Fathom Mag
Article

Awe

Lessons from a Ceiling Fan

Published on:
June 10, 2020
Read time:
4 min.
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I went camping quite honestly because I wanted some God-and-me time. It’s not that I was looking for a burning bush of any kind, mind you, although I was hoping that it would be special. I was the only one at the campsite other than the campground host for that time of year. Warm inside his trailer, he no doubt wondered what sort of lunatic was out camping in the dead of winter. For my purposes, it was perfect.

My phone performed the worship service, followed by dinner which was provided by my Jetboil and a dehydrated backpacking meal company. I stuffed my pipe with Ol’ Carolina, cracked open a beer, and stared at the fire. Sometimes silence is worship too. 

The worship music left me with no great emotional catharsis. The time I spent in scripture yielded no life-altering revelation. Then I had an odd experience. It was honestly the only thing remarkable about the evening. It was only a moment, and one so brief that I questioned whether or not it had happened the next day. Staring up at the moon I was overcome by something that I can only describe as the “alienness of God.” For just a brief moment, God existed not as an extension or some perfection of me, but rather as something completely separate from all that I knew and could comprehend.

Awe and wonder, so brief and unexpected that at first I shook it off and returned to the fire and my pipe. The rest of the trip was honestly awful.

And then it was over. Awe and wonder, so brief and unexpected that at first I shook it off and returned to the fire and my pipe. The rest of the trip was honestly awful. I’d done cold weather camping before but didn’t check to make sure the temps wouldn’t drop below the rating of my sleeping bag. They did. It was a miserable night made only a little better by a morning fire. I consoled myself with a hike among the naked trees, deep in their winter nap. Maybe I was expecting a burning bush, or at least some great new life perspective. On the way home, my jeep broke down. I called a friend, almost regretting the entire trip.

Over the years since, the significance of that catastrophe of a camping outing has become clearer. A botched surgery left me deaf in one ear and curtailed my career plans in the Army. I was being discipled for vocational ministry and, before all those plans exploded, it was the most meaning-saturated part of my life to that point.

Vocational ministry having not panned out, I went into mental health. I already taught resilience and suicide prevention in the Army reserve. It may not have been what I had planned, but it was still an application of my skills. My first semester, I had a professor who introduced me to a newer therapy. He and his wife owned a practice utilizing strategies that worked with trauma and resilience in the nervous system. That’s what connected us: We talked a lot about resilience and the changing face of mental health. That professor would become a mentor of mine, although that was his first and only semester teaching there.

Most of my life, I’ve measured my days like a hedonist. Tallying up the pleasant and unpleasant experiences, keeping track of the ratio and trying ceaselessly to skew it in my favor.

There happened to be training starting in my area shortly thereafter and since the GI Bill was taking care of tuition, I just happened to be able to afford it. As it turns out, male therapists are uncommon. Male therapists with this particular credential, quite a commodity. I ended up at a group private practice rather than grinding away at an agency making half as much as is normal for a newly licensed clinician.

My wife and I bought a house. We found all the things we would pour our money into repairing. We got connected to a church that provided some unique opportunities for us ministry-wise. We got burned and abandoned when the pastors picked the charismatic wolf over the wounded sheep. We found a new church with a healthy community that we could heal in. We had a beautiful baby boy. We wrestled with the reality that his life would never be like ours, that there would be experiences that we would never share with him.

Most of my life, I’ve measured my days like a hedonist. Tallying up the pleasant and unpleasant experiences, keeping track of the ratio and trying ceaselessly to skew it in my favor. Always experiencing the world through the good/bad dichotomy in terms of how I categorize my emotions, situation, even my relationship to God. When enough of my emotions and experiences find themselves in one category or the other, the entire way I relate to myself and to God shifts accordingly.

We’ve weathered quarantine pretty well so far. Both medically oriented and able to work from home, my wife and I have our respective work spaces and schedules sorted out. When I feed my son, Hunter, in the morning, he stops and stares at the ceiling fan, occasionally looking back at me perhaps as if to confirm that I’m seeing what he’s seeing. In his silent world, it’s a marvel. The spinning thing so high up there, never stopping.

The otherness of the fan to Hunter is the same as God’s otherness to me on that cold night. Like that alien feeling, looking up at the moon.

He’s the happiest baby I’ve ever seen. He’s recently discovered his feet and, while he hasn’t succeeded in eating them just yet, they crack him up. Everything cracks him up. Everything is brand new. He reminds me of my moment camping, a moment of pure awe, every time I’m feeding him and his attention is stolen by the ceiling fan. The otherness of the fan to Hunter is the same as God’s otherness to me on that cold night. Like that alien feeling, looking up at the moon. The feeling that evoked something that transcended my good/bad dichotomy.

I still go camping in the winter. I now know to check the weather against the rating of my bag. I’ve learned a lot about God, myself, and life. Good lessons. Lessons from my son and a ceiling fan.

Dave Hughes
Dave Hughes is a therapist, writer, and speaker in Raleigh, NC where he lives with his wife and son. He teaches resilience and writes and speaks about mental health and the church. You can find Dave at discoveringresiliency.com or on Twitter @daveevanhughes.

Cover image by Ana Carolina Boy.

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