sun setting over Elk mountain. I looked over to see a rabbit staring at me, still and silent in the grass. If I didn’t move, it didn’t move.

Later, after a walk, Carol and I were ascending our hill and a car drove passed. In an instant, a rabbit darted across the road and was struck by the car. The vehicle drove on and we stood to witness one of the small horrors often hidden to us. The rabbit was mortally wounded, thrashing about on the roadway. We could hardly bear to watch. With a sickening feeling in my stomach, I went into the garage for a shovel and moved the suffering creature off the road to die in its beloved grass. The beauty of the evening after another day of downpours was intoxicating. Yet, the sadness and senselessness of the life fading from those eyes was another kind of intoxication, a toxic mix of dream-like terror and pure fear.

What do we do? We looked at each other, held each other and tears fell. But the shock was more palatable so we went through the motions of looking away, and then glancing back at the dance of death.

Yes, just a rabbit. Sure, another roadkill. But this was very different from hitting an animal on the highway. We were right there for the whole drama of life slipping into death. An exuberant creature running one minute and gruesomely dying over excruciating minutes after.

Sometimes a person will ask me how I can think Nature is so great given all the suffering (the same question asked about a loving God). I’m content that Nature’s wonders include the horrible things too. Suffering and death are part of the natural way of things, just as all the elements of life we love and celebrate.

The next morning I went out to the grass and was not at all surprised to see the rabbit was gone without a trace. We had talked about our gratefulness for the owls and coyotes, hawks, bears and bobcats that share the holler with the rabbits, squirrels and so many other wild neighbors.

Would you find it strange that my depression was gone too?

Yes, still under the surface, just as all the other living things around me live, move and have their being just below the surface of my consciousness awareness. The Good is always present, as is the Bad—Life and Death; Love and Hate.

We took another walk the next evening, passing the spot where the bundle of fur breathed its last bunny breath. Now there were fireflies igniting in the air, and the cry of a screech owl and other rabbits watching us warily.

There are depressions, and ascensions. No wonder our religious histories often cycle back to stories of yin and yang, the balance that we push against in vain. Because we, like the rabbits and all their comrades, cross the road of life, risking it all, for a moment of leaping joy.

Chris Highland, 2019

4 thoughts

  1. Catching portions of a Process Theology conference Friday & Saturday (pretty non-theistic in the traditional sense), I heard talk of true “joy” as including suffering, not devoid of it. Looking forward to being able to listen to the whole presentation when the recordings are posted.

    Thank you so much for these profound thoughts

    1. You’re welcome! I recall those Process Theology days. Some good notions that can be bridges beyond belief. Of course, I now lean toward the Process without the Theology. Thanks.

  2. Chris, thanks for this. I know that under the surface sadness and can relate to the way that reminders like the plight of the rabbit can shake us awake to the fact of our great good fortune of being alive.

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