I spent the vast majority of my life as an atheist, a PhD trained in a laboratory-based science, and an academic. I believed that everything can be understood, eventually, through empirical methods and reasoning. The idea of the divine was an abstraction that I could only try to understand through art and culture.
Luckily for me, our natural world is something tangible and, in my view at the time, understandable. We can see it, touch it, smell it, and even better, eat parts of it. I mostly viewed my relationship with the natural world through the physical interface, but rarely did I do so during my daily activities. Instead, several times per year, I would go to a local or national park and soak in nature’s beauty and inspiration. Sunsets and sunrises would be enjoyed while on vacation but typically not in my backyard. Yet when I did, I would be filled with awe and gratitude.
Wait, what? Beauty, inspiration, awe, gratitude? That’s neither measurable nor physical, but yet so tangible and valuable.
Why does it feel as if appreciation of our natural world is something that we can only do while on vacation or when we decide to take leisure time out of our busy week? Our natural world is there for our benefit anytime, anywhere.
Sometimes people say that in desolate or urban areas, there is no nature, since grass and trees are largely absent. But we cannot escape nature, nor should we desire to. Nature includes the rocks, the dirt, the grass, the air, the sky, the rain, the birds, and the insects. Do we judge the dirt as less than even though it sustains all plants and comprises the ground upon which we walk? Do we dismiss the stars because they do not shine upon grass?
This atheist has come a long way over the past decade. In 2011 when my now-late husband Christopher told me that being spiritual means accepting that there are things that are unknowable, I switched from atheism to spirituality. When he became ill, I turned to Spirit for guidance, comfort and support. (You can read about my spiritual journey more on my personal blog.)
Though I would now consider myself a deeply spiritual person, I’m glad to realize in hindsight that I have not been entirely bereft with regard to engagement with the divine. Earth was created as a home for humanity and is meant to be not only a source of sustenance and shelter, but also to provide a physical and tangible way that we can connect with something greater than ourselves.
Though Western culture does not tend to subscribe to the notion that the various parts of nature, or even Earth, have its own consciousness and spirit, many indigenous and Eastern cultures do. For millennia, humanity has connected to God by means of the mountains, streams, creatures, and plants of Earth. Earth once represented the divine (and still does to some) and has been the divine source for majority of what we need for both survival and inspiration.
Modern society has largely disconnected from the sense of Earth and nature as the divine, but anecdotally I notice that people still flock to natural spaces for awe and inspiration, just as I did (and still do) while on vacation. Nature-inspired awe, inspiration, and gratitude are transcendent emotions and are also often associated with the benefits of spirituality and religion. In other words, those of us who do not feel a connection to God may turn to nature as a sanctuary which provides that sense of connection and transcendence often associated with faith.
Recall how good you feel when you spend time outdoors, or even when viewing natural vistas from within a building. Most of us invest good money and time to travel to such places, but these sources of comfort and inspiration are available to us no matter where we live on Earth, because Earth is everywhere. Even from my late husband’s hospital room, I could see the sky, the stars, or a tree. When I would indulge in a little walk through the hospital garden, it felt as restorative as if I had gone on vacation for a day.
In other words, the comfort and healing of Earth and nature are available to you 24/7, wherever you are. So is the opportunity to connect to something greater than yourself. That sense of being small compared to something greater, such as nature or God, is somehow comforting to me. My problems seem smaller. I feel humble. And those proportions seem right, as opposed to when I’m soaking in what seems like monumental problems and concerns, which typically amount to nothing in the end.
A large motivation for me to start the Foundation for Family and Community Healing is because of what I believe is a shared sense of urgency around what feels like growing isolation and disconnection from what matters most. I believe there is a growing sense that our individual and collective health is diminishing while hearing stories about pending and ongoing environmental disaster.
It seems we have a tendency to flock to the streets, suddenly becoming neighborly and friendly, when we are in crisis, such as when the power is out or a hurricane has blown through. When the crisis is over, we return to the isolation and anonymity of our homes.
But the crisis is not over. It feels like it’s growing and yet we remain cloistered within our homes and emotional siloes.
Let’s return to the streets, forests, and other green spaces to connect with each other, with Earth, and with the divine. I believe we are craving that connection and support, and by coming together to focus on what is most important — our connection to each other and something bigger than ourselves — we can find comfort, strength, and healing.
From now on, I suggest we all make a point to linger outside for a few more minutes. Do not turn your gaze away from nature or your neighbor. Notice. See. Observe. Open your heart. Connect. Appreciate. Say thanks to each other and something greater than yourself. Conduct acts of kindness to others and to Earth.
It’s healing to you. It’s healing to us. It’s healing for Earth. It’s free and takes virtually no time at all.
Such practices allow us to return to the roots of our humanity, a species inextricably linked to the land, the seas, and the forests, and each other.
It’s what the season calls upon us to do while we’re struggling to find our way. When we struggle, we want to return home to the embrace of those that love us unconditionally.
That home surrounds us, wherever we are.
Go there. Be embraced. Be comforted. You are deeply loved.