A new word, avalanches, relationships…and grace.

I learned a new word recently. I like it. I like it enough to have actually kept it bouncing around in my brain for a while. I like how it sounds and sometimes I like words just because of how they sound. Like supercilious. But I like this word mostly because it helped me to think about something in a different way. Hopefully, it will help me live differently, too.

I first heard the word when I was learning some things about avalanches. Although I would prefer NOT to be still thinking about snow at the end of April, it is snowing outside as I write, so talking about avalanches and my new word does not seem completely incongruous.

The basic physics of a slab avalanche is not complicated: layers of snow build up, some layers are stronger than others, something triggers some movement or pressure, the weak layers give way and down it all comes. Simple, but potentially deadly.  

Sintering” is the process where separate snow flakes settle together, lose their pointy edges and compress into one solid unit.

This is the word I like, the one I haven’t been able to let go. Apparently it describes things other than snow as well – like metals and ceramics. I like it because it is a way of thinking about relationships, too – like family and marriage.

I also learned some other terms. They are useful terms, and they connect to my new word, sintering, and to avalanches. I think they connect to relationships as well.

Shear strength” describes how strongly bonded or sintered all the layers are; the stability of the snowpack depends on how well the layers hold together – and how well they adhere to the foundation beneath them.

Shear stress” is basically the downslope force of gravity that continually insists that everything up must come down.

“Simply put, when shear stress outweighs shear strength, an unstable mass of snow breaks loose, creating a snow avalanche.”1

The basic analogy that formed around my new word as it took up residence in my thoughts is not complicated: relationships of all kinds are comprised of layers, some layers have ‘sintered‘ well and provide strength and stability, other layers are loose and weak,  forces exist in day-to-day living that exert downward stress, when stress outweighs strength, relationships become unstable, fracture, and fall apart. A simple (and imperfect) analogy, unlike the actual complexities that relationships entail.

While the sintering of snow depends largely on weather conditions, the wearing off of pointy edges and development of unity in relationships only happen when attitudes like love, grace, forgiveness, honesty, and communication are acted on daily. Grudges, gossip, resentment, anger, and jealousy only keep pointy edges intact and make sintering nearly impossible. 

Sometimes weak layers represent years of disfunction or misunderstanding; sometimes a single word or interaction can leave a sliver of weakness in an otherwise strong relationship. Sometimes that sliver of a layer can be enough to contribute to a downslope slide.

Recently we drove through through Rodger’s Pass where 130+ avalanche paths intersect the highway over an 18 km section of the TransCanada. I didn’t count how many tell-tale smudges and snow rubble runout zones I saw, but I saw enough to keep my new word on repeat.

Likewise, I don’t have to look far in my own life to see the tell-tale emotional rubble of failed relationships. I am acutely aware of the weak layers in some of my current relationships, having to maneuver carefully to avoid triggering a final destructive avalanche. I need to grow in my awareness of the pointy edges I present to others that inhibit sintering and unity (because it is always easier to point out other people’s pointy edges). I also recognize that the strengthening of weak layers and softening of pointy edges are not things I can do apart from the grace of God at work in my life. 

And so learning a new word brings me on a journey back to God’s grace. It’s what can make me sinterable. If that is even a word. 

1 Mountains 101: lesson 8 notes. University of Alberta.

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