The Sincerity of Nature
In our society, nothing is quite as it seems. This is not nihilistic philosophy or conspiratorial thinking, but rather simple acceptance of the fact that there is so much pretence everywhere we look. The fake smiles of service industry employees, the public relations of large corporations promising us that they really care, the businesspeople hurrying around the city in suits pretending to be strict and proper but who really want to do nothing more than eat Doritos and watch Seinfeld. The previous model phone now with curved edges and sold as a new phone, the same trickle-down economic theory promoted as cutting-edge economics, the same exploitation of workers but with a friendlier corporate smile. Added to this we have plastic plants as plants without plants, Astroturf as grass without grass, non-alcoholic beer as beer without beer, and steroids as muscles without muscle.
In a world of ever increasing proliferations of fakery and pretence, from the manufactured perfection of social media profiles and scripted ‘reality’ TV, to manipulative advertising and political sophistry; nature becomes a sanctuary of truth in an increasingly fake world.
With a properly attentive eye and open mind, there is much to learn from the humble tree. It does not pretend to be something it is not. It does not tell you that it doesn’t need the sun to nourish it, or the soil to hold it; that it does not enjoy the whistle of birds or the cool embrace of the wind. It simply is, in all its magnificent glory, without a single drop of pretence or superficiality. And in this, there is a wonder strikingly lacking from our society: the splendour and confidence that comes from simply being without pretending to appear as something else.
In part, this explains the joy in watching children play. They might not be doing anything we would consider particularly interesting. They may just be drawing a happy face in the sand, stepping on an especially crunchy leaf, or admiring a bird on a branch. But what makes these activities of children so enamouring is the complete lack of self-awareness and pretence with which they do it. Like a bee tickling pollen out between petals, or a tree reaching for new splinters of light, the child simply is, without needing to pretend to be one thing or another.
In a meditation penned in 1876 on the honesty of trees, the poet Walt Whitman wrote,
How strong, vital, enduring! How dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.
In a language beyond words, the natural world speaks with honesty unmatched in our incessantly superficial and mediagenic society. The contrast between being and seeming which Whitman observes in trees is precisely what Hannah Arendt would capture a century later in her work The Life of the Mind, in eternal conflict between being and appearing.
Through social media we continually gravitate to a way of life where visibility becomes the pre-condition for existence. We no longer exist unless others see us. In this world, we exist only through the eyes of others, through our Facebook and Instagram profiles, becoming the ‘second-hand’ people Krishnamurti lamented. We change how we speak, how we walk, how we dress and in turn, how we think, in order to appease the imagined standards of people around us, people who also, unfortunately, are doing precisely the same.
Among the many lessons of nature, from the essential interrelationship of everything, the importance of harmony, and the necessity of tenderness and compassion; one of the most important lessons, and one we are in most dire need of learning, is how to be authentic and honest versions of ourselves. When we stop obsessing over how others may perceive or judge us, and focus on being instead of fretting about how we are appearing; we take the courageous leap into a new way of living, one that is at once more honest and graciously authentic.