Listen to “The Reef” by Fred Smith
In “Where Good Ideas Come From” Steven Johnson uses the illustration of a coral reef as an example of a structure that is both fragile and still able to withstand the incessant pounding of waves and storms. He relates Charles Darwin’s first experience with reefs and his amazement they were able to withstand the violent surges of water. “The ocean throwing its waters over the broad reef appears an invincible, all-powerful enemy; yet we see it resisted, and even conquered, by means which at first seem most weak and inefficient…Yet, these low insignificant coral-islets stand and are victorious: for here another power, as an antagonist, takes part in the contest. The organic forces separate the atoms of carbonate of lime, one by one, from the foaming breakers, and united them into a symmetrical structure. Let the hurricane tear up its thousand huge fragments; yet what will that tell against the accumulated labor of myriads of architects at work night and day, month after month.”
In time, this became known as Darwin’s Paradox. How could something so fragile and open to the elements thrive? It does it by assimilation and not standing up against the wave. A reef is not a wall. It does not resist the wave as much as it absorbs it by the slow and patient process of incorporating those parts that contribute to its own growth – the carbonate of lime. I doubt the wave ever considers the irony of that. Thinking it will overwhelm the reef with blunt force, it is doing nothing but building it. Over thousands of years, this is how the reef becomes such an effective protector of the exposed shore. By the time the surf reaches land a good deal of its power has been diminished while it has left behind what the reef needs to grow stronger.
But the reef is not simply a shock absorber for the vulnerable shore. It is a home for extraordinary diversity and although coral reefs make up only one-tenth of one percent of the earth’s surface, yet roughly a quarter of the known species of marine life make their homes there. Coral reefs are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth, rivaled only by tropical rain forests. They are made up not only of hard and soft corals, but also sponges, crustaceans, mollusks, fish, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and much more. Each component of a coral reef is dependent upon and interconnected with countless other plants, animals and organisms.
We have reefs in our lives that serve similar purposes. For many of us, it is the church. At it’s best, it is not a wall put up against the breakers of the culture but it serves to dampen the blow and absorb what is useful. While not nearly as diverse as we might be, we are still exposed to people different from us and yet we depend on each other. Someone has described the church as “an anvil that has worn out many hammers” and that is true. But, it is also a fragile and ingenious structure for incorporating new ideas and people over thousands of years.
For me, The Gathering is a reef. It has grown by sifting through the tides of knowledge and experience. But, there is an even greater purpose: the support of a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and people that, somehow, manage to live together and thrive. Where else would we find that?
For the past year, I have been building another and more personal reef. On any given Friday afternoon I leave my office and go to space I rent in a place called WorkHub. WorkHub is part of the growing coworking movement. What is coworking? It is a group of people working independently, but who share values and are interested in the synergy that can happen from working with people who enjoy working in the same place alongside each other. Some of us have a desk and a chair out in the open while others have enclosed offices. All of us are here because we appreciate access to a wide variety of people working on business and non-profit ideas. The attraction for me is the opportunity to mix with people, young and old, who recognize the value of the diversity of projects, skills, ideas, knowledge, and experience. It is my way of assimilating the energy, creativity, and perseverance of a new network of intergenerational relationships. For them, it is a chance to drop in, sit down, and talk about what they are working on with someone who is older and deeply interested in what they are doing.
For all these reefs, I am grateful – especially when the inevitable hurricanes come and I am connected and anchored to communities of protection, diversity, and a healthy dependence on each other.