Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Matter of Perspective

This week I've had a couple of encounters that have enlarged my perspective about the current situation of the world. I, like many people, recognize the state we are in because of what we have done and are doing to our planet. Just living by the Hudson River lets me know, year by year, that we have participated in the changing of our climate and that the pace of that change is accelerating. Just going to a gas station lets me know that we are fast using up our resources. Taking a walk in our woods and seeing the small plants that never used to grow here is an indication that big things have already happened, and where that is leading is unknown.

And what to do? If I am like so many others in recognizing the changes we have wrought in the natural order of our world, I am also like many in wondering what on earth I can do about it. The possibilities I see are all so small. I'm a big believer in the reality of small things, but when it comes to our globe and our climate I wonder whether I've reached the limit of what I can imagine is being accomplished by small changes.

Tree I'm about to plant in a park - Originally uploaded by Palmou

Then this week I was sent a copy of a speech. It was a commencement address given at the University of Portland by Paul Hawken, who is a well-known and much-published environmentalist. I really don't know why I read the speech. I get speeches and articles from friends and strangers alike, and I just don't have either the time or the interest to read most of them. It was probably a combination of the person who sent it to me and the way she described it in her email that made me take a look and browse through the paragraphs. One look and I was caught. He spoke right to the dilemma I find myself in. He says, in part:
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn't bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn't afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here's the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic ab out the future, my answer is always the same: if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and the incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, 'So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.'

There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries and slums. You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen.

Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in ideas, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.
from Paul Hawken's 2009 commencement address at University of Portland

And there it is: a fresh way of seeing, new faith, a way to go forward. My perspective altered.

And then on Tuesday I was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York at an exhibition of Korean Art from the 1400's and 1500's, It was Art With An Agenda, done in the service of a culture with a leadership that had rejected the Buddhist religion in favor of the simplicities of a neo-Confucianisist outlook. There in the midst of this art was a scroll painting. It showed a mountain scene with forests, waterfalls, rivers, flying ducks, clouds and mists. And down in one corner there was a tiny group of men seated in a circle on the ground. They occupied less than 10% of the total area of the painting. The title of the work was: "A Meeting of Government Officials." I called my friend Elizabeth who was with me and pointed out the scroll to her and she looked at it for a while and said: "Well, he has the perspective right." Can you imagine a European painting of a conference of government ministers? Do you think there would be any trees or waterfalls in it?

My most important job will be to keep my perspective right. If I can see the importance of my own agendas in the light of that perspective, I won't have any trouble seeing where my efforts belong in the struggle to save the earth.

Hawken also quotes an old rabbinical teaching that says that if the world is ending and you hear that the Messiah has arrived, first plant a tree and then go and see if the story is true.

Keep your feet rooted in the earth. Plant a tree. That will teach all of us what needs to be done. Today I will change one small part of my behavior. That is where I will begin. This is my path for now.

My post next week will be late. Our Annual Chapter happens this week and runs through Monday of next week. It's a big one for us as many of you know. It happens in the wake of the destruction of our monastery in Santa Barbara in the fires of last fall, and it has to do with taking stock of where we are and imagining our future. If you would pray for us we will be very grateful.

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