I’m going to make a strange comment, and I ask you to hear me out before you slam the computer shut in astonishment:
When I think back on the journey to the Netherlands and Iceland, I keep being haunted by the thought that the Netherlands is perhaps the greatest possible cultural manifestation of Christian values regarding the land, while Iceland is a perfect embodiment of pagan values regarding the land.
Now, stay with me.
The Christian charge regarding the earth is to subdue it and make it fruitful. More than anyplace I’ve ever been, the Netherlands has been successful in subduing the earth and bending her to its purposes. That they have done so gently and respectfully, and in the service of human good, is much to their credit. They have claimed land from the sea, they have run watercourses throughout their country, they have bred flowers and foods that increase human health and the experience of human beauty. They have, to the extent that it is possible, been gentle stewards of the land in the best manner of the Biblical injunction.
Iceland, on the other hand, has harnessed some of the power of the land in terms of such technologies as geothermal energy, but mostly they have adapted to its commands and demands, making an honest genuflection to its power and dominance. They make small roads, they live on what the land will bear in its natural cultivation rather than creating artificial environments to grow plants and animals that do not naturally thrive there, they leave great stones in their roadways if those stones have a historical precedent as having spiritual power. To travel across their country is to sense the presence of nature, not the presence of culture.
What strikes me as I consider these two worlds through which I passed is how viable each seems as a human adaptation to the land. We are, by our nature, culture builders. We do not live as feral beings and we do not live in a world of adaptation devoid of the exercise of imagination. That the Dutch have looked upon their environment and tried to master it, and the Icelanders have looked upon theirs and tried to fit into it, does not change the fact that each has, in its own way, tried to exercise a worthy stewardship over the piece of earth it calls its own.
The peril we face today does not come from such differing philosophies of how to serve as stewards of the earth, but from the failure to exercise control over how we act upon those philosophies. If the preservation and sustenance of the earth is not a core value in a culture’s philosophy; if the long term good of the earth is trumped by the belief in the short term good of the individual, then the land on which those people live will inevitably come to grief.
This is not a political position, it is a simple fact. Each person pursuing his or her self interest does not necessarily add up to the best interest of the land. It takes an active decision to believe that acting in the earth’s interest is actually in your own self interest. For a long time this seemed like a philosophical canard and little more. But, as the condition of the earth is shown to be ever more fragile and the threats to it ever more borderless and international, what was a philosophical canard is fast becoming a practical grounds for personal and governmental action.
In the last analysis, it does not matter how we look at the earth — as Christians, pagans, Muslims, Hindus,Taoists or Confucians or atheists or Jews — so long as we look at it as the place that must sustain our children. If we put aside our philosophical and political differences, if we recognize that the earth on which we walk must remain healthy enough to hold the footsteps of our children, we can truly weave the tapestry of cultures that the dreamers among us envision.
But if we don’t; if, when making our decisions, we refuse to look into the eyes of the children and grandchildren all around the world, that tapestry will be torn and destroyed before it is ever woven.
Then the winds that blow will be ill winds indeed, and none of us will need a weatherman to know which way those winds blow.
I have just finished a visit with my mother. She lives in an assisted living high rise several hundred miles from here in a pleasant neighborhood of parks, shops, and sufficient traffic and activity to be agreeable without being assaultive or overwhelming. She is 89.
She can no longer walk, cannot see well, and needs assistance for almost all of her daily tasks. The cost of her living situation is astronomical — nearly criminal, one would say — except for the fact that my father’s various pensions from his job and his time in the military allow her to almost break even. The remainder is paid from a small pot of savings that is dwindling by the month. In the harsh world of economic realities, it is a race between her money and her time, both of which are growing short very rapidly.
I, obviously, have never lost a mother. I have lost my father, and it changed my life forever. I do not look forward to the loss of my mother, though I am preparing emotionally and spiritually as best I can. It will be another stage in life’s journey, and another door into a different dimension of understanding.
For now, it is her life that matters. As I watch her struggle with her growing infirmity — and she does not always do so gracefully or gently — I am struck by the strength she displays in the face of the weakness she endures. And though there are many sadnesses that overcome me as I watch the colors of her life fade, the one that hurts me the most is watching her struggle with her feeling of uselessness.
This surprises me. I would have thought that it would be her helplessness that would touch me the most. But that seems so natural and within the course of the human journey. The feeling of uselessness, however, is something that feels culturally created and unnatural, and it seems unfair. She was raised to serve, and, in her own way, she did so wonderfully. She chafed mightily under the cultural limitations of women of her generation, but, after a brief period of personal exploration before the start of World War Two, she settled in to the accepted role of wife, mother, and keeper of the domestic fires.
As these roles were taken from her one by one — by my father’s death, the loss of her house and her ability to perform domestic tasks, and, finally, the need to nurture her children — she lost the handholds she had on her individual importance and significance in the world.
We children do the best we can to assure her that her job in life is no longer to do, but to be. But that is cold comfort to someone who spent her live volunteering and offering assistance to others in one form or another.
Still, it is true. She now represents something, and that is her primary job in life. She represents all of our pasts, she represents the link to a time that we succeeding generations know only by stories and books, she represents the certainty of a mother’s presence and a mother’s love. And these are all real and they are all good. But they are all passive. They are a function of her being, not of her accomplishments or even her personality. It takes a wise person on a good day to be satisfied with simply embodying something for someone else. Most of us would and do find that hard; for her it is supremely difficult. She weighs that almost symbolic value against the very real liability of her physical infirmity and limitation, and the scales do not come out in balance.
What remains for us is to love her, to visit her, to take pleasure in her journeys through the pathways of her memory. It is also a pleasure to see how little it takes to give a small sense of adventure to her life — a trip to the store, a trip around the pond in her wheelchair, a visit to one of my sisters’ homes for a family gathering. If neither she nor we look upon these small moments as revelations of limitation, but instead see them as deeply important moments of human contact and sharing, they fill us with warmth. But when they serve only to underscore her infirmity and our helplessness in its presence, they are hard lessons in the fragile course of life.
As I sit at home now, four hours away, I wish, as I always do, that I could have done more. I wish I could have been more present to her concerns. I wish I could have given her more of my time. Most of all, I wish I could have bartered away five years of my own life to give her one last real journey, or five minutes of walking, or an hour of clear eyesight, or a night with my father. But I could not do that. And my children will not be able to do it for me. All we can do is bear witness to the passing, celebrate the mystery of life, and share such love as we have with those who are most hungry to receive it.
They are small gifts, but they are our gifts. May we all, you and I, have the power to offer them when life calls upon us to do so.