The Enchantment of Choosing to Believe

It’s easy to believe the world is enchanted in California’s Muir Woods.

I’m trying to read Braiding Sweetgrass the way I think its author Robin Wall Kimmerer would want me to read it. I’m taking the book slowly, chapter by chapter. I’m trying to savor it, and that seems to be working — I find myself tearing up after about half the chapters. 

I first heard about Kimmerer when she appeared on the podcast On Being. On the show, Kimmerer, a professor of botany and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, described her perspective on the natural world. By drawing from both natural science and her Native American heritage, Kimmerer argued that we can learn deep lessons by observing nature.

That approach comes out beautifully in Braiding Sweetgrass. In the chapter, “The Consolation of Water Lilies,” Kimmerer describes her relationship to a pond on her property in upstate New York, and how caring for the pond reflects her experience of loving her daughters. In one scene she writes about a moment after clearing the pond of algae: 

Loading the kayak onto the car in the fading light, I was doused by the leftover pond water draining onto my head. I smiled at the illusion of my grief-containment system: There is no such thing. We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us.

Kimmerer chooses to see the world as if it were enchanted. In doing so she sees her life reflected in nature, and she learns from nature. 

As I read it slowly, I’m taken by Kimmerer’s description of living in “reciprocity” with nature — a worldview that is so needed right now. This approach is based on her understanding of the importance of “gifts.” Drawing from her Native American heritage, she provocatively defines gifts as things that are only temporarily ours that we pass on to others. She writes: 

We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.

What strikes me most about Kimmerer’s thinking is an intersection I see between it and the thought of a very different writer who I’ve been studying for the hell of it, William James.

A rabbi I admire keeps referring to James, the turn-of-the-century American philosopher, psychologist and doctor. And so I recently read James’ bluntly titled 1895 talk “Is Life Worth Living?”  

Interestingly, a podcast I found on James (in French) discusses how James struggled with depression, and the essay really does seem to come from the heart. 

William James

In it, James beautifully describes how some people are naturally predisposed to happiness and others to sadness, while some who interrogate the meaning of life are mentally ill and need professional help. 

But more generally, James turns to faith to argue that life is worth living. 

James posits that he can’t be sure about the existence of the “supernatural,” meaning he can’t prove definitively that there’s something out there greater and more meaningful than the physical world. But James notices that when he chooses to believe in the supernatural, his life becomes more meaningful. “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact,” James writes. 

(Interestingly, this seems to be very much in keeping with James’ pragmatist philosophical orientation — what matters for James most is the outcomes of his beliefs, not the question of their metaphysical truth.) 

In my past reflections on belief, I’ve been most interested in basing my religious life on that which I can confidently assert to be true. I’ve thought since I first read Heschel that the ineffable (the inexpressible) lies at the heart of belief, so this grounding for belief has always been a bit paradoxical. I’ve nevertheless wanted to base my religious life on that which I am pretty sure I believe. 

But this surprising intersection between Kimmerer and James, in addition to the wonderful time I’ve spent in the redwoods recently, has opened me to an alternative of taking a bigger leap of faith. Act as if you believe that the world is enchanted, and the world seems remarkably enchanted. 

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