When my daughters were still children our family traveled to Smoky Mountain National Park. I have to admit that we didn’t find it to be as breathtaking as the Rocky Mountains or other scenic destinations that we have visited and yet there was something almost primally inviting about the place. I found myself wondering if the wilderness that I saw on our hikes resembled the world of my grandfather. He had grown up in the shadow of the area before the dawn of the twentieth century, describing his boyhood home as being quite primitive but lovely beyond the limits of words. He spoke of seeing the mountains in the distance and longing to travel there. Eventually he made it like we did and he thought them to be as enchanting as he had imagined.
I’ve been quite sad to hear of the destruction in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, two towns that have struggled economically over the years but found a way to survive by catering to the tourists who have been flocking to the mountains for decades. Most of the businesses in those places are owned by local residents who operate candy stores, eateries and ice cream emporiums as a way of earning a living. There are hotels, mini golf courses and amusements for virtually every taste. I admittedly found the place to be a bit over the top and didn’t want to stay long but I know people who visit every single year and are absolutely convinced that it is a kind of heaven on earth. I tend to prefer natural beauty to manmade sights and sadly the raging wildfires are destroying both human structures and ancient forests.
The photos coming from that location are heartbreaking. Some of the townspeople are calling it Armageddon. Having a rather primitive fear of fire makes me especially sympathetic to those who have lost their homes, businesses and possessions, not to mention the unfortunate souls who have died. Today I looked at photos of exhausted firefighters literally collapsing onto the pavement after hours of fighting desperately to control the blaze. The look of defeat on their faces said more than any descriptions of what is happening there.
One of my aunts lost her home in a fire a few years back. She was happily decorating her yard for Christmas when she saw flames coming from her roof. She did her best to save a few treasures but the burning accelerated even before the firefighters arrived. Her house with everything in it burned to the ground, so many memories gone forever. She has never really moved on from the tragedy of losing so much of what she had accumulated over a lifetime. All of her home movies melted into celluloid balls. The family Bible that had been handed down for generations was a heap of ash. Nothing was spared but her life and that of her husband.
They moved to a senior living facility where they have found a semblance of peace but there has been a sadness about her that was never before there. She was ninety years old when it happened, far too old to think of starting over again. She is, of course, happy to still be alive and she realizes better than anyone that everything that burned was nothing compared to a human life and yet in each of our homes there are priceless items that we enjoy and that seem to define us in some ways.
I recall learning in English class that we have the power to “love” people but we should only “like” things. It is an important distinction that we should all observe because in the long history of humanity there have been many instances in which people lost everything but the clothes on their backs. They had to begin anew, start fresh. I think of the victims of the Holocaust whose very humanity was threatened for a time. I consider the citizens of New Orleans whose homes were swept away by punishing waters. I wonder how it must have felt to watch the tsunami instantly destroying a modern city in Japan. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wars have stolen the humble belongings of countless people and time and again they have risen like phoenixes. It is in our human DNA to pick ourselves up and try again.
Still such events leave a scar on those who must endure them. I know people from New Orleans who lost their homes to hurricane Katrina. They become fearful when heavy rains pour from the sky. My daughter won’t light a candle in her house because she was once the victim of a fire started by an unattended candle in the apartment building where she lived. Just as I shutter when I hear of car accidents because such an event caused my father’s death, so too do those who have had horrific experiences relive them in certain circumstances.
My heart is heavy for the people who have had to flee their homes in the Smokey Mountains. It will be decades before the lovely beauty that they have enjoyed returns. Nature will eventually come back to life and they may rebuild but the precious sense of security that they may have felt is gone for a time, if it ever even returns.
I look around the home that I so enjoy and think of how horrible it would be to suddenly lose it. I remember a time when a priest asked us to imagine how we might feel if every thing that we owned were taken away and we were left standing naked but with our family and friends intact. He urged us to look into our hearts and decide what is truly important, hinting that what we own is never where our focus should be.
In this season of Christmas we should think of the young couple who traveled to Bethlehem so long ago, staying in a cold manger on the night of their child’s birth. Their earthly possessions were few and yet they had brought a savior into the world whose influence would live right into our present century. He would teach us that there is nothing that we ever do that is as important as loving ourselves and our neighbors. It is a difficult command that we do not always follow as well as we might. We become distracted by the pursuit of wealth, power and things that in the end turn to dust. It is only in how we truly live according to God’s word that we find the peace and contentment that we seek.
We should all look within especially when we see the constant reminders of how fragile our lives are. As terrible as those fires are they should send the message that what truly matters is the content of our hearts.