It was nearly four years ago that I had the astounding experience of whitewater rafting on the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda. It was an exhausting 6-hour journey that took our group over 12 Class 4 & 5 rapids. I fell out or the raft flipped over 4 of those 12 rapids. Whether it was paddling through an intense rapid or floating on my back in the middle of the river, the whole experience continues to be surreal to me. Yet, even though I can’t fully express my adventure that day with words, I did learn a very valuable lesson that I doubt will ever forget: I am not in control.
The story goes like this. When I climbed into that raft with my wife and her family, my wife expressed anxiety about the trip. Now, she is a fantastic swimmer, and she is no stranger to adventure, but the prospect of being thrown from the raft over and over again made her nervous. Of course, being an understanding husband I gathered all my eloquent wisdom and responded by saying, “You don’t need to worry–everything will be okay.” Hard to believe, but her nervousness wasn’t exactly squelched by my little pep talk. Seeing that she was still unsure, I pulled the husband card by saying, “It’s going to be okay. If something happens, I will be sitting right behind you, and I will take care of you. I will protect you.” This worked only slightly better than the first comment, but like the brave-spirit that she is, she focused on having a good time.
Now, I was sincere in what I said to her. I really did want her to feel safe by knowing that I would look out for her, and I really was prepared to do whatever I could to make sure she was safe. Unfortunately, I greatly overestimated myself.
During the second rapid, our raft jettisoned everyone into the river. Although I had been sitting directly behind my wife in the raft, she was nowhere to be seen when I surfaced. I desperately looked around for her while I started to swim for the raft. Very strong men in little one man kayaks skimmed across the water to collect the people who were now bobbing up and down in the river like wine corks. It wasn’t until I was back in the raft that I saw my wife being pulled in by one of these helpers. As we pulled her into the raft, she handed me her paddle–which had been broken into two pieces. Once everyone was safely back in the boat, a devastating realization overcame me. There was no way that I could possibly begin to protect her from the river that so easily dragged us around like helpless children. My courage and good intentions were no match for the force of the Nile. It is hard to convey the utter fragility that I felt at that moment–the realization that I was of no use to my wife (and later on to find out that I was of almost no use to save myself) was heartbreaking. No personal willpower, collective positive thinking, or inspirational speeches could change the fact that I was at the mercy of the river. I was not in control.
This frightened me.
I could no longer assure my wife that it was “going to be okay” because I really wasn’t sure it was going to be okay.
Then, like a escaping balloon that is snatched from the air by the string and drug back down to earth, I realized something: The large Ugandan man who was steering out raft was yelling at me. “Paddle hard!” he shouted.
I broke out of my self-indulgent stupor just in time to see the next rapid in front us. Of course, this event continued to reinforce the fact that I was not in control…even to the point that I had to stop thinking about how I wasn’t in control so I could paddle and attempt to keep from being thrown in the river again. It was at this point that I decided to hang navel gazing and actually enjoy the ride.
This isn’t Nihilism–this is simply giving in to the fact that I didn’t hold the power in the situation.
Years later, as I reflect on my rafting journey on the Nile, I am reminded of Gandalf’s words to Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit.
“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.
“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
After all of the adventures that Bilbo endured, Gandalf reminds Bilbo that while he is the hero of his journey that he is in fact not the hero of The Journey. Interestingly enough, Bilbo plays a small and insignificant role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And while Bilbo’s adventures are remembered and his heroism rewarded, Tolkien reminds his readers that the hero of one day is not the hero of a lifetime.
In affect, Gandalf is reminding Bilbo that he is not the centre of the story. “You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all,” Gandalf reminds Bilbo. Even at the end of a story in which Bilbo is legitimately the hero, Bilbo is reminded that his story isn’t the The Story.
Throughout The Hobbit, Tolkien writes of Bilbo’s heroic journey–not heroic because Bilbo overcomes trolls, or spiders, or orcs, or even Smaug–heroic because Bilbo overcomes his fear of being out of control. Bilbo begins by hating adventures–“nasty things, make you late for dinner”–to accepting them.
My experience on the Nile River was so memorable to me because I learned something about my identity. I learned that despite my best efforts and intentions, I was not in control. Sure, I could assist in guiding the boat to the right or left in order to avoid rocks or other dangers, but there was no way I could defy the current on my own. Positive thought and pure will could not have kept me from being swept down the river. But that proved to be okay. In fact, that proved to be fantastic!
For some people, the story ends here: accept fate and enjoy life. Once again, I am not preaching Nihilism. I am not promoting a gospel of hopelessness or helplessness. I am speaking of having abundant life.
My experience on the river is one that is too familiar to me. I have far too often found myself trying to take control of my life in a way where I arrange the events and situations of my life to be conducive to staying in control (then I had kids, and blew that whole experiment up). I sometimes limit my experiences based on whether I can control the outcome, and if I’m not careful, I turn away the adventures that come knocking on my door because they might cause discomfort. Yes, adventures are nasty things that make you late for dinner. They cause disorder. They sometimes even create disdain within friends and family, but if we are not careful, our fear of discomfort will actually become our identity. We seek to keep our identities safe, but we in fact lose them. We seek to have an ordered and controlled life, but we are in fact destroying life.
This dichotomy rings the most true for me when I think about my own identity in Christ, and no more true than when I read the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.
Matthew 10:39 records Jesus saying,“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Luke 17:33 echoes the same words when it says, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”
Like Bilbo, I am often so concerned for my own reputation and identity that I hold it closely, not realizing that all the while I am actually losing that thing I hold so dear. I jockey for position at my work, church, and even home while Christ beckons me to be called up from the slavery of my sin and become a child of God.
I am not the hero of my life; in fact, sometimes I’m the villain. I thrash and grasp for control and worth from things that are either temporary or unobtainable, all the while I am rejecting a position much higher position than my own. I may not be the hero, but when my identity is rooted in Christ’s ability instead of my own, then I find an abundance of joy in the great adventure of the Christian faith.
I am indeed just a little fellow in a wide world.