"Do now, do now, what you will wish to have done when your moment comes to die." [St. Angela Merici]

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of Leaping and Falling

by Micky Wolf

It seems animals are good at just being—usually without fuss and especially in their habitats, or the real estate they claim, including our modestly sized suburban backyard. Squirrels particularly seem to enjoy this nature playground. It is entirely possible for them to never touch a furry foot to the ground as they leap from one maple or pine to the next for several hundred feet along adjacent properties.

One recent fall morning while lingering over coffee, an unusual spectacle began to unfold. Devoid of leaves, naked branches starkly outlined against the light blue sky, my attention was drawn to one particularly chubby-ready-for-winter-squirrel skittering limb to limb. Suddenly, for whatever reason, his next leap went sorely wrong. Four-legs frantically flailing, grabbing for anything other than the thin air surrounding him, this was one squirrel with seconds to figure out how to avoid a crash from 20 feet that might turn him into something more akin to a pavement decoration. 

 “Oh no, you’ve got to be kidding me! I sure hope you are okay!” Little did it matter there was not a single soul within earshot to hear my frantic plea. 

I held my breath—actually, we probably both did. The pile of fur was still, not a leaf stirred. Then, ever so slowly, the squirrel stood, shook himself and took a few hesitant steps to the neighbor’s low fence. Mustering what must have been every ounce of strength, he jumped up onto the narrow, flat top board. 

I finally exhaled. “You survived!”

Fascinated, I continued to watch. Eventually, he cautiously approached the nearby tree trunk. Picking up speed, he zipped upwards until he reached a branch several feet higher than the one he had been perched on only moments before. 

“Good for you!”

Witnessing the wholly unexpected adventure of my little squirrel visitor serves as a natural metaphor relative to human experiences of leaping and falling. 

The element of the unexpected. How often we go along doing the thing we have always done when suddenly we take a step only to find ourselves in mid-air, the open space of the unknown. It can be disorientating at best and frightening at worse. What is happening? 

Accepting that life is full of surprises is a good attitude to maintain. Think about it for a moment—when was the last time you went for more than a day or two without an experience of being surprised? 

The aspect of helplessness. Suddenly aware that everything familiar has disappeared—at least as far as we can see in the moment—we grab at whatever is at hand, only to discover there is nothing tangible we can grasp. No explanations. No way to save ourselves. 

‘Flailing about’ is a very human response. In the moments of feeling helpless we are tested in every way to believe everything is going to be okay. As with the frightened swimmer struggling to stay afloat, the best choice we can make is to relax and tread water until assistance arrives.

The futility of going back. Well into a freefall, aware it is impossible to stop what is happening; we frantically replay the event wondering if we could have made a different choice. The questions without answers race through our hearts: Why did I ever try this in the first place? What did I do wrong? How stupid can I be?

Every choice has an outcome. Experience is the best teacher, we hear so many times. Partly true—evaluated experience is more important. In taking time to reflect we  discover a repository of insight and wisdom that can help us learn and grow as we continue to understand how and in what way God is leading us. Was I moving too fast? Did I get distracted, not really paying attention to what was immediately in front of me? 

Withstanding the landing. In slow motion, we brace for the impact. And before we can utter barely a word or think a thought, we feel the crush of pain through every fiber of our being. Where am I? What just happened? Am I alive? Is anything broken?

One thing all experiences of the unexpected have in common is ‘contact and awareness’ with the new reality. The truth is—no one answer suffices for any of these questions. Living life in the moment provides limitless opportunities to leap into the next breathless, breathtaking experience. While the landings may shake us up, it is encouraging to know that in letting go and falling into our Father’s arms, we will be able to rise up, shake off the shock and continue on our way.

What next? Whether moments, hours or days later, we emerge from what was, at the very least, a momentarily terrifying experience. Now we face a big decision—stay down and stay low—or pull ourselves up and intentionally ascend to a new place, or an even higher point on what is our own unique life journey.

There is a distinct difference between trying to ‘go back and do over’ and persevere and carry on with life in the aftermath of upheaval. The positive outcome of that choice hinges on acknowledging the truth that with every breath we take we are in a process of transformation. The events we call unexpected simply serve to magnify the reality of that ongoing change.

Falling out of the tree of our comfortable perch may not be the most pain free way to experience life. However, the good news for people of faith is that God is present in each and every circumstance and it is often in the experiences of the greatest sense of helplessness that we find Him to be the most alive and compassionate presence.


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