A living compass

When I was asked to give this sermon, I was supposed to elaborate on a blog piece I wrote called “How to Keep Going”. For those of you who can make it to the Chrysalis Symposium this afternoon, that’s also a focus of my lecture there, but it’s a little long for this, so I wanted my sermon to come at the same idea from a slightly different angle.

The unifying theme in this body of thought for me is that we live in a strange moment when two opposing facts are starkly clear and true:

One, that wanting to feel “hopeful” in any common sense right now is a big ask, and perhaps both selfish and self-destructive as well.

And two, that we possess a more beautiful, astonishing, and pure power than humans have ever possessed before.

The reason I say that feeling hopeful is a big ask is that climate change has already begun decimating some people’s lives; it’s taking hundreds of thousands of lives a year, and uprooting millions — temporarily in some cases (like the million people evacuated in India a few days ago), and permanently in others, as when Central American or Syrian farmers left their homes because of an apparently almost permanent drought, or when the residents of places like Paradise, California, saw their communities devoured by flames.

When millions worldwide are struggling for their lives and homes and for even the most basic forms of stability for their kids, and when we know for a fact that things are going to get much worse, it seems to me that seeking to feel optimistic is quite unreasonable, especially if we are essentially holding the world to ransom by believing that we cannot throw ourselves into the work of changing our current path unless we feel hopeful.

But hope can take many forms, from a cheerful belief that the sun will come out tomorrow, to Rebecca Solnit’s “axe you break down doors with in an emergency”. When previous generations had hope for their children, especially during wars or plagues or hunger, it was clearly more the latter than the former — it was a long-term, flinty thing — but it feels to me like we’ve forgotten that, and when I hear “we’ve got to give people hope”, I think what people often mean is: tell us that things will get better. Give us a belief in some kind of near-term happy ending.

And things won’t get better, not while any of us are alive. They will, in fact, get much worse.

But if we want them to ever get better, if we want the human species to survive through the narrows of the extinction hourglass, then the seed we have to find and root deeply within our hearts is the knowledge that we can alter the world’s current devastating path of destruction, and make the space for hope and possibility for those who come after us. We know that things will get worse, in other words, but if we dedicate ourselves to the task, we can make sure that the arc of our physical universe bends towards life, and not destruction.

That’s why I say that we are more powerful than humans have ever been: we know now that if we simply continue on the existing path, then there is little chance for humanity, and much or most of all animal life will be wiped out too — yet it is still within our grasp to change this, to be the people who decided not to let the fossil fuel industry kill the world.

We can’t save everything or everyone — we’re far past that point. But we can save millions or even billions of human lives, and countless species and animal lives. We can help shepherd the beauties of this world through the coming darkness, on a path towards the regeneration of the natural world.

And because we can, we must. Our moral choices are stark: we are either among those who rise to this occasion, and do all we can do to love this world and right the wrongs that we have unwittingly inflicted on it, or we are among those willing to allow the world to end because we feel overwhelmed, or powerless. Because we look at the task before us, and feel paralyzed.

But the truth is that we are not in fact paralyzed — and we don’t have to feel powerful to understand that we are powerful. And once we understand that it’s not all over, and we can make a difference, then we can root a radical, resilient, long-term hope within our hearts. A hope that’s a gift and a light for those who come after us — something as delicate and breathtaking as the bioluminescence of fireflies — rather than a hope that’s a spot of sunlight we insist on standing in as the storms swirl around us.

Another image that feels resonant to me sometimes is that of sailing into the darkness and fog: we don’t need to be able to see our way, and we can’t know what’s ahead, but if we’ve rooted in our hearts the knowledge of our capacity to make a different future, that knowledge can serve as a living compass for us, the way that plants grow towards the sun, and we can set our path towards the future we need.

It’s not that there isn’t light somewhere ahead, as well as the light within us; it’s that it may take the work of generations to feel it shine on us. For people of faith, perhaps that’s a somewhat easier task. I am not a person of faith in the traditional sense — I have a hard time believing in a god who would allow one puny species to devastate all others, and an even harder time believing that a god who would disregard the entreaties of migrants dying of thirst in the desert might nonetheless listen to a prayer of mine. If such a god exists, honestly, I’d like a few words with her.

But I do have faith in the will of life to continue, and I do have a deep and abiding love of the beauties and creatures of this world, including humans. That’s enough to tell me what to do, because with love comes responsibility.

So most of the time, at least, I let my compass guide me, and I know that if enough others can do the same, then our collective power will make a difference.

This doesn’t mean that it will make the difference that we want it to — that’s why I say that as we go into difficult times, some hopes might be self-destructive. If we’re focused on the saving of only one or two things in particular — our own communities, perhaps, or one particular species — the odds are high that we’ll be disappointed, because so many communities will become unlivable, and so many species vanish. We can still fight for these things, of course — perhaps we must. But we should also understand that our job is saving all that we can, and if we can learn to cherish all of life in its wild abundance, we will also learn how to find joy in what continues, a joy that can temper our grief over what has vanished. We may lose kangaroos, and yet still have kangaroo rats: that is a gift.

So the children of the future need us to reorient how we think of hope and light and darkness, and also to understand that we should attempt to love life with the evenhandedness of a parent. And while none of these things are easy, there are deep satisfactions to be found in this shift.

I’ve been thinking lately about the different meanings of the word responsibility. In his new book, Falter, Bill McKibben talks a little about asking people to be responsible, to be grownups, and I had been thinking about things in much the same way, so it struck me. We’re both church-raised New Englanders, so that may account for a shared dismay at the lack of such qualities, but a lot of people are church-raised New Englanders, and it doesn’t seem to make them any more grown up, so I’m not sure about that.

And when a word is hanging around for me, I like to look up both its etymology and the words that are regarded as synonyms for its different shades of meaning. As is often the case, this was revealing.

For synonyms for responsible, I saw dutiful — something that for most of us might be considered a little strange — old-fashioned and unsexy. But it also has the richer meanings of trustworthy and powerful and influential — she had a very responsible position in the company. The boy was a very responsible babysitter.

Better still, though, when I looked at the etymology, I realized that responsible, like respond, comes from the Latin for “answered, offered in return”.

Given the lives the world has given to us — especially those of us with a historically unprecedented amount of material wealth and autonomy — what are we answering, what are we offering in return?

This speaks to the heart of the overwhelming crises in the natural world, it seems to me; the threats they pose to our own lives and all that we love, come from the fact that as a culture, we resist answering. We have stopped viewing it as an essential part of growing up that we offer anything in return for the great gifts the world has given us. We simply keep taking.

I’m tempted to travel from answering the world to vocation and thus calling, but I have to be careful — I could fall down that rabbit hole and never return. Sometimes, language seems like a DNA that can help unlock the mysteries of the universe. But for now, suffice it to say that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the roots of responsibility and calling are in conversation with one another: when we are called — to a deepening, to a growing up, to the struggle of a righteous cause — it’s only right that we respond.

And if we don’t? Well, the world loses, of course — but so do we. We have forgotten not only the necessity of being responsible or offering something in return, but its profound fulfillment. Who among us hasn’t doubted her ability to rise to a challenge, to be worthy of a child’s or a lover’s trust, to succeed well in an important job — and then been transformed by our ability to do so — not perfectly, perhaps, but far better than we might have feared?

Evolution works its magic on us at a psychological level as well as at a physiological level, I think. There are few things more deeply satisfying, or more likely to help us survive, than a feeling of agency to make a difference in the world, and to care for those we love.

Of course, it can also feel good — and in a more accessible way — to take an easier path. The world is full of dark comforts, whether in the form of literal drugs, or in other kinds of deadening or stimulation that we reach for when we’re not sure that we can be who we want to be: these might take the form of denial — that’s just not who I am, I’m not that strong. Or of entitlement — I deserve this thing that will make me feel better. Or disavowal: that’s not my responsibility. Sometimes the “comfort” is even explicit self-loathing — I’m a failure, humans are no good, I’m just going to try to feel good and get through the day.

I suspect we all feel these things at times. I know I do.

But historically, societies valued the deepening that came with responsibility — to family, community, gods, Earth. Societies, in fact, were arguably defined by the different shapes they gave to that deepening, by what they thought it meant to be a good and adult human being. So some might choose to avoid it for awhile, but there was a strong web of social support for helping people move into it.

There still is, of course, for some things; we may support people who are in a rough patch in their relationship, if we think that it’s one that’s valuable to them. And we honor especially those who make sacrifices for the sake of their children. But that’s a profoundly diminished web of responsibility from the ones that previous generations knew, which also included extended family, community, faith, nation — and also, in many cases, the natural world. Indigenous cultures, famously, tended to understand a very direct set of responsibilities to the web of life around them — but European and white American cultures also had strong norms around what it meant to be a good citizen, norms that included stewarding land for future generations.

How we got away from that is a long story — in Falter, McKibben covers some of it. But right now, I’m more interested in how we get back, how we move from a place of feeling like the world owes us hope, or inspiration, or comfort, to a shared deepening and an understanding that our greatest power lies in our taking responsibility for being the hope for those who come after us.

How can we support one another in this? A single firefly is a lovely but very delicate thing; a whole hillside of them is pure magic. My own strength or vision won’t matter much if you cannot join me in it — the tasks before us are many, and difficult, and there will be no end to them in our lifetimes.

One thing we can perhaps keep in mind is that fireflies need the dark in order to communicate. It may be that our metaphorical artificial light — our desire to feel hopeful, to have immediate reassurance, to never sit with pain and grief and uncertainty — has kept us from one another.

There is a constellation of movements made up of people focused on climate, and water protectors, and Earth stewards, and everyone else fighting to end the systems that are destroying us, and breathe new life into those that will regenerate the natural world. Everyone I know in these movements says, as I do, that being in them brings far more joy and strength than they had when they were simply worried about the world, and feeling paralyzed by its problems. Those whom I know well have also uniformly said that the others whom they meet in this work are among the best people they’ve ever known.

Because of our willingness to face the dark, we can see the light in one another.

That doesn’t make it easy, and there will be times, perhaps many times, when we feel alone and uncertain. I went away a few weeks ago to write about this question of how to keep going, and found, honestly, that I had no idea how to keep going. I was feeling both the weight of the world and of my own sorrows and quotidian hopes. But in those moments, even if I cannot see my way, I still have a seed of light — rooted in my heart and growing through the darkness towards the sun: the understanding that I live in the brief moment at the intersection of knowledge and agency, and therefore, like you, I have been gifted the power to be one of those who help life continue when it might otherwise die. In that understanding, somehow, I feel more deeply connected to life than I would have thought possible, and my responsibility feels like a gift, and not a burden.

We are not alone. We are tiny nodes in a vast web of life, and against all odds, it needs us. It’s time to grow into this moment, and care for the Earth like it’s the only home we have.

From a sermon at the Corvallis Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on May 5, 2019.