I grew up in a house on a hill in farm country in eastern Pennsylvania. When I was small, it was my job to walk our dog – a big shaggy Afghan hound named Tammy – up and down the country road outside our house twice a day, in the morning before going to school and then in the evening as the sun was setting. Tammy was almost twice my size, so you could say that he walked me! As I hiked with Tammy, through every season, hot or cold, rainy or snowing, in the fresh morning or under the twilight of day’s end, I would gaze around me at the fields and woods, brush and wildflowers and over-arching trees, and up at the vast and ever-changing sky, and grow meditative and think what all this was about and what my place in it might be.
And I grew to think, vaguely, that the world was not a dead thing where life had happened by accident. On the contrary, there was something in the world that conduced, as naturally as a stirring of air, to life, indeed to sentience, even to consciousness. Our own existence seemed sufficient proof of this, to say nothing of the existence of other living beings: the panorama of farms and woods and sky, teeming with living things, that we could see from our house on the hill. The world was not entirely benign, of course – there was suffering and despair and hatred and death, the threat of oblivion and the icy darkness between the night sky’s stars – but the essential point seemed to be that the world had created us, not the other way around, and therefore we could not be in any sense substantially different from the world. When I looked at nature, I saw my progenitor, the “parent of my parents” (as I thought at the time), my siblings, in a sense myself – I saw in nature my ultimate family, the face of my god, but a god who, as my parent, was of the same essence as myself: not a judge but the source of my being, and the dearest partner of my life – the one for whom I, in the end, did everything: the being I loved most in, and beyond, the world.
And this thought, vague and uncertain in my childhood, has come back to me now, when I am in my 50s and I look back on several decades of seeking a meaning in the confusions of human life, a meaning that has often seemed beyond any possible grasping. What was a feeling then has become something like a belief today – nothing I can prove, but something that strikes me as certainly possible and maybe even right.
A morality seemed to follow from this belief – a moral duty to make good, in the broadest sense of the word, of the life I have been so mysteriously given, through the cultivation of my abilities and of sympathy with other living creatures, compassion for their sufferings and sharing in their happiness. I believe in intelligence and determination, in honesty and diligence, in decency, in the actions and wisdom of love, and above all in a deep respect for happiness, whether it is my own or that of others – because happiness is nature’s great gift to the living, and the great reward of loving.
I believe that the ultimate witness of my life, whether on the country roads of evening with my big, shaggy dog, or in the quiet of my room as I write these words, is that being I felt pervading nature as its ultimate source and that is of the same essence as my humanity, part body, part soul, part mind. This has become my faith. It is attached to no text or document, no bible or church, no rituals, but it is attached to both action and contemplation, to belief and to prayer, to love of the world’s maker and to love of the wonders that spread in the fields and in the sky above that little boy’s head, wonders that we are just beginning to understand of that maker’s creation.
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