Surfing the Avalanche

By | February 15, 2010

I was watching a video this week of an amazing and yet heart-breaking event. Three men — boys, really — were on the slopes of an Alpine mountain, snowboarding, goofing off, having a great time. The videographer, located on the ridge above them, caught their activities as they played in the snow and sun, throwing a snowball, sliding around a moraine, waving their arms around, being silly, and generally just doing what people do to relax. Then there was a moment when something caught their attention, and then they made sudden changes, from random acts of playing around to focused attempts to get out. For, you see, they were actually in an avalanche chute — you know, the steep ravine on a mountain with no trees or boulders to block the sudden rush of snow and rocks — and bearing down on them was a massive flow of an avalanche. Two tried to run it out, and one tried to stay on his snowboard and “surf” the avalanche. The video had no sound, thankfully, because I can’t imagine the anguish of the videographer as he tried to warn them or even call out his support. He was too far away to help; all he could do was to keep filming. The video ended before much else happened. But I don’t think it ended well.

I thought about that because sometimes I think I’m watching people surfing their own avalanches. I feel like that videographer — no sound, no ability, it seems, to do anything about a catastrophe but to watch and then to weep. And this week was the avalanche of losing a friend caught in his own avalanche chute. I haven’t fully processed all my feelings and thoughts, but there’s anger, and frustration, and sadness, and grief. And over it all is the sense that a man I loved and looked forward to seeing each week is gone. It’s a weird split between what I am feeling and thinking now, at this moment, and the actual person that was my friend, gone now in a sudden flow.

I want to rewind the past few weeks and figure out at what point I could have pulled my friend from the chute. Did I miss a clear warning sign? Should I have called when I had that impulse? Maybe if I’d stayed silent a moment longer when he was talking before I interrupted him, or maybe if I’d said that one last thing when he was telling me something that seemed weird. I think we all do that — we think how we might change our todays by reaching back into our yesterdays. But we can’t change the past, whether it happened one minute earlier or 20 years ago. I feel sadness, and grief, and helplessness.

There’s another point that I think is, in some ways, more important than thinking about changing the past, and more uncomfortable than talking about someone else, and that is this: we ourselves are also in our own avalanche chutes, not aware of the danger, convinced that we are OK or even that we really don’t need the help and warnings of those around us. We think we’re doing just fine, and that if the worst happens, we’ll just “surf” our own avalanche, staying on top of catastrophe, and riding out the rush of snow and ice. Or — and here’s where I must be painfully honest with you — we think that all we can do is ride it out, that no one can help us or understand us, because no one is as screwed up and beyond help as we are. I wonder if those men in the avalanche chute would have taken an offer of rescue. I think they might have refused help because they thought they were strong enough or smart enough to figure out what to do. And I wonder if I — or you — if caught in our own avalanche, would refuse to be rescued because we also think we must do it ourselves, that no one can help us, because no one can understand our difficulties or untie all the tangled knots and string of sin and stupidity, or decisions and destruction. Maybe we are too proud to ask for help. Maybe we are too ashamed of our actions. Or maybe we are just tired and confused and convinced there is no way out of the chute. I think that’s the bottom line with us. We convince ourselves that we have no hope, and we simply let what happens wash over us.

My own avalanche chute? Well, I have one, and you do, too. I have things I’m caught in right now, thinking I’m having a good time, that if it gets bad I can just wait it out. No thank you, I don’t need your help or sympathy. For you see, I am a man, and I must do it alone. Cue the theme music. Come the destruction I will either ride it out alone or go down with it. That’s the Man’s World and the Man’s Way, you see. Strong. Independent. Destroyed.

Thank God — literally — that I found a group of men with whom I can share my struggles, men who will listen to these crazy statements of independence and strength but who still love me and provoke me to change my ways and to climb out of the avalanche chute. They can’t really help me, you see, until I leave my independence and denial. And the help they offer is support, encouragement, acceptance, and patience. Of course the only change that can happen is really inside me, and the only transformer of lives is the Shepherd of Souls, but these men help me to take myself and my actions seriously, to submit myself to the one who really can change me and get me out of the chute and onto the ridge. Frankly, I don’t do it so well, but with the help of friends I have hope. David, James, Jeff, Joel, Marcos, Mark, Mike, Rick, Scott, Trey, Will — you’ve been my rope and way out. Love you guys.

This week think about the ways you are avoiding help and change. Maybe you think you can do it alone, or maybe you think you must. I can’t convince you outright, I think, to step out. If you’re convinced of your own hopelessness, then what are my words going to do to change that? But if there’s the slightest hint of light, the weakest desire for change, I urge you to find a group who will love you unconditionally and support you without shame. There are groups like that at SVA. If you don’t know how to find one, or if you aren’t close enough to be involved here, get in touch with us. We have the Internet and phones. We’ll do what we can to point you to people who can help you climb out of your own avalanche chute. But ultimately, it’s up to you to figure out if you’re ready for help, or if you want to surf the avalanche.

I’ve seen the ending to that video.