This post is formatted to reflect an original journal entry.
Went for a walk last night and found a hawk feather. (A little gift from nature. If I’ve identified it correctly, from a Cooper’s hawk.) I love walking. Of the many kinds of exercise I enjoy, walking is tied, perhaps most intimately, to my well-being. It’s good for the soul. It cleanses my mind, a kind of moving meditation.
Anyway, been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between nature and goodness. Between gratitude and goodness. And a lot of the junk positivity that’s floating around out there telling us all to “be kind” and “be happy” and “be grateful” in really superficial and unrealistic ways. (It’s not all bad, of course. It’s vital that we encourage ourselves and one another, but too much of this talk, especially when taken out of context, I think, can lead to unrealistic, even damaging expectations, and an inability to cope when things go awry.) I’d rather be good than be seen as kind. These two things aren’t the same.
Maslow talks about this in Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences, which I’ve been leafing through quite a bit lately, as I’ve decided (once again and for the final time) that organized religion isn’t for me. I was so convinced it was going to work out this time, which, in retrospect, should have been a clear indication that I was about to find out otherwise. But, I digress. This isn’t something I feel like talking about at length now. Maybe sometime in the future. Or maybe not…What’s interesting: Maslow thinks the more we become ourselves—become inner-directed, fall in line with our own true nature—the more we instinctively move toward goodness, beauty, truth, the higher values and virtues. This is different from the kind of positivity that’s popular now. To my mind, that’s because most of this “be happy, be kind” business is totally divorced from values.
We can no longer rely on tradition, on consensus, on cultural habit, on unanimity of belief to give us our values. These agreed-upon traditions are all gone. Of course, we never should have rested on tradition—as its failures must have proven to everyone by now—it was never a firm foundation. It was destroyed too easily by truth, by honesty, by the facts, by science, by simple, pragmatic, historical failure.A. H. Maslow
Of course, Maslow wrote that in 1964. And that’s to say nothing of our present condition: postmodern, post-truth, hypermodern, or whatever you want to call it. But I’ve got to be honest. All that jargon’s a bit overwhelming for me. What it all boils down to in my mind: we’re too damn civilized for our own good. And I often think the need for all those heavy-handed philosophical terms is proof of just that. But that’s my opinion.
Why this matters: I think nature teaches us about our own goodness, about beauty, about balance, about the art and the harmony of embracing our own wildness in ways that culture simply can’t—and is antithetical to. Indeed, over the years, I’ve come to view my life as if I simultaneously inhabit two worlds (and must in order to survive): the natural world and the civilized world that we’ve plastered over it. I vastly prefer the former. Even when nature is cruel, she never fails. It’s as Henry Miller says: “The world is not to be put in order. The world is order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.”
Anyway, I do think, that when all else has failed us, nature remains our constant source. We’re just so preoccupied with the civilized world we don’t see what’s in our own backyards. Literally. Emerson says, “Nature is loved by what’s best in us.” He’s right. It’s my experience that nature shows us who we are. And to develop a healthy reverence and respect for nature—to really look at and appreciate the miracles all around us—is to uncover the best in ourselves. Often, without even having to try.