In Derrick Jensen’s brilliant and heartbreaking A Language Older Than Words, he writes, “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. Every day I tell myself I should continue to write. Yet I’m not always convinced I’m making the right decision. I’ve written books and I’ve been an activist. At the same time I know neither a lack of words nor a lack of activism kills salmon here in the Northwest. It is the presence of dams.” I hear his frustration and feel his pain around the extinction of so many species and for what is happening to our beloved planet. The new year has begun and already it seems like it will continue to be business as usual. Our world leaders failed to reach an agreement around climate change in Copenhagen, health care reform looks like it will benefit the insurance companies more than the individual, and there is ever more emphasis on fighting terrorism than in feeding our people or healing the Earth.
Most of us begin the new year with resolutions of one sort or another from losing weight to saving money or being better organized. I normally set intentions of what it is that I would like to actualize through the course of the year, but this year I have been feeling unusually inert as to where to put my time and energy. I get a wild idea to sell everything and go live in Africa or some where there appears to be a greater need, but I realize that there is also work to be done here at home. I ask myself what is my role during this planetary time? What is the role of my art in the face of climate change and environmental degradation? I believe deeply that we each have a role to play in what eco-theologian Thomas Berry coined the “Great Work,” but like Jensen, some days it just doesn’t feel like enough. I want to avoid sinking into helplessness and despair but that happens some days, too and that is okay. I often listen to Krista Tippett’s interviews on Speaking of Faith while I work in the studio and her recent interview called, “The Wisdom of Tenderness,” was with Jean Vanier, the Canadian philosopher and Catholic social innovator who founded L’Arche, a community centered around people with mental disabilities. It is such a beautiful and touching look into this little known community where there is such joy and tenderness. Love. Safe touch. Vanier speaks of falling in love with reality and realizing that in that reality God is present. In another interview, Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian-Universalist minister and author in Maine, “is called in when children disappear in the woods or when snowmobilers disappear under the ice. She calls herself a doer whose sense of God emerges from what happens between and among people.” Both Vanier and Braetrup bring a sacred intention, love, and holy witnessing to their work on behalf of those who are different or who suffer. They remind me that I don’t have to go to Africa to make a difference in the world, I do that right here, right now through my ability to be present to those in grief, my practice around holy listening, and creating beauty. Perhaps that is enough.
In his interview, Vanier quoted Ghandi: “I can’t change the world, but I can change.” This has given rise to my considering “right speech” from the Noble Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth in the Buddhist tradition. I feel called to speak on behalf our besieged and beautiful Earth, Pachamama, but sometimes my words have been interpreted as judgmental or condemning. I remembering hearing this twenty years ago when I was involved with AIDS education and outreach. Back then, the message was, “to be silent is to be complicit” (or silence=death) and I feel that today around the ecological crisis. I can’t be silent now either and the fact is that this crisis will affect all life on Earth, not just what is perceived as a marginalized group of individuals. My intention is not to judge—after all I am part of the system and use resources, too—but to open the dialogue. Sometimes, in my passionate expression, instead of inviting others into the conversation certain language cuts short the dialogue, so the commitment for me now is: How to hear other perspectives, listen deeply without judgment, and speak from a place of mindfulness? Along with creating art, I intend to be attentive of this as I navigate the landscape of my relationships, my communities, and the larger world. Being more organized might have been a lot easier…sigh. Blessings to all beings in this new year.
Prayer of deep listening
In this century and in any century,
Our deepest hope, our most tender prayer,
Is that we learn to listen.
May we listen to one another in openness and mercy
May we listen to plants and animals in wonder and respect
May we listen to our hearts in love and forgiveness
May we listen to our deep spirit in quietness and awe.
And in this listening,
Which is boundless in its beauty,
May we find the wisdom to cooperate
With a healing spirit, a divine spirit,
who beckons us into peace and community and creativity.
We do not ask for a perfect world.
But we do ask for a better world.
We ask for deep listening.
-Jay McDaniel, Hendrix College