Confused Expressions #12: It’s Natural

Some people seem satisfied to justify any action by the claim that “it’s natural.” Whether it’s giving in to every sexual urge or ingesting various products and plants, somehow the claim that “it’s natural” (which, I guess, means “it occurs in the natural world”) seems to be enough reason to carry on without concern. But just because something is natural doesn’t make it safe, or healthy, or wise. There’s nothing more natural (in the sense of “it occurs in nature”) than having your head bitten off by a lion in the jungle, yet few would claim that jungles are perfectly safe, or that being lion-food is in the natural order of things and shouldn’t be resisted.

In fact, isn’t our experience of nature the exact opposite? We build shelters to protect us from the (natural) elements and bundle up in colder climates and heat our homes so we don’t freeze to death; we toil to grow and clean and prepare our food; we develop weapons and medicines to defend ourselves against naturally-occurring aggressors like wolves and microbes. In fact, perfectly natural events can take such a high toll in human lives that the whole world seems to stop and pay attention, whether it’s a tsunami devastating Southeast Asia in 2004, or a flood overwhelming New Orleans in 2005, or an earthquake and its aftershocks pummeling Haiti earlier this year, or monsoon rains flooding many parts of Pakistan this summer. Entire cities and even countries have been devastated by natural disasters. If nature is Mother Nature, she is a sometimes-neglectful and an often-hostile mother.

We are born into a world where mere survival comes only at great cost and effort, where nature itself seems out to kill us. It sounds almost, well, unnatural. And it’s enough to make anyone despondent—except for one thing, something that stands in stark contrast to the violence and destruction found in so much of nature. That something is found in the graceful fleeing of a butterfly, the warmth and light of the rising sun, the freshness of cold mountain air. It’s a sublime sort of beauty, faint but present, perhaps a remnant or hint of the kind of world this once was and may yet be again.

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