‘Only spread a fern-frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out,
and freedom and beauty and peace come in.’
There is a little girl I know who loves to jump the waves. I did not meet her until recently, though I have known her for three years.
I work with a charity in Jamaica and she attends an after school programme we run.
She comes every week, but she is rarely there; present only in the physical space her frail frame fills, but absent, empty in her eyes. This little girl is living in a shell that is not her; The shell of her survival suit. She was not born with this survival suit, it grew around her as she grew, every blow adding another layer, every neglect, stitching it to her skin.
This little girl lives in a Jamaican inner-city community that is often violent and always rough. A community with over 64% unemployment, where 40% of children have behavioural problems that affect their ability to learn in already overcrowded and understaffed schools. Where only one in nine children are born to married parents and where 20% of the population is under the age of nine. Her country, despite its size, has one of the top five highest homicide rates (per capita) in the world.
In the last year she lost her two older brothers to the violence.
Life has waves, waves she cannot easily jump, waves that dash and drown, waves that pull her under, down, down further into her survival suit, her bomb-shelter shell. And this shell is who we all thought she really was, until one day the waves along a sandy stretch of sea introduced the real her to us.
We took the group of twenty little girls from this programme on a summer trip to a beach just half an hour away. Though she lives on a tropical island, twenty minutes from the sea this little girl had never seen the beach before, she had never felt the sea breeze whip her face, the sand between her toes, the waves crashing at her ankles.
Soon after we arrived at this sandy stretch of sea the party of little girls flocked as one into the waves, fearless, delighted. I expected some of them to hang back, to be afraid of the crashing waves or the wind. No. There were many other things in their lives they were afraid of, but not the sea. The waves carried no guns, hurled no abuses and dealt no beatings.
I and the other leaders waded into the water a little after them, bemused at their glee.
The warm sun bathed us all in light and the salt spray pricked our senses, the waves danced and we all joined in; Joyful, gleeful, giggles mixing with the salty sea air.
Life is life, and in the mud and mire of it all we don’t expect magic, but miracles happen in moments, moments that take us by surprise. That day, along that sandy stretch of sea we saw a miracle, a salt spray splattered miracle.
I felt a gentle tug on my hand, and looking down I found my hand was tightly grasped by a smaller, thinner hand and there smiling up at me was the little girl who loves to jump the waves; Eyes alive, present. She giggled as waves washed against her, plunging her face into the salty spray. At one point she was dragged under, dumped down but she rose from the salt water giggling with glee. And the salt water on her cheeks were not tears and the shrieks from her mouth were not wails and the light in her eyes was not absent. There. She was there.
I and the other leaders stared, astounded, while the sea spray danced around us all, laughing knowingly at our surprise.
The survival suit was off (lying forgotten on the shore) and the little girl who loves to jump the waves was there, unfettered, unafraid, unbound.
This little girl that day initiated conversation with leaders familiar and not, giggled out loud, collected sea shells in a cup, helped other children build a sand fort and talked. She talked. She connected. Somehow the sea connected something within her and that something reached out to us for more connection. The light danced in the waves and danced in her eyes and life breathed out a deep sigh of relief.
Finally after the day had spent its hours and the sandy stretch of sea was bathed in evening light we packed to leave. Everyone was waiting by the bus, tired and satisfied, everyone but the little girl who loved to jump the waves. She was missing.
Leaders split up in different directions to search her out. Finally we found her wandering by the waters edge, looking for shells, reluctant to leave. This little girl lives in Trench-Town, but this sandy stretch of sea was where she’d been alive.
We drove back and slowly we saw her survival suit enclose around her once more. We pulled into her community, letting each child off at their stop.
Silently she climbed out of the bus.
I turned to wave goodbye to the little girl who loves to jump the waves, but she had gone already, bit by bit; And I watched her walk alone down the street into the concrete jungle of her home, enclosed in her shell once more.
And the waves that washed over me were not the ocean, and the saltwater in my eyes was not the sea.
I have worked with children in one form or another for over twenty years, but I know that the waves did something that day for that little girl that I can never achieve. Because these waves are party to a secret, as old as time itself, a secret message planted deeply in the core of nature, a whisper of something more.
As a child I grew up in a small house on the edge of the Australian bush. I spent my childhood wandering under gum trees, exploring caves, following the streams of rainwater trails made by passing storms, feeling the mud between my toes and the breeze upon my face. Now that I am older, having lived in cities and suburbs on four continents, I can begin to appreciate the gift that my childhood was for me.
We human beings are programmed to revel in natures embrace; The trees, the birds, the flowers, all is the kiss of life not just to our ailing bodies but to our weary souls as well.
The beauty of nature calls out the beautiful in us, drawing us out to play, coaxing us out of our survival suits, whispering ‘breathe’, ‘live’, ‘laugh’, calling us to revel, to rejoice and just to be. All of who we are, body, soul and spirit needs the life that the mud between our toes and the breeze upon our faces brings. Just as the hummingbird is in symbiosis with the flowers, the wasps with the trees, we human beings belong in nature too, connected by the threads of both material and psychological ecosystems. Our needs extend beyond the material into the bewildering world of emotion, mind and will… and strangely the material world of nature meets us there, drawing us out of our survival suits breathing back into us life and wellness, hope and health.
Evidence has been mounting over the past three decades on the role nature plays in our emotional and physical well being.
According to research reviewed by Jean Larson PhD and Mary Jo Kreitzer RD PhD for the University of Minnesota, being surrounded by nature or even simply viewing scenes of nature through a window ‘reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings’.
Being around nature also ‘contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones’.
A study from the University of Illinois discovered that Public housing residents who had natural spaces (trees, grass and plants) around their housing complexes reported having stronger feelings of belonging, connection and unity with their neighbours, and felt more mutual concern and support for one another than tenants in complexes with no trees or green space. They also had less street crime, aggression and domestic violence.
Even nature from a distance can have a healing affect on us, both physically and emotionally. Intensive Care Unit Wards with natural views from windows have been found to ‘reduce patient delirium’, reduce the length of ‘postoperative stays’, and reduce ‘negative evaluative comments in nurses’ notes and requests for strong analgesics in acute care units’.
Another study by Netta Weinstein, Andrew K. Przybylski and Richard M. Ryan of the University of Rochester in 2009 has found that time spent in nature brings out the best in us; a desire for personal growth, intimacy and community, while time spent in man-made environments fosters more self seeking extrinsic aspirations such as the seeking of money, self focused identity and material goods.
These studies serve as confirmation of what human beings have known since the dawn of time; nature heals, soothes, refreshes and inspires. Quite simply, the mud between our toes and the breeze upon our face is good for us. It is good for us because it was intended to be good for us.
Embedded within nature is a message, a letter from our creator to us; and embedded within us is a heart that responds to this message, breathing out in deep relief. As the ancient song writer proclaimed ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’. (Psalm 19:) The natural world whirls with song and speech and line after line of soul fulfilling poetry. Breathe. Live. Laugh. Thrive in the gift.
‘Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.’ Genesis 2:8-9 (emphasis added)
First he ‘planted‘ and ‘there he put’. These are simple words, straightforward enough. Nothing embellished, nothing special. But in the time they were written, the idea that a god in anyway planned or ‘put’ mankind in a place for mankind’s welfare was strange and foreign.
The gods of the ancient peoples were not so interested in the welfare of human kind, if any relationship existed at all it was one of caprice and for the service of the gods, not man. One of the earliest examples, the Ancient Babylonian story ‘Enuma Elish’ (1800 BC) tells of the creation of humankind as an afterthought out of the blood of a monster-goddess for the purpose of serving the gods.
‘I will establish a savage (lullu) ‘man’ shall be his name,
verily, savage-man I will create,
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they may be at ease.’
Compare this with Genesis one ‘Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.’ (Genesis 1:28-29)
The idea that a God would create humankind and then place them in a garden with thought and care for their welfare was remarkable in belief systems of the time. And God didn’t ‘put’ humankind in just any kind of garden. The name Eden was commonly understood in ancient Hebrew to mean ‘delight’ or ‘luxury’. A delightful place, human beings were placed there to be delighted, to live and thrive in this delight.
We were also created to engage meaningfully with this delightful place, to have a role in it’s fruitfulness, to feel it’s dirt beneath our fingernails, its mud between our toes, to own it as our own, not in domination but in connected stewardship.
‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.’ Genesis 2:15-16
We were good for it, and it was good for us, entwined from the outside in by both material and psychological ecosystems, drawing us out of our survival suits breathing back into us life and wellness, hope and health.
But a lot has happened since the dawn of humankind…
Christopher Potter in his book ‘How to Make a Human Being’ quips that ‘Human history has been a process-powered by technological progress- of moving out of nature and indoors’, and unfortunately he is not far from the truth. This message of our essential connectedness with our natural world has become twisted and tangled by our increasingly industrialised way of life. We have become so clever as human beings, building great cities, transporting ourselves to the moon, creating information highways and screens that entertain, educate and absorb us but our children now spend more time inside and on screens than they do outside in nature.
Adults in America (according to a recent Gallup poll) are now working on average a 47 hour week, almost a full day longer than the accepted 40 hour standard and twenty one percent of Americans are working a 50-59 hour week.
Our drive towards success, wealth and happiness is driving us away from the sources that would bring us happiness, our connection with God, each other and with nature.
The late German social psychologist, psychoanalyst and sociologist, Erich Fromm observed that ‘Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation of the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature’.
Depression is now one of the worlds most prevalent illnesses. Over a quarter of the population of the USA suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder every year and not because we don’t have enough ‘stuff’. In fact according to Richard Lanyon from the London School of Economics depression has increased as our incomes in the West have risen.
We live in a material world, but perhaps the material world we think we need, isn’t actually the one that will bring us satisfaction, let alone joy. Our drivenness in the West has left us living in a shell that is not us but the shell of our survival suits.The world we have created for ourselves in our suburbs, towns, cities and on our screens rarely nourishes what is precious within us. We have become disconnected from each other, from the mud between our toes and the breeze upon our faces. Depression, anger and mental illness is a byproduct of a life estranged from itself, a life estranged from life.
And in this place for all of us as human beings, life has waves, waves we cannot easily jump, waves that dash and drown, waves that pull us under, down, down further into our survival-suit-shells. In these stormy moments, if we stop long enough to feel, we may well find ourselves yearning for a sandy stretch of sea and a salt-spray-splattered miracle to re-introduce us to the person who we really are, underneath it all.
And the beauty of nature waits with her heart on her sleeve, ready with her kiss of life for our ailing bodies and weary souls, calling out the beautiful in us, drawing us out to play, coaxing us out of our survival suits, whispering ‘breathe’, ‘live’, ‘laugh’ calling us to revel, to rejoice and just to be. Whispering to us the song we long forgot, the message from our maker. Calling us back into the arms of grace that ‘put’ us there in the very beginning.
Shepley, M. Gerbi, R., Watson, A. Imgrund, S. Patient and staff environments: The impact of daylight and windows on ICU patients and staff. World Health Design. Accessed May 11, 2013 at http://www.worldhealthdesign.com/Patient-and-staff-environments.aspx
Weinstein, N. (2009). Can nature make us more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations and generosity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1315.
‘A 40 Hour Work Week In The United States Actually Lasts 47 Hours’ Niall McCarthy, forbes.com
‘The Art of Loving’ Erich Fromm, Mandala Harper Collins Publishing 1985
‘The Selfish Society’, By Sue Gerhardt, Simon and Schuster 2010