“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neal Hurston has a passage that gives the book its title. Janie, her husband Tea Cake and his friend Motorboat are trying to outrun a storm. The raging waters of the lake are rising and the tremulous fear of death has climbed into their skin.
She writes: “The wind came back with triple fury and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
They were witness to this in New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina in real time. They’ve seen this along the coast when Sandy ravaged the East coast, and placed certainty and calm on notice. The Badlands didn’t get its name from a calm breeze. And the firey Santa Ana winds have had more than one Californian watching and waiting to see if the wind will blow in his favor or decimate his house and belongings to the ground. Anyone who has ridden out a storm and walked against the wind has literally felt its power. But isn’t that the way of life?
It manifests in the quiet comforts of every home in its own way. We don’t think about the frantic fits of survival when we face the mundane day to day act of moving forward. But when the fury of Nature comes calling, we listen with a steadfast intensity to see how we should respond; a diagnosis of a disease, a loss of love, a loss of job, a failed attempt at progress or an unfulfilled desire panting in bed inspiring restlessness or the frail caress of Adversity running its fingers across our cheek in fragile uncertain times. Those things that are beyond our control become nothing more than us looking at the door, waiting for something to force our hands and test a strength of faith.
I’ve said it before, spiritual calisthenics go a long way. We do our part to cultivate survival sensibilities and the routine of church becomes just that, a means to an end in the day. A habit we’ve created to make certain we are brushing the teeth of soulful well-being.
Richard Rohr, once replied to a questioner who was asking people who are facing death and asking the essential questions. He said, “You can’t do your homework at the last minute.”
Paul Tillich said we all have an “ultimate concern.” It’s the one thing that we turn to that we value in life and train our hearts to help us get through life. For some people it’s their family, others it’s studies, still others it’s their work or playing the games people play. It’s what we do that gives life meaning and inspires us to keep moving forward on a quiet quest for knowledge.
Those who are staring at the walls of nursing homes are not just thinking about who is going to play checkers with them or how their needs are met. I imagine there’s a point in the day where an eye on reflecting has to train itself at the door to see what’s coming next.
Tough not to spin your wheels and waste a good life on wondering as the years pass, but there’s something to be said for determining what Good can do for a life and asserting in our actions how that Good can help another through our example.
We live day to do day and we die day to day. We die to ourselves and the fears we face. We temper flashing vanities until the lights go out. It seems to me confronting the fear early and collecting a simple philosophy to combat goes a long way in serving the greater good of our well-being. It’s good to have a grab bag of affirmations and a noble story to remind us that sacred glee is with us constantly.
When you come out of a tough time, there is an extra spring in the step. Tested and tried, we have measured our puny might against the world. The world forces us to take note of its glory.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel called it “looking for radical amazement in a day.”
He writes: “Wonder is a state of mind in which we do not look at the latticework of our memorized knowledge, in which nothing is taken for granted. Spiritually we cannot live by merely reiterating borrowed or inherited knowledge. Inquire of your soul what does it know, what does it take for granted. It will tell you only no-nothing is taken for granted; each thing is a surprise; being is unbelievable. We are amazed at seeing anything at all, amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.”
We’ve all got the eyes trained on the door to see what might come through, but there’s a big bold picture window waiting to behold the sun and receding waters to remind us that we must revel in life.