Christmas. Passover. Chinese New Year. Diwali. These are all holidays that my family celebrated at various times throughout my childhood, but despite this, I don’t think of myself as religious. I never really have. The only religious continuity I know is that of the aforementioned “combo-platter approach” to which my parents exposed me — try a bit of everything, they said, and somewhere in the diversity, maybe I would find something that resonated with me.
What I learned from these multiple religious experiences and engagements, however, was not that I needed religion or even that religion needed me. What I learned was that belief is so central to the human condition of survival and that so many find unimaginable strength in the intangible. There is something uniquely reassuring about knowing that some things are entirely beyond our control but eternally present; that some divine being looks over us, in some capacity, to carry us through our greatest moments of desolation and to celebrate our greatest moments of joy. From writing letters to Santa and stuffing my face full of matzo ball soup and receiving red envelopes and attending Hindu dance festivals, I learned that what I believed in did not have its own holiday, its specified group of followers, or any defined religious practices or rituals. I appreciated the diverse background from which I came, but I found true, soulful liberation — the kind that envelops your whole being and, in losing yourself, you gain a sense a self — in nature.
There was a day, around five years ago, when I began to understand what it felt like to be overcome by some force for which there are no words. It was one of those perfectly sunny days with a cool breeze, and I was at my happiest. Surrounded only by sun and water and a gentle breeze on a small sailboat, some part of my inner core began to embody the characteristics of the natural forces around me as it brightly shone and disseminated its comforting rays outward with the peaceful atmosphere of solace. It was at that moment that I learned nature is what carries me forward, what opens my being when the world tells it to close.
In this world, there are so many things for which we as humans are distinctly responsible, and yet there are those sacred few things in which we play no role and over which we have no power. Nature is one of those sacred few things. It is not necessarily something bigger than us; it is simply different. It is its own force, its own power, that acts independently, and I take comfort in knowing my separation from nature. But, paradoxically, we are all intertwined and connected to nature, and it is uniquely reassuring for me to be inherently a part of something without trying. Nature just is, and I just am and we just are. I don’t have to pray to nature. I don’t even have to notice it because I know it’s always there, with every rustle of a tree leaf, with every gust of wind, with every wave that hits the shore. Its continued existence is enough for me.
Religion is as much about the individual as it is about the collective community that surrounds it, and religion is often so personal that it is only truly known to the person affected by it. It is a misrepresentation of religion to suggest that it finds its power in definition; religion thrives on its universality, flexibility and fluidity. Given the fact that I attend a Jesuit university, I am often confronted with questions regarding my religion and, more generally, what it means to be religious. While many assume, given my love of all things Christmas (heavily influenced by my even stronger love of cold temperatures and excessive decorative lighting), that I must be connected to Christianity, or even just any acknowledged organized form of religion, I know that I never truly will be. My belief is in the constants of life, and nothing is more constant than nature. I will forever fall back on the basic facts that I know to be true: the sun will set, the moon will rise, the waves will crash and life will go on.
Grace Smith is a sophomore in the College. If a Tree Falls appears every other Tuesday.
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