The month of May is peak tornado season across the U.S. plains and southern states. Already this year five separate tornadoes have caused fatalities, in Cisco, TX, Van, TX, Nashville, AR, Fairdale, IL, and Sand Springs, OK. Just over the weekend several tornadoes touched down in southwestern Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, damaging buildings and causing power outages.
Every region of the country, and of the world, has its dangers and its natural disasters. For those living in Tornado Alley, it’s twisters.
In my younger childhood years, when my family lived in the states of Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri, we got used to the sound of tornado sirens piercing the air from time to time. Fortunately, our town was never hit. Others have not been so lucky. Even when the tornado warnings give local residents time to take shelter, tornadoes are a devastating experience for those who live through them.
Then comes the monumental task of rebuilding shattered buildings, shattered towns, and shattered lives.
A tornado causes more than physical destruction. The terror of the experience itself, and the heartbreak of destruction and loss in its aftermath, also create huge emotional, even spiritual devastation. The physical destruction is often mirrored by a sense of wreckage and desolation in the soul. This requires a painful process of psychological rebuilding.
And even people who have not experienced a tornado or other natural disaster sometimes experience spiritual tornadoes and hurricanes.
Nature: a mirror for the soul
God created the physical universe so that it reflects inner human states of the mind and heart. And God created human beings so that our spirit reflects the world of nature around us.
That’s why the ancient Greek philosophers saw human beings as a “microcosm,” which literally means a “small universe.” It’s not that our physical body looks like a mini-universe—though there are some parallels. Rather, it’s that the human mind and spirit reflects the universe, and vice versa. So when we look out at nature and at the physical universe around us, we are looking at a vast reflection of our own soul.
And when we look at powerful and destructive storms such as tornadoes, we are looking at a physical image of the emotional and spiritual storms that wreak havoc in our souls.
What is a spiritual tornado?
In a prophecy against ancient Israel for breaking its covenant with God and worshiping idols instead, the prophet Hosea said:
For they sow the wind,
and they shall reap the whirlwind. (Hosea 8:7)
In the human spirit, tornadoes and other storms arise because there are things within us that are contrary to the pattern and direction for which God created us.
God created us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:34–40). God created us to love God by loving and serving our fellow human beings (see Matthew 25:31–46).
And most of us do love and serve our fellow human beings at least some of the time.
Yet we also come equipped with a whole lot of self-love and self-absorption. And as we grow out of infancy and into childhood, we quickly develop a desire for material possessions and pleasures—a desire that sticks with us right into adulthood. Our natural self-love also commonly prompts us to think that we’re better than other people, that others should listen to us and do what we say, and even that others exist primarily to serve us and our needs.
In other words, we humans, both individually and as a group, are a mixed bag.
An unstable mixture of good and evil
Yes, we have many fine, loving, and admirable parts to our minds and hearts, and we commonly express those in our actions.
There are many unsung heroes who engage in thoughtful and loving actions, both small and large, for their neighbors, their community, and their nation. Each one of us gets up in the morning and has something to do for someone else that day. And we do take satisfaction when we can provide a service to someone, or simply provide some comfort and a shoulder to cry on. There are joys and pleasures in thinking of others and serving their needs.
Yet we also have many selfish, thoughtless, and small-minded parts to our personality.
- We do our work, and serve our neighbor, but we do it grudgingly, with just a little chip on our shoulder about how we’re always slaving for them, but what do they do for us?
- We get annoyed and make a cutting, hurtful remark to someone who may or may not have anything to do with the cause of our annoyance.
- We get in a pitched battle with family members or friends or our wife or husband over money, or over who’s the top dog, or over some trivial thing such as what program to watch on television or what color to paint the bike shed.
This list could go on ad infinitum.
Whether small or large, our grudges, conflicts, and controversies swirl around us from the time we are toddlers right into old age. These conflicts and controversies are driven primarily by the parts of us that remain self-centered, thoughtless, and greedy for our own position and pleasure in life.
Yes, we humans are a mixed up mess of good and evil, love and hate, compassion and thoughtlessness—of love for God and the neighbor on the one hand and love for self and the material world on the other. All of these things swirl around in our soul. And that mix of good and evil, love and hate, truth and falsity is what generates the spiritual tornadoes that randomly strike our hearts, minds, and lives.
What causes tornadoes?
As a physical phenomenon, tornadoes, like many other storms, are caused by warm and cold air layers running into one another. When cold air is layered over warm air in stormy conditions, the resulting updrafts, downdrafts, and wind shears can cause an increasingly focused funnel of rotating air that moves along with the storm. That’s what we call a tornado—and it can pack winds of 100 to 300 miles per hour, capable of destroying most ordinary structures in its path.
In other words, tornadoes, like other storms, result from conflicts and clashes of hot and cold air that get all mixed up with each other, forming dangerously unstable and destructive winds.
Isn’t this a perfect physical image of the storms and tornadoes that rush through our souls and our relationships with devastatingly destructive force?
We humans are a mix of hot and cold, good and evil, selflessness and selfishness. These extremes of spiritual hot and cold meet and clash within us, and in our relationships with one another. Our love and our sense of community draws us into relationships with other people. But we also clash with other people because of our inborn tendency to think of ourselves and our own pleasures and possessions first. The same clashes go on within our own mind and heart, between our good impulses and our destructive impulses.
This is the cause of our spiritual tornadoes.
This is what leads to the tantrums and conflicts that tear us up internally, and that smash through our relationships, sometimes with a terribly destructive force that rips us apart from the people we love.
What’s the use of spiritual tornadoes?
And yet, as destructive as they are, spiritual tornadoes and other storms of the soul play a crucial role in our spiritual growth and development. The clashing forces of good and evil that cause these storms are very real. Our hearts and minds are driven by mixed motives that send us now in good directions, and now straight for interpersonal and spiritual disaster.
It’s easy for us to ignore our baser motives and try to pretend that they don’t exist. We naturally think that we are good people, that we’re just fine. That everything is under control.
But often the reality is that we’re not just fine, and everything is not under control. The forces that could destroy our life are roiling just below the surface.
When we experience the destructive power of a spiritual tornado, we can no longer ignore those deeper issues of mixed good and evil motives that drive us day in and day out. Suddenly the stark reality of our more selfish thoughts and uncharitable feelings comes rushing to the surface as we lash out at those we love, and our relationships suffer damage and destruction.
The tornadoes in our lives show in spectacular fashion the selfish and greedy drives within us that we would prefer to hide from the world and from ourselves. And once they make their presence felt in such a powerful and destructive way, we must deal with the aftermath. We must go through the painful process of rebuilding from the destruction caused by our own inner discords and conflicts—by our own inner mix of hot and cold, good and evil.
But it’s not all in vain.
After the destruction of these spiritual storms, as we rebuild our lives, we can discard some of the wrong thoughts and desires that have now shown themselves so clearly in our actions. We can move toward better, more thoughtful and loving motives and desires. We can separate out the bad from the good within ourselves, and in our relationships with those we love and those we work with each day. We can create a better self, and better relationships, as we clear away the wreckage caused by old, unstable and unhealthy patterns.
Swedenborg on storms and chaos
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) provides insight on these spiritual storms and their effects. In Secrets of Heaven #842:3, he writes:
Before being reduced to order, it is very common for everything to fall into confusion or seeming chaos. This allows things that cling together poorly to separate, and when they have separated, the Lord arranges them in their place.
Nature offers parallels, since in it too each and every thing first falls into some degree of disorder before being put in order. If the skies did not storm, causing unlike elements to scatter, the air would never clear; destructive forces would amass and wreak havoc.
The human body displays the same characteristic. Unless all the components of the blood, whether compound or pure, were continuously and cyclically combined and pumped into a single heart first and mingled there, the fluid component would coagulate in a fatal way. The individual elements would never be distributed to perform their proper functions.
It is the same with a person who is being spiritually reborn.
The storms in our souls and in our relationships clear the air of the smog and pollution of our selfish drives and desires. They can cause major destruction in the process. And yet, when everything is in ruins around us, it gives us the opportunity to rebuild our lives on a better, more thoughtful, more loving basis that will serve us better for the long term. We can jettison many old attitudes and desires that have not served us well, and replace them with new and better motives and principles of life.
The example of Greensburg, Kansas
This is precisely what Greensburg, Kansas did in the wake of its killer tornado.
Up until May 4, 2007, Greensburg’s main claim to fame was being the home of the world’s largest hand-dug well. “The Big Well,” as it was affectionately named, had become a tourist attraction, drawing millions of visitors to the town over the years.
But on May 4, 2007, the town was flattened by a massive tornado whose 1.7 mile diameter was wider than the town itself. 95% of the town’s structures were destroyed, and the remaining buildings were heavily damaged. Thirteen people were killed in the storm. In its aftermath, the town lost half of its population as people found new homes elsewhere.
The wreckage of their town led to much soul-searching among its remaining residents. Should they just count their town a loss and move on? Should they rebuild? And if so, how should they rebuild?
Through a painful and often conflicted process, the townspeople made a decision that would set the course for the future of their community. Not only would they rebuild, but they would rebuild as a green city. All of their public buildings would be constructed to the highest modern standards of energy efficiency. And they would power their town with 100% renewable energy sources.
Today, the Big Well still draws many visitors to Greensburg. But now this small city in rural, south-central Kansas has another claim to fame. Within seven years, it had rebuilt itself as a “model green community.” Now visitors are also drawn to Greensburg to see the world’s leading community in highly energy-efficient (LEED-certified) buildings per capita. The town is powered by ten 1.25 megawatt wind turbines that dot its landscape.
Other communities damaged by tornadoes and hurricanes can now look to Greensburg as a model of how to rebuild on a more energy-efficient model.
Its decision not only to rebuild, but to rebuild on a whole new model, has given Greensburg new life and a new sense of mission as a town.
Rebuilding from the wreckage
Greensburg can also serve as a model and an inspiration when it is time for us to rebuild after our spiritual tornadoes, storms, and earthquakes.
When our life and our relationships have been wracked and razed by storms of conflict and emotional destruction, in the midst of the rubble and chaos we can make the painful decision to rebuild our life in a new and better way. We can make a decision to rebuild our relationships with those we love and care about, and with our coworkers, on a better and more sustainable model.
These storms of the soul make us aware of the areas where our motives and actions fall short of our ideals, and do not reflect our faith and our beliefs. As we rebuild after these spiritual tornadoes, we can replace old, self-centered and greedy beliefs and attitudes with new, more thoughtful beliefs, attitudes, and actions that harmonize with our ideals and our faith.
From the rubble of our old self, we can rebuild, with God’s help, a new and better self, motivated more and more by a genuine love for God, and by a commitment to loving and serving our fellow human beings just as much as we love ourselves.
That love and commitment will reduce the number of damaging and destructive tornadoes that sweep through our lives. And the spiritual tornadoes that do still strike will not create quite so much havoc!
That love and commitment will make it possible for us to experience many more peaceful days and nights, both in our own soul and in our relationships with one another.