You know that feeling when you read something and you just can not wait to talk about it with a friend or loved one? I get really excited about new ideas and perspectives and I think talking them over with others has always helped me digest the information into a form that is more clear and useful. I was like that in school too, often reading my assignments with a general feeling of disinterest or “meh,” just to return to class for a discussion that launched me into a whole new level of engagement. If there is one literary work that consistently excites me in this way now, it is The Sun Magazine. The Sun is a small monthly independent and ad-free publication out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If you are unfamiliar, I recommend you jot down that name right now, and make some time to check it out. This beautiful compilation of reader-submitted short stories, essays, poems and photography has been around for more than four decades and has only grown in circulation…and for good reason. What I believe the magazine does best is take a bold and unpolished look at topics that characterize the human experience. Subjects are both modern and timeless, and include love and relationships, politics, health and well-being, the economy, death/dying and our relationship to our environment and nature. The folks who submit to the magazine come from all walks of life – politicians, scientists, parents, veterans, spiritual leaders, students, teachers, social workers – and they provide a refreshing alternative to the air of authority and expertise that characterizes so much of what we read today (warranted or not!). This type of writing helps me feel more connected to my fellow humans, and gives light to experiences and perspectives that I would otherwise be ignorant to. And somehow, that connection allows me to not only create empathy and compassion, but also to face issues that might otherwise be out of reach or just plain daunting.
Why is that? What is it about a sense of community and belonging that makes life’s challenges just a bit more bearable? Whether we are talking about a family, a neighborhood, a congregation, a political nation or a virtual community, I believe that being a part of something larger than ourselves gives meaning and context to the challenges we face as humans. On the other hand, if people choose to live in isolation, then why would it matter to them how the markets are fluctuating or what the quality of air or water is in foreign lands? And if these things don’t matter, then what is the motivation to consider such issues in their day-to-day choices? Our connection to others helps us define what is worth protecting and caring for, and highlights the myriad of ways in which humans have been doing these things throughout history. Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer, once said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” (1968) And while this is a powerhouse statement that could be broken down and discussed at length, today I would simply like to highlight the relationship between sharing information/ideas and taking responsibility for our effects in the world. In essence, the way we share our stories is and always has been the most important human tradition possessed. When it comes to education and entertainment, as well as the preservation of culture and morality, our stories become the substance of our legacy as a species.
One recent story that has affected me profoundly is that of climate change as told from the perspective of Mary Christina Wood in last month’s issue of The Sun magazine. In her interview, entitled “Before It’s Too Late – On Avoiding Climate Disaster,” she reminds us of the urgency of our education and subsequent action when it comes to our relationship with the environment. Just before she was interviewed, the United Nations climate panel published what some call a “bombshell report” which calls for a 45% carbon emissions reduction (from 2010 measurements) by the year 2030. This is what the panel claims is necessary to avoid an all-out “disaster.” Ms. Wood suggests that it is not enough to strive for end results by the year 2030, but rather that we must light a fire of action regarding the start date. Tomorrow is not soon enough. We can no longer postpone if we expect to be able to recover from existing damage. She talks about how one of the dangers of our current predicament is that the threats are mostly invisible, leading to an ease of disconnect for the average person in their daily life. And despite this disconnect, there are entire ecosystems at stake here. Even if you don’t consider yourself an environmentalist, the scale of this type of damage will undoubtedly affect not just ecology, but our economy, our food system, our culture and as many are pointing out, our security – as a nation and as a species. The interview does an excellent job pointing at the ways in which all of us are already being negatively affected by climate change, in addition to projecting forward. This particular story belongs to no one specific group, but rather is a story that belongs to all of us as humans.
I am by no means an environmental scientist, or a global climate expert, nor will I pretend to be one for the sake of this piece. But what I do desperately wish to share is this idea that we, the American people, have been gravely misinformed and/or kept in the dark about the dangers of environmental damage at the scale and rate we currently face. Over the past several decades, a lot of time, intention and resources have gone into disinformation campaigns around these topics, for the sake of political agendas, capitalistic endeavors, and private interests. I say this not to lay blame at the feet of “the other” but rather to highlight the systems of power at play. And I am certain they are still at play. Only by identifying how we have gotten to this point, can we successfully dismantle outdated systems and progress toward a more universal success. It is no one’s fault when we do not have access to right information, rather it only becomes a fault when we have it and choose to do nothing about it. And the good news is, with growing technology and international accountability, we have access to more information than ever before. And while this can be overwhelming, it is also the very tool we will rely on collectively to be empowered to make change. So let’s get informed, eh? We must open ourselves to that which may be uncomfortable and overwhelming.
Lucky for us, we do not have to re-invent the wheel entirely. In fact, we have a fountain of wisdom and experience to draw from if we choose to tune in to stories beyond those we already know so well, the stories that are limited by our experience and understanding. We have the stories of our ancestors, of all of our predecessors, if we are willing to consider them in the present. We have the insight of marginalized peoples, if we can give up the impulse to silence voices of difference. And let’s not forget, this land and countless lands around the world, have been cared for by indigenous people long before the history books were written, and we would be all the wiser to consider their wisdom as we progress forward. Because while science and logic may inform our efforts of preservation, I believe gratitude for the Earth, a sense of responsibility, and a level of mindfulness will be essential ingredients in this journey. Read the interview. Talk about it with a friend. Follow up, do your own research. Ask questions. Talk to your neighbors. Challenge what you already know. Listen to another’s story. And meditate. Because ultimately, we are all in this together. We must employ the democratic principles we claim as a nation and apply them to humanity as a whole.
Earlier this month, in Part 1 of this blog, we examined ways in which poet Mary Oliver’s written words guide and inspire us in the wake of her passing. Using her poetry, we contemplated conscious intention in our personal lives and the best ways to cultivate that. Now, I would like for us to consider our collective intention, or as I stated above, our legacy as a species. What does legacy actually mean? According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a legacy is “a situation that has developed as a result of past actions and decisions.” We are all creating a legacy everyday, whether we are conscious of it or or not, so how about taking some time to do it well? Right now, we seem to know more than ever before about the effects of human activity on the long-term, and yet it seems to me that we are more short-sighted than ever in our visioning and our actions. When we choose responsibility for our legacy, and cultivate daily intention around this responsibility, we WILL look at issues of our planet and our humanity differently. What if instead of a future that is treated like a commodity, bought and sold to the highest bidder, we could begin to see that everything, even our economy, depends on a sustainable relationship with the Earth’s resources? What if we treated this planet as something that has been entrusted to us, rather than something we have dominion over? What if we actually took responsibility for the future of our planet the same way a parent assumes responsibility for the future of their child, because in fact, the future of our planet does belong to our children. So, I leave you with this – Do whatever it takes to be reminded of our world community in your day. Do whatever it takes to remember how we are all connected. And once again, let the inspired words of Mary Oliver offer us guidance on how to do just that:
“Poem of the One World”
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water
and then into the sky of this
the one world
we all belong to
sooner or later
is part of everything else
which thought made me feel
for a little while
quite beautiful myself
(Oliver, Mary, “Poem of the One World,” A Thousand Mornings. 2012)
DeMocker, Mary. “Before It’s Too Late – Mary Christina Wood on Avoiding Climate Disaster.” The Sun. Feb 2019. 4-16. Print.