Sunday, October 27, 2013

Autumn: When death and elegance walk hand in hand

Autumn is a season of great beauty, but it is also a season of decline: the days grow shorter, the light is suffused, and summer’s abundance decays towards winter’s death.  Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn?  It scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring—and scatters them with amazing abandon.

In my own experience of autumn, I am rarely aware that seeds are being planted.  Instead, my mind is on the fact that the green growth of summer is browning and beginning to die.  My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around.  I am drawn down by the prospect of death more then I am lifted by the hope of new life.

But as I explore autumn’s paradox of dying and seeding, I feel the power of the metaphor.  In the autumnal events of my own experience, I am easily fixated on surface appearances—on the decline of meaning, the decay of relationships, the death of work.  And yet if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear fruit in some season yet to come.

In retrospect, I can see in my own life what I could not see at the time—how the job I lost helped me find work I needed to do, how the “road closed” sign turned me toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know.  On the surface, it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.

This hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying is surely enhanced by the visual glories of autumn.  What artist would ever have painted a season of dying with such a vivid palette if nature had not done it first? Does death posses a beauty that we—who fear death, who find it ugly and obscene—cannot see? How shall we understand autumn’s testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?

For me, the words that come closest to answering those questions are the words of Thomas Merton: “There is in all visible things a hidden wholeness.”  In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites.  They are held together in the paradox of “hidden wholeness.”

Autumn constantly reminds me that my daily dyings are necessary precursors to new life.  If I try to “make” a life that defies the diminishments of autumn, the life I end up with will be artificial, at best, and utterly colorless as well.  But when I yield to the endless interplay of living and dying, dying and living, the life I am given will be real and colorful, fruitful and whole. 

Parker J. Palmer from the chapter “There Is a Season” within his book Let Your Life Speak (copyright 2000, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.)

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