Don’t see the world as it is not

The world seems to be “going to Hell in a handbasket,” a phrase my mom would occasionally use to describe the steady slide into chaos (or worse). The laws of thermodynamics apply: Life moves towards entropy.

A quick perusal of the media would seem to bear this out. Afghanistan collapsed with the resultant chaos of the American withdrawal. Hurricane Ida left a path of destruction from the Gulf Coast to New England, apparently a reflection of growing extremes due to climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic is resurgent caused by the Delta variant that threatens to shut down the economy just as it appears on the verge of recovery. Anarchy is invading some large urban areas like Chicago where there have been over 3,000 shootings so far this year, 539 of them fatal. And we have an all but dysfunctional political system in which cooperation and compromise are dirty words and any policy failure seems grounds for presidential impeachment.

It is all too easy to get sucked into this maelstrom of negativity, to see the world as not just as a glass half empty, but as a vessel rapidly draining away.  As if exemplar of this trend, a big black cloud just rolled in as I sit out on the back porch composing this column. Then the rain begins to beat down.

I pause a moment. The storm has settled into a rhythmic patter and the air feels fresh and cool. A slight breeze adds just the right chill to take the edge off the warm late summer day. On the horizon, the overcast begins to break up and the low-hanging grey clouds transition to a translucent pink, reflecting the sunset in an ethereal hue. As day fades to night the visual display gives way to the audio track of evening in rural East Tennessee. Nighttime is anything but quiet, but it is natural not man-made.

By now the turmoil of the day has long slipped from the forefront of consciousness. The tension fades and I relax. It didn’t take long.

That brief transition epitomizes the feeling of living in our region. It is accompanied by a symphony of other sights, sounds and experiences…and yet, we often seem to miss the point. We long for things we lack rather than rejoicing in what we do…and what that means

We don’t have the shopping of other areas. Our economy is not as robust as some regions. Our entertainment is less comprehensive. We see ourselves as somehow incomplete.

Our reality is not so bad as we might imagine. Our traffic is manageable. A brief trip to Knoxville for the football season opener at Tennessee attests to that. We can be in a sister tri-city in twenty minutes. You can’t get to the grocery store in a big metro area in that timeframe. Low crime rate. Clear air (most of the time). A stranger who will stop and help pull my mower out of a ditch. The “Ring” doorbell that announces another package from Amazon, not a burglar. We lack some but have so much.

I am working with several groups recruiting new early-stage companies to the region from other parts of the country, mostly urban areas. It is enlightening to hear another perspective. They echo what I already know, that we have many things others want and can no longer find in areas that have long since lost any semblance of what they once were. Peaks have long been leveled and the vistas are from the upper floors of a building not a hilltop and the landscape is hardscape not natural. The night is a harsh glare of neon and a cacophony of human noise rather than starlight and nature. A place  to visit, but not an environment in which I’d like to live.

Actually, my epiphany came over the past Labor Day weekend. I spent some (significant) time mowing our property. Later, I took my (baby) tractor to bushhog my brother’s place out in Beech Creek on the side of Bays Mountain. I took a break and enjoyed the serenity of watching a hawk lazily circle in the thermal updrafts of a cumulus cloud, one of a few cotton balls lazily floating through an azure sky. Captivating.

As might be evident, I spend a lot of time on mowers. Strange as it may seem, that is my “happy place.” There is something intrinsically pleasing to sit on my back porch and look out over a freshly mowed field with the smell of cut grass. It is also one of the few things in life that has a definitive beginning and end with a sense of satisfaction at having actually accomplished something quantifiable. Of course, a couple of days later I’m back at it again, a never-ending battle, one I won’t win but enjoy the fight.

The look from where I now sit constantly changes. Each season, whether the bright colors of Fall, the vibrant greens of spring and summer or the enchanting blanket of snow in winter, is distinctive. Likewise, the different times of day cast their own spell whether from the soft mist over the ponds at dawn or the brilliant burst of color at sunset. Each combination is unique, but they all say the same thing, “This is home. This is where you belong.” I’m not sure I fully comprehend the notion of “happiness,” but I believe we can be content. It is all dependent on how we choose to view the world.

CS Lewis responded to a question about how we are to live in troubled times… “do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation…It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because (we) have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.”

So let the rest world run wild in its seemingly inevitable march towards turmoil and mayhem. We should acknowledge the often-harsh character of this world, but those stories, no matter their chronicle of human disaster, don’t need to define us the way they do in some environments. This is not Kabul. It is not the south side of Chicago. It is our own little slice of Americana, perhaps not heaven, but I’ll take it any day.

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