The Wild & the Fear of God

Birth, Death, and Other Reality Break-ins

The Outside is always trying to get our attention.

My first nephew was born a few days ago, but (mercifully?) I wasn’t there for the actual birth. The first and only time I have witnessed childbirth was as a teenager in the jungles of Myanmar, in 2016. I didn’t expect it to be a deep or moving experience. True, you do hear the phrase “the miracle of birth,” but it seems like it’s usually said ironically. Most of the stories people tell are gross and negative: blood, mothers screaming, fathers behaving as though they are the ones suffering, and so forth. And the stories are true, I can confidently say. (I am told that in some cultures, women don’t scream in childbirth, but apparently in this regard Myanmar is no different from the West.)

This was, in fact, a particularly difficult childbirth, and both the mother and the baby barely survived it. But amidst all the chaos, grossness, danger, and misery, there was something transcendent. Especially at one particular moment. (Especially if your eyes were closed – mine weren’t, but let’s pretend they were.) Deep into the night, after many hours of struggle, the screaming suddenly stopped. For just a moment, the jungle was perfectly still, silent. The night itself seemed to be poised, listening. The whole world seemed to hang in the balance. And then, a breath later, a new sound broke the silence – a scream, yes, but a new scream. Not the mother’s.

A new life had been born into the world.

Birthless and Deathless in America

But that was in the jungle. In America, in civilized society, unless you are a medical professional, you aren’t likely to be around much childbirth except once or twice if or when your own children are born. We keep birth at a safe distance. We do the same for death, burial, old age, and the killing of the food we eat. The comings-in and goings-out of life are best left out of sight, unthought of, I guess. Maybe it’s uncomfortable to be reminded of our fragility; that we are only tenants in the world, and might be evicted at any moment. Or maybe it’s the mere reminder that there is something beyond the walls of this somewhat-comprehensible life; that we came from somewhere unfathomable, and we are going somewhere unfathomable. Who wants to think about all that?

But we need to think about all that. To forget all that is to forget our own nature, and the nature of the world we temporarily inhabit.

Professor Joseph Bottum wisely said:

Talent is constant, or nearly so, in every age, but talent can produce genuine art because some human beings discover in themselves a desire to be more serious—to see deeper into the ineluctable facts that we die, that babies are born, that the world lies in sin, that beauty is real.

Social commentators talk a lot these days about how our society is dehumanizing, decadent, and dead. And it’s certainly true. TV, internet, smartphones, and now AI can be degrading because they allow us to live in a little bubble, safe from our own (and others’) humanity, safe from the mysterious Outside. But there is a limiting factor to this cultural sterilization: certain realities of the human condition are not going away, and therefore the bubble is not impervious – not yet. Maybe one day we will be brains in jars, being born and dying inside computer simulations, but we are not there just yet. So, sooner or later, each of us is confronted with the wildness of reality, the fact of our small human nature in a big, wide world. Whenever that happens, the Transcendent, the Untamable, can break through into our little, mundane, sterile lives.

And these break-ins are what keep our culture alive. We can forget that we did not create ourselves; but Birth will always be there to remind us of the truth. We can forget, as a society, that we are created Male and Female; but the hard realities of human existence (including childbirth) are always waiting there to remind us. We can forget that we are mortal; but Death is always there, calling for our attention. You might say that entropy is on the side of Truth; we have to constantly construct and maintain our illusions.

The Call of the Wild

After touring for their third album, Mumford & Sons took a break and all went home. The band members have shared in interviews that after rocketing to fame, they had spent several years in a “bubble” of touring. When they finally went home for a longer-than-usual period of time, they were all confronted with the realities of life in their families and friendships that they had been shutting out – birth, death, divorce, depression. Frontman Marcus Mumford, for example, became a father, was with his grandma as she died, and witnessed 72 people die in a burning building in his neighborhood. “It's got a bit more real in the last couple of years,” he said.

That unexpected and sometimes unwanted break-in of Reality was the inspiration for their fourth album, Delta. The titular “delta” symbolizes “leaving the haven of a river and entering the madness of open waters” – leaving the safety of a self-centered, contained, controllable life, and entering the unpredictable, ungraspable chaos of real life and real human relationship.

They express that idea perfectly in one track on the album, the goose-bump-creating orchestral song “The Wild.” The lyrics are worth reading in full, so I’ll end with them:

We saw birth and death
Can't we be still?
What makes you kind?
From where comes your sparkling mind?

Was it under the earth
Tied up in a knot?
Which I forgot
You were ever there

Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid

What’s that I see?
I think it's the Wild
Puts the fear of God in me

It was ever thus
Up from the dust
Inconceivable love

What's that I see?
I think it’s the Wild
Puts the fear of God in me

** Image credit: “Mumford & Sons, performing at Aviemore, Scotland”  Stefan Schäfer, Lich”

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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