we only see light on our darkest days

We didn’t have much of a plan as I drove up to the two-terminal airfield in the Southwest corner of Colorado.

Erin was flying in from Denver, to meet me after a work trip, so we could visit my family nearby. My cousin was moving to Seattle, and my aunt and uncle had a party planned. Beyond that, we had no set itinerary.

As we ate dinner and watched the sun set over the neighboring San Juan Mountains, I asked my uncle for his favorite hike.

“Oh, you know what?” He grinned as he revealed a local secret, “It’s Colorfest this weekend. You’ll love Colorfest.”

“Colorfest? What’s that?” I inquired.

“Balloonists from all around the country come to fly their hot air balloons this weekend. They launch them near the river at sunrise. It’s pretty incredible. And often, the out-of-town pilots will need volunteer crew,” he shared.

“Which means,” he continued, “If you show up early enough, you just might get to launch and fly in one of the balloons.”

I slapped the table in excitement. I was sold. “We’re doing that!”

I turned to Erin to see what she thought. Her expression said something like, “No chance I’m riding a wicker basket 2,000 feet in the air without a year of safety training.”

“That’s a great idea! You’ll have fun,” my aunt added from the kitchen.

“What do you mean, ‘show up early?’ How do we know who the pilots are? Where do we get registered?” Erin quizzed my uncle.

“Oh, you know,” he said casually. “Just show up at the park before sunrise and join the pilot’s briefing. The flight director will be telling the pilots about the weather forecast, so just walk in and ask around. Somebody will point you in the right direction.”

“Here,” he handed us the local newspaper. “The paper has the time and place.”

“Done.” I didn’t need any more convincing. “What’cha think, Erin?” 

“I guess we should give it a shot. We can always go hiking in the afternoon, right?”

“Yes, deal. We fly first, hike later.” 

“Morning y’all!” The loudspeaker croaked as Erin and I walked into an oversized, carnival-style tent before sunrise. “Get yourself some biscuits, gravy, coffee, anythin’ you need before we get this briefing underway.”

“Biscuits?” I asked Erin.

“Definitely not. My stomach’s already nervous. I just want to figure out where the heck we check-in,” she said.

“I don’t think we check in. I think we just ask people if they need help. You know, like we’re not completely new at this.”

“But we are new at this. We stick out like sore thumbs,” Erin pointed out. “Like, look at that guy. He’s got wings clipped to his jacket and a buzzcut. He’s legit.” 

After the briefing, we made our way to the front of tent. As we walked, we heard someone shout, “Crew? Volunteers? Anyone?”

“Yes!” My hand shot up. “Us!” I grabbed Erin’s hand and rushed toward the voice.

“Okay, right over there,” the voice directed us toward a group of four wearing matching jackets.

“We’ll take’em,” the crew chief, Katie, confirmed.

We followed Katie to her pickup truck, whose bed was full of balloon parts. An industrial fan, a wicker basket, a nylon canopy, fuel tanks, the works. We piled into the truck and drove a few minutes south as Katie laid out the ground rules.

“I’m your crew chief today, so that means whatever I say goes. Alright? You do what I say, and don’t do anything I don’t say, even if you think it’s right. Balloons are licensed aircraft, so we follow a certain process to make sure we’re always flying safely.” 

It turns out Katie had served as a helicopter mechanic in the Air Force for a decade. She knew her stuff. Erin, queen of all things safety, listened intently. 

“Once the balloon’s rolled out, we’ll check the tethers, cables, and get the basket hooked up properly. Then we’ll inflate, alright?”

We nodded before getting to work. Twenty minutes later, as our pilot, Mike, began pumping hot air from the jet and propane tanks into the canopy, I stood back, wide-eyed.

The balloon grew like a King Cobra rising up from its coil. After the purple, yellow, and green canopy rose to its peak, it towered 100 feet overhead. It was impressive, to say the least. I had no idea hot air balloons are taller than most office buildings.

As Mike made sure his flight instruments were in working order, Katie gave us a pen and paper. “Alright you two. Want to go for a ride? Just sign these waivers and Mike will take you up.”  

Flying in a hot air balloon felt very different from what I’d expected. It was quieter than an airplane. Steadier than a glider. More calming than it was thrilling. I guess you could say it was more like levitating than strapping on a jetpack.

As we climbed higher and higher, I understood why the festival had been dubbed “Colorfest.” Every color of the rainbow was represented in a perfect, 360-degree panorama. Yellow aspens and green, purple, and blue balloons were scattered across a canvas of an orangey-red sunrise. 

“This is spectacular,” I whispered to Erin, who beamed as she clenched the basket.

“I don’t think we’ll forget this,” she whispered back.

We were watching the kind of beauty that makes you wiggle; like your mind can’t keep so much splendor to itself so it spills over, making your legs and arms quiver. 

“I guess this is why you fly in the mornings, huh?” I said to Mike as he opened the burner to climb even higher. “So you can see all the colors with the sunrise? 

“Not exactly,” Mike replied.

“It’s so our balloons fly better. Filling the canopy with hot air only creates lift when the air in the balloon is much hotter than the air outside it. It’s the contrast in temperature that gets us to liftoff, and first light is always the coldest part of the day.”

I stared into the massive, radiant dome floating above my ahead, cherishing the idea of contrast. Obviously, we all spend our weeks on the ground. I spend most of my weeks in motion, too. Planes, cars, trains, going there, coming back. But for a few minutes, I wasn’t on the ground, and we weren’t going anywhere.

You can’t actually “go” anywhere when you fly a hot air balloon, you see. There’s no way to steer. There’s just one direction – up.

There are no rudders to navigate forward, back, or sideways. You’re left to the wind’s mercy. Going down just means you’re letting air out of the balloon. As the hot air drains, the temperature inside the balloon nears the temperature outside, and you sink.

We floated for a few more minutes, taking in the scene and pretending there was no basket below our feet. Only the occasional jet blast interrupted the silence of soaring above the soil.

“Time to put her down,” Mike interrupted. “Help me look for fences and powerlines, will you? Shout them out, even if you think I see them.”

“Can do!” Erin spoke up. 

As we looked for powerlines, I noticed a bright orange flag tracing our flight. It was Katie in the pickup truck. She was tailing the balloon’s path, ready to haul the rig back to town and refill the fuel tanks for us.

“Alright Katie,” Mike radioed to the ground. “It looks like we’ll put down between that barn and the house, ‘bout a mile south from where you are.” 

That seemed a little funny to me. Someone would be eating pancakes at their kitchen table one moment, and the next, they’d watch a 100-foot balloon drop into their backyard.

That’s how it had to work, though. We were running low on fuel, so we’d land wherever the wind said we’d land. 

I think balloon rides mirror our human experience. Every day, we wake up to find our lives composed by two opposing forces. We find ourselves relying on warmth — kindness, love, compassion — to keep afloat in the cold, cold surroundings of our world.

When bad things like death, grief, and depression (“cold air”) threaten to collapse us (“our balloon”), we crave to fill our days with good things like laughter, celebration, and joy (“hot air”) all the more. 

Any toddler can tell you we love to watch balloons fly, and we hate watching them deflate. Similarly, we appreciate good people, and we hate seeing bad things happen to them.

Just this past week, a good friend of mine lost his job. He’d worked for the same organization, training nonprofit leaders, for 15 years. Then, abruptly, he was told his position would be eliminated in a matter of weeks. To make matters worse, when I called to catch up, he shared he’d just been diagnosed with cancer.

Those are bad things happening to a good person. And when I say he’s a good person, he’s such an upright guy that I nicknamed him the “Hall Monitor.” He’s the model example for how to conduct one’s self, and if he sees someone acting out of line, he has the courage to speak up. So why should the hall monitors of our world get cancer and lose their jobs? That doesn’t seem right.

I don’t think I’d prefer the reverse, by the way. Where all of the convicts and criminals contract carcinoma and go unemployed. That wouldn’t make the world any better. The happy people wouldn’t be any happier, and the sad people would just get sadder.

I guess a better question, then, is, why do we have to live in a world filled with darkness and evil? I don’t only mean evil things happening to good people. I also mean evil people who do dark things. Like shooting up a synagogue.

There’s something inside all of us that says senseless violence has no place in our world. Something cries out that there is, in fact, an undisputable and immutable difference between good and evil, and only the good should be allowed to stay.

The challenge, however, is that we can’t know what’s good if we don’t also experience what’s bad. If everything is good, or if good and bad are all the same – merely left to the individual to define according to his or her preference – then everything we experience would simply be called “life.” There would be no distinction.

Instead, we find the contrast between good and evil to be a helpful, uncontested part of our human reality. We find that we truly see light on our darkest days. We know warmth because we experience cold. We treasure flying high after being brought low.

Said another way, deep-dish pizza and beer never taste better than after a 90-mile bike ride in blistering heat. The physical ache, mental anguish, and utter exhaustion of an endurance ride transforms pizza into a little slice of heaven. On all other days, pizza is just “pizza.”

At this point, you might wonder, “What gives? I just wanted a story about balloons. Why this turn toward the philosophical?”  

Well, I think this is a critically important part of what it means to be human. The contrast of good and evil, warm and cold, light and dark; they all signal the existence of something far greater than either of the opposites.  

Our abject, visceral reaction to witnessing evil is driven by some objective basis upon which we’re differentiating good and evil. It’s the third thing outside of good and evil that makes us say, “That’s just not right!” You see, the object we use to measure an item, and the item we’re measuring, cannot be one in the same. There has to be a higher, external point of reference.

When we’re measuring something physical, like an inseam, a measuring tape gets the job done. But when we’re attempting to measure morality, the degree of good and evil, a physical device won’t cut it. Our reference point must reside in the spiritual realm.

One of history’s greatest authors on this topic, CS Lewis, agrees:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? 

No doubt, we all feel our world is not as it should be. So it’s a natural reaction to feel that God can’t exist if our world has spiraled out of control. But as Lewis says, we can only know things are amiss because someone transcendent, far above and outside us, said there’s a difference between good and evil. We couldn’t have arrived at this conclusion by ourselves. In Lewis’ words:

If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning. (see here)

Now, in the world of hot air balloons, we have thermometers and barometers to tell us, with absolute certainty, differences in temperature and atmospheric pressure. Similarly, in the world of morality, there is a natural and absolute moral code that’s been hardwired into us. Someone gave us a compass – a conscience, if you will – to help us navigate the difference.

But, as our hot air balloon ride reminded me, the instruments we use to discern if we’re on or off course can’t also put us back on course. Instruments don’t stop up us from crashing into other balloons – or back to earth – when we run out of fuel. Equally so, a conscience isn’t enough. Simply knowing the difference between shooting and saving someone doesn’t prevent mass murders.

Just the same, when you fly hot air balloons, you’re dependent on your crew chief and chase vehicle. When your propane tanks have drained and you can’t keep the hot air flowing, you need help from someone outside your wicker basket. Otherwise, what can you do once you’ve run out of fuel, miles away from where you started?

Likewise, we need someone outside humanity waiting to lift us up when we run out of fuel and the cold, dark world threatens to overwhelm us. To return to Lewis’ perspective on this:

God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. (see here) 

So, we depend on God to get us back on course, filling us up with happiness and warmth when we’ve run low, just as we do to know we’ve strayed in the first place.

Now, to be clear, I’ve not implied that evil is transitively noble or virtuous because its presence ultimately points us back to God. By no means. But, I do believe we’ve run up against an age-old question.

If God is good, why does He allow evil? Besides, why would we even desire a relationship with a god that allows evil?”

I think Stephen Fry, the English writer, actor, and activist, captured what many of us would say when he was asked what he’d like to say to God, if they were to meet face-to-face:

How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It's not right, it's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That's what I would say. (see here)

If Mr. Lewis were to respond to Mr. Fry, I think he may have shared an excerpt of his writing that says:

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they've got to be free.

Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk... If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will – that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings – then we may take it it is worth paying. (see here)

If you’re starting to think I’m just full of hot air (pun intended) at this point, I agree that more proof than what I’ve offered is required to arrive at God’s existence. Without question. Much more proof than a single hot air balloon ride can offer us. But, my goal isn’t to provide an exhaustive case for faith here. Plenty of writers – like Mr. Lewis – have done so far better than I can.

Instead, my hope is that we’d spend more time considering this topic. Recently, I’ve found myself anesthetized to evil’s presence in the world amidst an onslaught of headlines featuring refugees, racism, and rape. I don’t want to grow numb, though. I think the everyday, ostensible presence of good and evil in our world – and the stark contrast between the two – begs us to consider the possibility of an authority far greater than ourselves.

Regardless of where you ultimately land on this question of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two, I think we can all agree we should commit to filling each other’s balloon with the warm things of life. When we have the opportunity, let’s chase down friends who’ve depleted their fuel tanks, and are plunging toward an unforgiving crash-landing.

So as we read the endless headlines of chaos and sadness, let’s love vibrantly in the face of hate. Let’s confront malice with glowing compassion. If we live warm, good lives in contrast to a cold, evil world, we’ll see light during our darkest days.

Want to read more?

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