A few weeks ago my wife called me with news that nearly stopped my heart. “Eli almost drowned,” she reported about our 5-year-old son.
Eli had been wading around the edge of our pond with his 8-year-old twin sisters, intent on pulling out weeds and skipping stones. My wife, Cyndi, chatted on a cordless phone a short distance away. In the blink of an eye (which is all it ever takes, of course), she looked over to see the girls, both strong swimmers, stroking halfway across the pond. Eli, not yet a strong swimmer, nonetheless had a mind to follow them, and in those same few moments he had gotten himself too far out from shore.
Cyndi, also not much of a swimmer, kicked off her shoes and sprinted over. She waded in fully clothed and managed to grab Eli just as his floundering failed and he slipped beneath the dark surface.
Initially, I was furious that the children had disobeyed Cyndi’s orders to stay on the shoreline—an anger I knew was fueled by my terror at what could have happened. But our crying, contrite children dissipated my rage; and for several days afterward, I stumbled around in a kind of dazed luminosity. Whenever our son flashed his wide, impish smile, I could vividly imagine us and the world bereft of that smile, and I could not hug him tightly enough. Whenever he cut loose with his ever-ready laugh, I could hear the terrible quiet of that laughter forever silenced. My gratitude that he was still among us grew deep and wide and tall, like a tree planted in full sun. I saw (and still see) with fresh clarity how fragile Eli’s life is—and in that very fragility, how precious.
Since Eli’s near-drowning, I have begun to discern the same pattern of fragility and preciousness everywhere I look, as if I finally learned a foreign language, and suddenly what had been gibberish to my ears became clear speech. I saw Cyndi’s and my marriage, strong and resilient after 10 years, yet always vulnerable to the unkind word, or a pattern of neglect and “creeping separateness.” I saw our farm, whose hay and trees and crops are in the flush of their spring vigor now, but which can be—and have been—grievously damaged by careless use.
I also see the pattern well beyond the close-at-hand circle of our household. Our nation’s hard-won and vital democracy seems on the brink of complete hijack by moneyed corporate interests and intransigent politicians. Our church, the earthen vessel called to embody Christ’s love in the world, is deeply and painfully divided, endangered as much by tribalism and a lack of charity within as by the “culture of death” without. Our planet’s thin living surface, suspended between lifeless rock below and lifeless void above, groans under our insatiable demands on its resources.
Everything of real worth is also vulnerable, from the life of a child to the health of the global commons. Failing to understand this, because of distraction or take-it-for-granted apathy, virtually ensures we will lose much that we ought and need to keep.
I have thought, naïvely, that the main task in healing our culture lay in helping people come to see the value and vulnerability of all we want to cultivate and preserve. But Eli’s close call reminded me that such an awakening, though crucial, is merely the first step.
Anger and fear were reflexive for me when we almost lost Eli, and my mind raced with ways to protect the precious, fragile life of our children. Should we bulldoze the pond, as my grandmother pointedly insisted when she was alive, or surround it with an electric fence, as my parents suggested? Keep the kids on leashes?
Perhaps a similar reaction undergirds the fundamentalisms of our day: we realize the fragility of what we hold dear but think the only way to protect it is with a clenched fist and binary thinking.
Fundamentalism is futile, however. What we are ultimately trying to protect is life itself—of children born and unborn, of a civic community, a church, a biosphere—and whenever we hold on to living things too tightly, we snuff them out, despite our best intentions.
There is a still more excellent way between apathy and angry fundamentalism. But it is a messy, mysterious, cruciform, paradoxical way: loving, but holding loosely; being grateful for all that is valuable and vulnerable, but giving it up into a much vaster safekeeping than our own.