When Things Fall Apart
Patricia Adams Farmer
Things fall apart. Every single day. All over the world. Like tidal waves, forces beyond our control can suddenly overtake us, drowning out all we thought was solid and true and forever. And when it’s over (supposing we survive), there is that odd space of time when we just stand there, mute and still and unblinking—like marble statues—as if that will keep the tidal wave of emotion from breaching our psyches. But eventually, it does.
The Rock Garden
I live in a fishing village on the coast of Ecuador. Recently, we had an actual tidal wave, or rather, a devastating series of tidal waves that ravaged our village, bringing the ocean to our very doorstep—literally—with the force and brutality that wiped out our fragile beach, the only thing between us and what the poet Robinson Jeffers calls the great “Eye of the earth,” the Pacific Ocean.
During the onslaught of waves that took no prisoners, it was odd, the things I thought about. You would think I would have worried about our home, our neighbors’ home, the fishermen, their boats, the village itself—all the big things. But these were perhaps too big to take in, and so, in refuge, my thoughts turned to smaller things like my rock garden.
My Japanese rock garden—a simple wabi-sabi affair—is a basic spiral made up of the colorful, small rocks I have collected at low-tide. Rocks bring a sense of comfort and peace and connection to things past, and to eternity itself. (I wrote about this in “The Numinosity of Rocks.”) The spiral represents the ongoingness of the garden, the open-endedness of the design, because it will, of course, grow through the years as I continue to collect rocks. That was the plan, anyway, a solid and hopeful plan.
But then the waves came, and despite our best human efforts to protect our property the sea surged in like an uninvited guest, ravenous and demanding, and worst of all, dispassionate. The massive waves crested and boomed against the shore, taking with it meters and meters of precious beach. The ocean surged toward us effortlessly, wrenching out palm trees from their roots and tossing them out to sea before turning back for more—tearing out huge chunks of land. Insatiate, the sea eventually found its way over and around the sandbags to our little house, claiming our yard, surging over everything in sight, including my wabi-sabi rock garden.
I knew the rock garden had been swept away, or at least torn apart—the smaller rocks dispersed, some of them now swimming in the very ocean that gave them to me in the first place. Despair began to wash over me. But when the water finally receded, there it was! There was my rock garden—covered with muck and mud and wood and trash—but it was intact, fully itself, unmoved, stubbornly just there. The hardy rocks looked back at me, sullied and sad, yes, but also with a kind of Zen-like equanimity about them.
The devastation to our village was massive, and more tidal waves—even worse—are expected later this year, putting not only houses and nest eggs in danger, but a whole way of life—the only known way of life—for the fishermen who have fished these equatorial waters for generations. We now live in a “disaster area.” But how could this be? One day everything is fine, and the next, everything is falling apart. Just like that.
This is life, how it is for people all over the world who wake up to natural disaster or a devastating diagnosis or the failure of a business—or the falling apart of a marriage. Buddhists tell us that life is suffering, and the more we deny this truth or try to gloss over it, the more we fall apart inside. So we look for something to ground us, to help us on the road to uncovering that equanimity of spirit that can lead to transformation.
For me, in this particular disaster, my grounding came through my rock garden. While clearing away the muck and mud from the rocks, it occurred to me that underneath our helplessness and anguish, there is something beautiful and solid and true, something open-ended and never-ending. Some call it God or simply Love. I call it both, for I believe that God is love.
“The Adventure of Universe starts with a dream and reaps tragic Beauty.” –Alfred North Whitehead
Life can turn on a dime. It often does. Disaster washes over us as effortlessly and dispassionately as a tidal wave, and with it comes despair. Despair is part of life, but it does not have to drown us. We can use it to find the deep things, the covered up things, the solid and true things like love, like God, like our precious connection to the earth and sea. There are many treasures hidden under the waters of despair.
We are reminded, too, of our vulnerability in a world that is not solid or true or even trustworthy at times. Everything is changing constantly, and just when we start to settle in and get comfortable, the bottom drops out. The old sea god Poseidon humbles us without so much as an apology. We feel vulnerable and small in such a universe.
We have to be patient with despair because it takes time for the water and mud and muck to recede before we can see what is solid and true--and salvageable. There is much cleaning up to do. Our village has much to clean up, too, and much to think about as the tides keep taking and taking.
I do not believe there is anything about such destruction that is purposeful or “meant to be” or part of a divine plan. Like tidal waves, beautiful and terrible, our gorgeous world is also a brutal world—and terrible things happen in nature, too. The universe is not a great epic novel where all the tragic scenes have a purpose in the overall narrative. This is real life, where real tragedies drown-out real dreams and break real hearts, including the heart of God.
God is in the Story
"God is the poet of the world, tenderly leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”—Alfred North Whitehead
“God is the great companion, the fellow-sufferer who understands.”—Alfred North Whitehead
We are all writing the world together: you, me, the Pacific Ocean, and God. The future is not yet written. As process theologian Bob Mesle often reminds us, “the future does not exist.” We have to write the story together, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. God is that Tender Presence that lures us toward transformation—the “poet of the world.” This God yearns for intense harmony within creation, and lures all creation toward that end which Whitehead calls “Beauty.” But God is not all-controlling; poets and lovers never are. God feels the world completely, every part of it, and never gives up on it—or us. We, too, yearn for a beautiful ending, a just ending, a satisfying ending, and that gives us purpose in how and what we write. But the future is not yet written.
God is not an omnipotent Author of the Universe who permits suffering for the sake of a better story. That is not what we have. What we have is a Lover of the Universe who is part of the story itself, entangled in the messy chaos, suffering with those who suffer, daring to “reap tragic beauty” where the world leaves stark wreckage. This Cosmic Lover needs us and desires us—our prayers, our thoughts, our bodies, our intellect, even our anguish. For all is felt and transformed in the heart of God and offered back to the world in the form of freshness and hope.
God is in the story, in the earth. In us. This is not the old omnipotent deity “up there,” but the God of the green earth and the blue sky and roaring sea and of eternal starry nights where despair and hope co-mingle. This is not the God who controls the tides, but the God Underneath, who persists, quietly weaving tapestries out of the threads of tragedy. This is not the God of Destruction, but the God of Presence, the God of suffering, the God of transformation and healing, the “great companion who understands.”
When the Worst Happens . . .
So, when the worst happens, when we are overwhelmed with tidal waves that break our world apart, we can know that underneath it all lies something persistent and beautiful and true and forever open-ended with possibility. Even if life itself should end, we are safe inside God’s heart, that great cosmic womb in which nothing is ever lost: a heaven of transformation and healing. Like the spiraled rock garden, there is no closing off into despair—ever. There is movement, always movement toward freshness and novelty and transformation. That is the way of beauty, the way of love, the way of God in the world.
At least for now, my rock garden is spruced up and showing off its kaleidoscope of colors in the equatorial sunshine, reminding me that no matter what happens in the future, with the tides, the village, even with our home—still a hanging question mark—there is something beyond worry and despair. Something fresh. Call it Beauty, call it God, call it Love.
Companion essays on this topic by Patricia Adams Farmer: The Numinosity of Rocks, The Quaking and Breaking of Everything, Replanting Yourself in Beauty, and Pollyanna: I Dare You to Read This! Also on this topic:: God and typhoon Haiyan by John B. Cobb, Jr.; Coming to Know the God We Already Love by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson; Where is God in Alzheimer's Disease?; God and the Sendai Earthquake by John B. Cobb, Jr.; Suffering and Meaning: Reflections on a Death by Bob Mesle; Process Theology and Vulnerability by Jay McDaniel
Patricia Adams Farmer is an essayist and novelist in the tradition of process theology. She is the author of Embracing a Beautiful God and the Fat Soul Philosophy Novel Series (The Metaphor Maker and Fat Soul Fridays). She and her husband, Ron Farmer, live and write on the central coast of Ecuador. Visit her author's website at patriciaadamsfarmer.com.
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