I Sing the Life Electric

In our drumming circle last night we got into a discussion about gratitude, a topic that dominates the celebration of Thanksgiving this week. One of our members remarked that after a storm pulls down power lines, and days or even weeks go by with no electricity, the power suddenly comes back on and we feel spontaneously joyous and grateful. We’ve had plenty experience of this the last few months here in the Northeast with Hurricane Irene, and then a very windy tropical storm, and finally a freak, wet snowfall in October. We’ve suffered through those powerless days and then experienced that spontaneous surge of gratitude when the power comes back on.

Electricity is a kind of life force on which we depend for our way of life, similar to the life force that flows through trees, cats, rivers, and the whole of creation keeping everything alive. When electric current ceases, our lives stop, to some degree, more or less. One person in our drumming group manages to make it through days without electricity because he can still take hot showers, his water heated by gas. In our household we lose all water because the electric pump on the well stops. But life goes on because we heat with wood and so we never worry that we will freeze. So in different ways for different people, the life force of electricity, when it stops, turns off our lives—just as it can turn them on.

Most people agree I think that the “charm” of living like they did in colonial days quickly wears off. Reading by an oil lamp, a beautiful dark and starlit sky, a peaceful stillness in the neighborhood, going to bed earlier like you should—all the romantic nostalgia for by-gone days seems to last about 24 hours. And then it too is by-gone, and we want our normal rhythms of life back again—rhythms that depend on the flow of electric current.

Electricity is part of the natural world. Every school kid knows how Ben Franklin found it in the sky during his famous experiment with a kite and a key in an electrical storm. A lightning bolt is a giant discharge of electricity. It’s estimated that that there are over 16 million thunderstorms a year and over 100 bolts of lightning strike the earth every second. Yes, second! If we believe that everything serves a purpose, it’s hard not to believe that these surges of electric power hitting the earth are indispensible in maintaining life. Some scientists think that lightning strikes may have played an important role in the evolution of living organisms. So from those primeval centuries when early life was just beginning to stir to the present day, or moment, or second when a hundred-plus bolts of lightning are striking the earth all around us, we are literally alive because of this powerful life force.

Electricity is invisible, and so it boggles some of our minds trying to imagine it running along thin wires that worm their way through our walls. We don’t see electric current, only the results of it. We take it for granted, and we suffer and complain when it is not available. In many ways electricity is like a spirit—invisible, moving, empowering, shapeshifting, and maintaining life, like the life force itself. When our life force, or human spirit, is low or lost, we can feel as if we are barely alive. When the life force of electricity is lost, our accustomed way of life is quickly diminished.

Of course any power can also be deadly. About 400 people in the United States are hit by lightning each year, 10 percent die, and 70 percent are severely injured. Then there are those lucky individuals who are hit and become dowsers or exhibit other psychic powers. This is a lesson that indigenous people taught their children well, that nature’s powers must be treated with respect and gratitude for they can bring suffering along with blessings. It’s only we modern folk who need to be reminded of that every thunderstorm or so.

As we prepare our Thanksgiving dinners, there is much to be grateful for. Our lists are probably long. But even so, perhaps we should add to them the gratitude for electricity. For the role it plays in sustaining our modern way of life, and for whatever role it plays in sustaining the life of the earth itself. We should feel that jolt of gratitude when we flick a switch, and we know we have electric power coursing through our walls. So many people in the world do not.