The nature trails near Oxford are one of the rare peaceful places I know of when school is in session. Even when the weather is cold enough for a sheet of snow to gloss the barren bark of the woods, going into the trail is like stepping into a world away from the rhythm of classes, club meetings, and day to day interactions with other people. It is here that I feel connected to a deeper current of life that is easy to ignore in all other circumstances.
One of the most frequent questions I’ve received since coming to Oxford College is about my “spirituality.” I always find myself quickly retreating into a familiar, sheepish feeling whenever this question inevitably arises, especially if it’s due to my own volition. “Being spiritual” is one of the most cliché phrases on a college campus, let alone in the millennial generation. Words like “pagan,” “energy,” and “spirit animals” blend together like a palette of bright colors scraped together one too many times. After a while, these concepts seem to lose distinction, even to those who use them.
I understand why I receive skepticism when I state that I’m spiritual; like so many masks that can be adopted in a society of individualism, spirituality has become yet another face to wear in our search for our own identities. Truth be told, I don’t exactly know what my own spirituality means, except to say that it’s somehow connected to the feeling that surrounds me when I’m alone in the woods.
I think the leading cause of both belief and skepticism of “spirituality” stems from the space it holds in the void between religion and atheism. Whenever I talk to other millennials who identify somewhere in complex folds, connotations, and cultural refractions associated with “spirituality,” we all seem to share the commonality of searching for answers that religion and atheism no longer provide. Perhaps a spiritual identity, to individuals like us, is one that hangs somewhere in the balance between what our parents or grandparents believed, and the direction that modern society seems to be going.
In an environment that echoes the sentiments of a world that values concrete proof of individuality, the formation of any kind of spiritual or religious identity is often overshadowed by academic pressures and time restraints. Without the community that religion provides, “being spiritual” can quickly become a status, reminiscent of the kind of mainstream bohemian culture displayed by celebrities and fashion houses alike. Even with the support of clubs such as the Interfaith Council at Oxford, spirituality on a college campus is a dry cultural phenomenon that can provoke controversial conversations and a wide range of reactions.
If I were to answer what spirituality means to me, I would have to say that it is questioning itself. In a modern-day college campus, it’s the feeling I get in an English class when a poem is read that sounds like a dream I had when I was a child. It is the hope I have when a friend or loved one is crying, late at night, and we can both sit in the raw silence of emotion. It is the belief that, at least once in life, we will all have a defining moment that allows us to rise above what we think we can do, and who we think we are.
In a sense, being spiritual means having the freedom to wander into the woods and feel something that just might be greater than the masks we choose to wear. Transcendent of cultural connotations and individualized interpretations of ritual, spirituality is how we distill a deeper questioning into our everyday lives. Call it what you will, I think we are all “spiritual,” and that it is possible to find greater meaning even in the dystopia of a college campus.