I recently watched young kids build a dam in a stream that was dumping into the ocean. They kept at it for at least an hour – stopping rogue leaks, expanding the mouth, raising the levels. There was no particular reason for or meaning in building the dam that tranquil day: it was just “child’s play.” Or, so I thought. Its significance took on deeper meaning by the fact that I happened to also be reading about the building of the Hoover Dam in The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko. The following passage prompted me to think more deeply:
“To subdue a river such as the Colorado – not simply to whip it into submission for a season or two, but to break and yoke the thing by taming its rampages, vanquishing its moods, and converting its kinetics into energy that serves human beings – such a task is not only a colossal technical undertaking but, perhaps even more significant, a monumental act of audacity. The challenge requires more than merely superb competency and monstrous ambition; it also demands a level of hubris that was unimaginable to the world of Cardenas, an undertaking that lay far beyond even the boldest dreams of the Renaissance and the ages of exploration and discovery that followed. It required the kind of ruthless, steely certainty that humans only began to touch for the first time, perhaps, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was the age of iron and steel – not only in terms of materials but also in the way the world was understood: a place whose laws were rigid and immutable, but also now capable of yielding to the even stronger forces of man’s intellect and will.”
Audacity. Superb competency. Monstrous ambition. Hubris. These traits were playing out on a micro-scale at the beach that day.
The author does not seem to think highly of such traits, and his opinion is well taken. These traits without regard to Authority result in undertakings reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. However, these traits have often been put to the service of creation and our Creator in awesome ways. Even on that day at the beach, albeit in a small way. It took hubris, not of the self-inflated pride variety, but as in a child’s belief in his ability to accomplish a task that he thinks is worthwhile but almost beyond him. Almost.
When the dam was finished, I had taken for granted the children’s ability to build it out of found materials. But then a boy of about 8 years old came upon the finished dam and exclaimed, “How did you guys build this?” None of the builders heard the question – they had moved on to exploring deeper into the stream. So the boy yelled his question again and again as he enthusiastically examined the dam more closely. Finally, one of the builders heard the question and replied, “We just brought logs and stones and filled in the cracks with sand.” The other boy said, “I could never build such a thing. Never. I can only build in Minecraft.”
My heart sank. And I recalled a comment that my 9-year old had made the day before when talking about how many kids around him “only play video games.” He said, “Mom, will they still have a word for ‘friends’ when I am older?”
And I ask, will there still be a word for ‘hubris’ when my son is older? As in, belief in one’s ability to build a real-life dam. Maybe even with a friend.