These days, despair is preached. The sort of despair that makes it inescapable and inevitable that, one day, we will write a letter to future generations telling them we are so very sorry for what we did to the planet, so very sorry for listening to people who made excuses, so very sorry they (our children’s children and our children’s children’s children) now live in a destroyed world without forests and lakes and elephants and flowers and bees.
This sort of despair. It is preached far and wide.
But not from this pulpit!
And neither will irrational optimism.
It may truly happen that, one day, we will have to write that letter.
It may truly happen, if human beings don’t change.
I believe fervently and passionately that that small word “If” is big enough for plenty of hopefulness.
But what must we change, for the hopefulness to be reasonable and not irrational optimism?
Our behaviors, of course. I’ll say more about that next Sunday.
Today, I want to talk about changing our understanding of what’s really happening. Establishing the sort of understanding that will stand underchanged behaviors, motivate them, support them, sustain them.
Changing our understanding of what’s happening: it starts with getting a big picture sense of context. Context with a capital C.
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, in their fantastic book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, envisions it as an evolutionary story of smaller parts coming together to form larger and larger integrated wholes.
That’s the story of Life. Continual step-ups from simpler to more complex, and each step-up involves a shake-up of the status quo. Single cells doing their own individual thing, oblivious to the other single cells. Then a shake-up, meaning a step-up to individual cells coming together and acting in unison, as an organism. Then a shake-up and a step-up to simple multi-celled organisms coming together to form bodies containing different organs. Then a shake-up and a step-up to social organisms like ants and bees forming complex communities functioning as integrated systems. Then a shake-up and a step-up to social organisms like human beings forming higher-level complex communities, in which such powers as language-use, imagination, reason, ambition and others have been harnessed to create religion, civilization, agriculture, music, art, technology, and everything else we know today.
It is absolutely undeniable and certain in a Cartesian sense that life’s impulse is to evolve parts into larger and larger integrated wholes, which begs the question, Why? How is it that such a specific direction is set? Is this when we start talking about God? What God is? God as a primal hunger for Life lived in ever-greater degrees of vibrancy and fullness?
God for this, and God against anything that oppresses this?
This is a true religious Mystery, the larger story that gives context to our humanity and how it ultimately emerged, and what the step-up beyond humanity as we know it will look like. Some more-than-human network of intelligent life, in active partnership with our earth, with powers we can’t even imagine….
It fills me with wonder, and with awe.
I am so grateful for a faith tradition like Tibetan Buddhism, which evokes this larger story through an artistic process called sand mandala painting. “Mandala” is a Sanskrit word meaning “cosmogram, ” or “world in harmony.” You can see this in any completed sand mandala, which takes about a week to produce, together with all the associated rites and rituals:
But Buddhism also teaches that all things are impermanent. Harmony is disrupted. The shake-up happens, which in turn opens the space up for something different and new.
Harmony, then disharmony, then harmony achieved at a different, higher level: this is the Larger life that you and I belong to.
And this is where we need to be thinking from as we approach the environmental crisis. It represents crisis, and, from the very beginning of time, crisis has been the shake-up that leads to the step-up.
We don’t have to be afraid of crisis. The human species was born out of crisis. We know crisis. Some people, when there’s not enough crisis in their lives, create some just to keep life from getting boring.
There is a reason why every culture on this planet—all places, all times—tells some version of the hero’s journey, which begins in circumstances that are ordinary; and then crisis hits, which is at the same time the call to adventure; and the hero goes, and they encounter dangers and strange things and meet new friends and fight all sorts of monsters; and then they find what they were seeking, a knowledge, a treasure, a changed state of being; and then they return home and nothing is ever the same again.
Crisis is in our bones, and our mythology, which arises out of our deepest instincts, proves it.
Odysseus and his Odyssey
Demeter in search of her daughter Persephone
Arjuna in the chariot with Krishna
Buddha under the bo tree
Frodo on his way to Mordor, ring of power in hand
Celie in The Color Purple, and all she endures
Luke Skywalker against The Empire, and Darth Vader
Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger, and Ron Weasley in the fight against Voldemort
Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games
Yesterday and today and forever we will be telling stories like this because we love them, we thrill to them, they feel realer than real to us, and that is because we are no stranger to crisis.
We don’t have to be afraid. We can step towards crisis, rather than away.
We are stronger and braver than we know.
The environmental crisis is our call to adventure, to become agents of a Larger Life that wants a fuller expression than it’s getting right now.
Except it’s a particularly challenging adventure, since we ourselves are the monsters that we’ll meet. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde who are both aspects of one person.
The problem is that our higher human abilities—all the positive gains the world process has made by achieving consciousness and self-consciousness through us—have been turned to hurtful ends.
You want to know what the real Original Sin was? It was greed. People willing to oppress others to get more life for themselves and their loved ones.
People taking short cuts to get an unfair advantage.
People willing to treat the planet like they treat black people, or Native Indians, or women, to get rich and stay rich.
People willing to treat black people, or Native Indians, or women, like they treat the planet, to get rich and stay rich.
Greed is the Original Sin, creating a world divided into haves and have-nots.
And then greed is compounded by ignorance. All who benefit from the greedy look away from what has been done, they embrace ignorance, they punish the whistleblowers, so that the status quo stays put.
Greed, then ignorance, then fear. People afraid to suffer for justice. People afraid of the unknown and so resisting change. People exploiting fear, people exploiting despair, to make others believe that nothing can be done and hopelessness is the rational position.
The human species has, through evolution, made all sorts of positive gains. Our inventiveness, our curiosity, our energy, our imagination—but it is put to work in service to greed, and ignorance, and fear.
That’s our monster side.
And for thousands of years, remarkable human beings have been telling us to stop it. Stop the insanity. Life could be so much different, so much better, so much more. Confucius said that. Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha said that. Jesus said that. Muhammad said that. And on and on.
And now the planet is saying that, in a language of hurricanes and wildfires and melting ice caps and dying bees.
It is really past time to start listening. It is really past time to replace fear with courage, to eradicate ignorance with insight, to mortify greed with justice.
Every time we risk confusing our lifestyle because we’ve got to unlearn old habits and start new ones, we have heard the call to adventure.
Every time we choose against consumption patterns that are really nothing more than stealing from the planet, we have heard the call to adventure.
Every time we vote like our lives depended upon it, which they do, we have heard the call to adventure.
We’re in the fight against monsters which are ourselves.
But there is one more thing we must know, about this larger story that we are living, and how it illuminates the environmental crisis.
It’s that we are at but the start of our adventure, and in every hero story I know, the hero, at the start, sucks.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing.
She doesn’t know what she’s doing.
It’s the Ralph Macchio character in the movie Karate Kid, who tries to fight the Kobra Kai gang before he’s properly trained, and they beat him to a pulp.
It’s way too many people today who still think climate change is a hoax.
It’s America pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
But it’s also the fact that most people have pro-environment attitudes; the fact that most people will thrill to our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle that affirms the interconnected web of all existence. And yet it is also a documented fact that people go ahead and engage in environmentally destructive actions anyway. Attitude does not necessarily mean action. There is an attitude/behavior gap.
The hero has been called to adventure. And the first thing they do is get lost.
And I am saying today that that is just what happens, it’s par for the course, it’s what the hero has to go through and get to the other side of, it’s what it takes for the hero to learn how to step up to the task.
Don’t let fears and anguish make you forget the larger, beautiful story you belong to.
Know that we are in the midst of a capital-M Mystery unfolding: some primal urge wanting the world to be even more full of life than it already is, and now is another one of those transformational shake-up, step-up times.
Know that our humanity represents something truly special in planetary history, but greed and ignorance and fear have locked it into destructive patterns and we have to turn this thing around and we cannot let the purveyors of fear scare us into thinking we are helpless and hopeless (which they do so as to encourage even more consumerism, which is the height of perversity!).
Know that we are called to be nothing less than heros even in the small moments of our daily lifestyles, and not just in the historic moments that are fodder for the news.
Know that we are exactly where we need to be. We are getting lost, we are messing up all over the place, we are having the hardest time breaking bad habits and replacing them with better ones.
But I believe the myth that we find in all places and times, that is deep in my bones and also in yours: the hero eventually rises to the occasion. The hero learns how.
It will happen.
We will not be writing any letters to the future, saying I’m sorry,
IF we recognize the call to adventure in the crisis, and we go,
and we persist in our going no matter how many times we trip up,
we just keep on going,
we just keep on going,
because we know,
to the depths of our souls,
to the very depths:
WE GOT THIS.