In a Strange Land: Ten

I was a spiritual skeptic. I believed that compassion and kindness were good things, but I doubted that spirituality had anything to do with it.

My sense of morality had its origins in my childhood experiences, the influence of my parents—who somehow managed to teach me right from wrong—and the ubiquitous and subtle influences of the culture that I was born into. This moral sense was not a revelation that came to me as a product of religious or contemplative spirituality. As I grew older, it just felt right to take responsibility for my actions, for my fate, for my way of being and to feel compassion for others.

I came into exile with nothing that I could describe as a “spiritual life.” There was no part of my day or week that I devoted to “being spiritual.” I distrusted the suggestion that spirituality was essential to happiness.

And yet I believed that compassion and kindness had value. I knew that tragedy, grief and loss were real and sooner or later would come to find me, just as they had found—and would continue to find—those around me. I would need comfort and hope at such times. It would be a heavy burden for Lisea to bear alone. We would need compassion and kindness from others. We would need a network of others who would care about us. That was our spiritual community: those who cared.

But my spiritual community felt tiny. Though empathy came naturally to me, it seemed that I was not often called to practice it. My spiritual community was small because my compassion had been selective. It was difficult for me to feel “oneness” with other people. It seemed easier for me to feel one with the natural world.

I could call on the natural world for beauty—even for moments of transcendence—but would I find compassion or kindness, hope or comfort in nature? The natural world was larger than me yet, at the same time, so much smaller.

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