Henry David Thoreau celebrated nature. For him, the woods were “temples not made with hands.” How? Because nature was the place of Communion, the place to learn about oneself and to grow!
In contrast, according to Stephen Mitchell, Thoreau believed that:
· Civilization trains them up to seek power and security through ownership, fostering fake and artificial appetites rather than teaching them to see and accept the riches that nature provides…[quoting Thoreau:] “Society is always diseased and the best is most so. There is no scent in it so wholesome as that of pines, nor any fragrance so penetrating and restorative as the life-everlasting in high pastures.” (Christian Research Journal, Vol.39/Number 05, 37)
What corrective role does nature play? Mitchell writes:
· Nature, then, offers wisdom as an antidote for civilized foolishness, cleansing humans from society’s moral toxins. “For at the same time that we exclude mankind from gathering berries in our field, we exclude them from gathering health and happiness and inspiration, and a hundred other far finer and nobler fruit.” (37)
How does nature cleanse us “from society’s moral toxins?” It helps us to discover the law of our inner being, “an instinct toward a higher, or as it is named, a spiritual life.” As Mitchell puts it, it is a “life that requires self-discipline rather than social discipline”:
· For Thoreau, he who does not hear his inner voice cannot know the law of his own being. Consequently, he will be dominated by his society. So dominated, he will make choices that circumscribe his humanity, preventing the full development of his spiritual life. (36)
It is in nature that we come to hear our inner voice, which enables us to gather “berries in our field.”
Certainly, knowing the “inner voice” – having self-knowledge – is critical, and the woods gives us an opportunity for self-reflection. This is important. Whatever we manage well we must first know well. This is true of every aspect of our lives – managing our house, clothing, car, business, relationships, and even our own lives.
However, it doesn’t seem that time for reflection in the woods is enough to produce self- knowledge. Why not? Because we have an aversion to self-knowledge! In fact, we run from it. In other words, we lack self-knowledge because we reject it. We would rather feel good about ourselves than to think correctly about ourselves.
Consequently, we live in darkness. I know that this is hard to believe; so I want to provide some evidences:
1. We seek a psychotherapist, not to learn about ourselves, but to feel better about ourselves. Therefore, the therapist, wanting to attract customers, does not advertise, “Come to me and learn the truth about yourself.” Instead, she will advertise, “I will reduce your unwanted symptomology.”
2. Instead, we tend to leave the psychotherapist who confronts us rather than affirms us.
3. When we get into an altercation, it is always the other guys fault. This is because we cannot tolerate being wrong or at fault.
4. Instead of seeking wise correction so that we can better ourselves, we flee from it.
5. We surround ourselves with yes-men and people who compliment us.
6. We wear a façade and try to impress others. Many will admit that they can no longer discern façade from fact.
7. We clothe ourselves with symbols of success.
8. Many psychological surveys affirm that we have inflated opinions of ourselves. In fact, psychologists claim that an inflated self-esteem is so pervasive that it is regarded as “normal,” suggesting that we are unable to tolerate an accurate self-estimation.
I know this very intimately and paid a tremendously high price for my inflated self-estimation, fed by a constant stream of positive affirmations. They became a drug, and I needed a continuous supply to stay afloat. However, when reality clashed with my affirmations, I crashed. This would occur with each failure. I would then run to the psychologist to build me up again on more positive affirmations.
If we are unable to see ourselves, it means our lens is so darkened that we cannot see and understand others. We are out-of-touch. An unwillingness to see and accept myself, with all my warts, made it impossible to connect meaningfully and honestly with others.
I needed more than a few walks in the woods or even a steady diet of trees. I needed the light to shine upon me, the light I had always resisted. Without this light we walk in darkness and trip on every tree-root that crosses our path.
My dilemma was the one painted by Jesus:
· And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20; ESV)
I couldn’t tolerate the exposure of either my deeds or my identity. It was only through the loving reassurances of Jesus’ acceptance of me that I could begin to tolerate the light and accept myself.
I enjoy nature, but I no longer expect more than what it is able to give. It cannot rescue me, but it can point joyously to its Creator.