I am awake in the night, alive with wonder. I finish reading the book Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado with Vince Rause. It is Nando's story of the airplane crash in the Andes thirty years ago, where he and others survived at 12,000 feet above sea level with few supplies and no way to get help. He survives 72 days and walks forty-five miles through impossible circumstances for help. It is an astonishing story, and he feels his survival as an immersion in, a belief, in love, and, that comes from an acceptance of death. He is at peace because "the Andes gave me the simple insight that has liberated me and illuminated my life: Death is real, and death is very near."
"In the mountains, there was never a minute that I did not feel death at my side, but the moment I stood on the summit of the mountain, and saw nothing but towering peaks as far as the eye could see, was the moment all my doubts were swept away and the certainty of my own death became viscerally real. The realness of death stole my breath away, but at the same time I burned more brightly with life than I ever had before, and in the face of total hopelessness I felt a burst of joy. The realness of death was so clear and so potent that for a moment it burned away everything temporary and false. Death had shown its face, dark, predatory, invincible, and for a split second it seemed that beneath the fragile illusions of life, death was all there is. But then I saw that there was something in the world that was not death, something just as awesome and enduring and profound. There was love, the love in my heart, and for one incredible moment, as I felt this love swell - love for my father, for my future, for the simple wonder of being alive - death lost its power. In that moment, I stopped running from death. Instead, I made every step a step toward love, and that saved me. I have never stopped moving toward love."
Parrado learned that the best way to find faith is by having the courage to doubt. He says that though he didn't feel the personal presence of God, he "did feel something larger than myself, something in the mountains and the glaciers and the glowing sky, that, in rare moments, reassured me, and made me feel that the world was orderly and loving and good. If this was God, it was not God as a being or a spirit or some omnipotent, superhuman mind. It was not a God who would choose to save us or abandon us, or change in any way. It was simply a silence, a wholeness, an awe-inspiring simplicity. It seemed to reach me through my own feelings of love, and I have often thought that when we feel what we call love, we are really feeling our connection to this awesome presence. I feel this presence still when my mind quiets and I really pay attention."
He says that each of the survivors "came down from the mountain with a new way of thinking, a deeper appreciation for the power of the human spirit, and a profound understanding of what a wonder it is - for us, for anyone - to be alive. The ability to be truly alive and aware, to savor each moment of life with presence and gratitude, this is the gift the Andes gave us."
What did the survivors learn and gain? "Each of us realized, with a clarity that is hard to describe, that the only crucial thing in life is the chance to love and be loved."
He learns that our suffering creates a wisdom that touches others. "Against all odds, an ordinary person can endure."
He concludes the book with these words.
"In the Andes, we lived heartbeat-to-heartbeat. Every second of life was a gift, glowing with purpose and meaning. I have tried to live that way ever since and it has filled my life with more blessings than I can count. I urge you to do the same. As we used to say in the mountains, "Breathe. Breathe again. With every breath, you are alive." After all these years, this is still the best advice I can give you: Savor your existence. Live every moment. Do not waste a breath."
I read these words, and wonder if he didn't miss noticing a few moments. I feel changed by this year, and sometimes, I slip, and mostly I am aware of the wonder and majesty in the soar and fall of breath. Breathe love. It's real.