A NIGHT UNDER THE STARS AND A WALK ALONG THE SEA SHORE
Some thoughts from Shirley DeWolf
Social transformation is about the deep-seated change we work for in our public life. It involves relationships, the management and negotiation of power dynamics, the sharing of responsibilities, juggling between people’s interests, ensuring that everyone’s needs are adequately met, etc. Being agents of transformation (or what Paulo Freire called “revolutionary leaders”) is a dangerous thing because we encourage people to leave one state of being in the world and find a new one. No matter how well trained we are in social transformation methods, we can never be completely sure of the dynamics that will emerge from the choices that we facilitate. So is there a prototype of what a transformed society should look like? What really works? What warns us if our actions are headed in the wrong direction? How do we come up with transformational ethics to guide us?
We went out to see if we could find any answers to these questions by observing the order of things in their most natural state. Starting with the premise that there is a Supreme Being who is creative and who sustains this universe, we went out to seek the mind of the Creator and Sustainer of Life. Last night we lay in the dark under the open sky and looked as deeply into the universe as we possibly could. And we wondered and were amazed. How many billions of kilometres away is that tiny start there – and that one – and that one? What lies beyond the stars and planets that are visible to our naked eye? Are they moving or are we moving? Is this the same scene that our families back home would see if they went out and lay on the grass? And we also thought new, imaginative thoughts. Like: If it were not for the force of gravity holding us onto this little planet called earth, we would be individuals floating around out there in space.Like: God chosen colour for the universe is black. Like: The sky appears to be flat, with all the stars on one level – you can’t see any dimensions, any far or near. Like: There’s not really such a thing as “up” and “down” in space.
Like: My concept of “heaven” has been too small. Like: Since we can only see a tiny portion of the universe from where we are located, it could possibly be that there are other life forms somewhere else. If so, I wonder how they experience God? Like: Amongst in this vast universe of uncountable numbers of planets and planetary systems and galaxies I am nothing more than a tiny speck, and yet my Creator knows every hair on my head and loves like an only child. Like: What we commonly call a “shooting star” is actually a piece of rock or sand passing through our earth’s atmosphere - but in some cultures we do not look at it because we fear we will be bewitched. We noticed that the whole sky was like painting done by the hand of God. But then we saw a human-made satellite moving steadily across the scene far above us. We thought maybe it was the Google mapping satellite, so we smiled and waved in case they were taking our picture.
All of this helped us to recognise that we have grown so accustomed to listening to our own and other people’s voices and being attracted to human-made objects and projects that we rarely turn our eyes outward to consider God’s wisdom as it speaks to us through the rest of creation.
All other creatures look into the Open with their whole eyes…
But our eyes, turned inward, are set all around by snares,
Trapping our way out to freedom, turned toward the stuff of our lives and never outward.
Who has turned us around like this?
We know what’s out there only from the innocence in the animal’s face.
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
So still full of this deep sense of amazement, we headed down to the beach this morning in the full sunlight to look into the face of nature and see what we could see. The sky that had been black with tiny pinpoints of sparkling stars last night we now saw through the filtered light of the sun so it looked bright blue. We tried to find places along the beach that would show the least influence of human engineering or manipulation. We each found our own spot, immersed ourselves in our surroundings and oriented ourselves to the natural order. We listened to all the sounds we could identify, smelled the air and the plant life, noticed movement of life, wind, light, noted colour and texture. We then started to observe relationships between all the parts in the scene. We looked up at the sky and considered our connectedness to life-giving elements from farther out in the universe. We looked down at our feet and saw the tiny detail. And we began to relate to it all spiritually.
When we came back together we pooled our observations and noted the following.
• In the natural order there is endless variety in plant life, animal life, microbe life. If we had had nothing else to do for several weeks, we could have – with the help of biologists maybe – identified hundreds of thousands of types of life forms above and below the ground in just the few square metres where we had seated ourselves. All of these multitudinous forms of life live together in shared space, and draw from each other’s capacities in a system of interdependent strengths. Each life form gives something, each life form takes according to its need. Some stronger plants make available their trunks for others to crawl upwards in order to reach the sunlight. Some types of grass have a rough surface that captures raindrops and dewdrops and allows insects to drink. The seagulls depend on the ocean for their food, then process that food and leave their droppings in the water to replenish the plant life in the ocean. The list of examples is endless. So one of the most abundantly obvious features of the natural order that we observed was variety and another was sharing of capacities. These will be important observations for us when we try to put together our ethics for transformational development.
• Wholeness is evident in the way that all parts of life are held together in one seamless fabric. The drops in the ocean that have travelled from as far away as Fiji and those that originated in the mountain rivers of Kenya have become inseparable. The tsunami wave that started in the Pacific Ocean and caused so much damage in Asia before it hit the coast of Kenya was in fact not a separate piece of water but a passing of energy and motion from one drop of water to the next to the next in an inseparable chain. All the elements of our planet earth are held together within a gaseous skin called the atmosphere which makes us a single ecosystem in an airy bubble. This wholeness is made possible by the smallest and least respected among us. Millions of microcosms in a single handful of soil, too small to see except with a strong microscope, are what hold the life of the planet together. Take humans off the planet and these tiny creatures would continue to keep the planet live without a problem. But take away the smallest of insects, spiders, worms, snails and microbes and the global ecosystem would collapse and we humans would probably last only a few weeks. The indispensability of the smallest and meekest is something we learned.
• In the natural order life is constantly replenishing itself. Life seems to have within itself an urge, an urgency to self-perpetuate. In this sense life includes death. The old dies away in order to allow new growth. One of our group members was commemorating the birthday of her late father and she witnessed to his continued life in her – and now in us, because she had shared his story. Leaves, small animals and insects and other living matter die and become life-giving humus which generates new plant life. Every day our human skin loses millions of dead cells and re-grows them in order to allow the skin to be constantly flexible. When a supernova or sun in another planet system 170 000 light years away from us explodes it sends out billions of tiny massless particles that penetrate our earth and even our bodies, enriching us with all sorts of elements such as iron and oxygen and neon. Healing and repair is also part of the natural order. Nature’s mechanisms show an impulse to restore. Sun, wind, minerals and water have qualities that cleanse out the toxins or that build scarring on animal and plant wounds and repair damage from fire or breakage or erosion. Even the mental and emotional well-being of humans and other animals is restored by being immersed in natural surroundings. Two important characteristics of the natural order for us to consider in our human order are therefore healing and continuous renewal.
• The natural order is governed by harmony. This harmony is possible because of limitations, balances and the curtailing of excesses. We did not find any greed or self-inflation in nature. The harmony we saw did not indicate the absence of violence, as one species does kill and eat another, but it nature limits the use of violence to immediate survival needs and evens out the survival needs between all forms of life. If the birds along the beach were to eat excessively and greedily so that they dominated their ecosystem, the support chain would be altered and eventually the birds would be unable to sustain themselves. It therefore is in the interests of all species of life to be limited by the common good. The welfare of one is dependent on the welfare of others. This is a very important concept to guide our ordering of human systems.
• The natural order is marked by abundance and generosity. The natural restoration cycle that allows rest and restoration makes it possible for that which is taken to be returned in even greater supply. One small seed that drops from a stalk of grass produces many more seeds in the new plant that is produced. Energy drawn from the sun has a multiplier effect in that it not only sustains the life of one plant, but when that plant is eaten the sun’s energy stored in it sustains the needs of the animal or insects that do the eating. Two parts of oxygen fused with one part of hydrogen produce water which is able to sustain far more life than the oxygen and hydrogen can do on their own. Water on its own and rocks on their own are each silent, but put them together and they produce huge crashing sounds. In its normal state, nature not only re-produces, but produces more. This abundance is generous in the sense that non-human species give back more than they take. Sufficiency and generosity go hand-in-hand. These are vital considerations for the way we conduct our human activity within the natural order.
• Sitting by the ocean we observed what we called “freedom” and “joy” in the natural world around us. It is evident that animal species besides ourselves as humans do not only spend energy for survival, but also sometimes for the sheer enjoyment of it. Emotions are evident in other animals besides humans: cat, both wild and domesticated, purr to show their contentment; dogs, both wild and domesticated, wag their tails when happy; dolphins and whales play games with each other and with human swimmers they grow accustomed to; apes and wolves show great tenderness towards the young of other species, hugging, stroking and even kissing them. We wondered whether birds might also make their noises not only to communicate messages but, as humans do when they sing, just because they enjoy expressing their capacity for making those noises. Joy and freedom are closely linked. When the freedom of warm-blooded animals is limited by being forcible uprooted from the wild and put in cages, they often settle into a state of mental depression, unable to eat, play and reproduce and their behaviour frequently turns violent. But while these animals are capable of emotion and a certain degree of reasoning, it is remarkable that in the non-human creatures there is no dishonesty, no lying and deviousness, no hiding things out of shame or greedy intention. Nature is openly honest. These simple forms of freedom, joyful expression and openness show us a pattern for our own human orderliness if it is to be sustainable.
• We found ourselves speaking of beauty in what we saw and tried to define what that meant. Beauty is a quality that attracts and delights us, pulls us unavoidably towards the object we find beautiful. It is a form of unspoken communication between objects: one attracts the other and the other is drawn. Beauty relates to a deeper level of ourselves and gives pleasure and contentment. Does this happen only to humans, or do other life forms also experience beauty? Those who work closely with animals say that certain species show pleasure in choosing objects for their colour and shape, not just for their usefulness. It would probably not be far wrong to say that there is a basic human need for the pure beauty of the natural world.
These 15 characteristics - variety, sharing, healing, wholeness, continuous renewal, harmony, curtailing excesses, common good, sufficiency, generosity, freedom, joyful expression, openness, beauty, and indispensability of the smallest and meekest - came to our minds because we deliberately scheduled a very short break in our usual routine and retreated into the natural environment in order to find them. We shouldn’t forget that not too many generations ago human beings lived within this ethos without having to search for it. Creation stories from our cultural and religious traditions describe the goodness of this home environment which pleased the Creator: for example in the Bible (Genesis1: 31) and the Qur’an (Surat 2:22). Today there are few people still left in the world who are able to live freely with the sky for their roof and the soil and leaves for their bed. Among them are a small group of Bushmen in the Kalagadi of Botswana and Namibia who call themselves the “Original People” and a group of aboriginal people in Australia who call themselves the “Real People”, because they still pretty much live as God first intended.
They know how to live with the weather elements, they know how to eat off of the natural abundance of the land, they know how to watch the movements of animals to learn what is safe and supportive. Their diet makes their bodies stronger and they live longer with very little disease. They can interpret shadows and winds and the movement of the stars and the way that plants change and they use these signs to guide their daily activities. They can perceive things in nature that we modernised people are no longer aware of, they hear sounds that our modern ears have forgotten how to hear, they smell and see things we no longer sense. They respect the harmony of the natural world and as humans they have a sense of humility, taking what they need but no more, ensuring that all life gets its share and is sustained, respecting the balance of nature. They do not fear or avoid death, but accept its necessity for the continuation of life. Most of all, they have a deeply respectful attachment to the Creator, something many modernised humans have little time for. They understand clearly that their relationship to the Creator binds them in harmony to each other and to the rest of creation on this earth and gives them rules to live by. They believe that all humans have this innate capacity to connect with the beyond, but that modernisation has dulled this capacity. Modernised humans who come into contact with the “original” or “real” people have been surprised by how deeply and consistently happy and content they are.
Humans of course are also a part of nature. Our species is different from others in that we have greater capacity for reasoning and imagination. Human reasoning helps us to plan ahead in more complex ways than other forms of life on this earth. Human imagination helps us to invent by putting different pieces of knowledge together and producing something else. Related to this is the human capacity for conscience, by which we sense a moral value in the way we use our reasoning and imagination. Human conscience, however, is informed and directed by our rational thoughts. Most religions hold to the belief that human conscience must be guided by a greater wisdom beyond itself. For this reason, when human thinking is turned inwards upon its own wisdom, and when self-interest begins to dominate our thoughts, the gifts that we have to offer to the world are distorted and blunted.
We have in many ways become victims of the very things that we ourselves have made with our own hands and minds. Our tendency is to call beautiful those things that we create and to lose the sense of appreciation for those things that we did not create. And so we call plants that grow on their own “weeds” and we invent chemicals to kill them and hire armies of people to dig them out of our gardens and lawns. (Happily, the weeds never give up!) And we fear animals we call “wild” and only allow to live with us those that we have tamed to obey our orders. We see the bushes and grass that grow naturally in the countryside as “undeveloped” and try to control them. We have developed a human culture where we constantly want to consume more and more and to control more and more and are never content to have our real needs met by the simple gifts of the natural world. Our efforts to control our surroundings have caused our original physical, mental and spiritual capacities to grow dull. Our bodies have been polluted by chemicals and they are at war with our natural form, therefore modern humans require more and more medicines to stay alive. Our minds have been polluted by listening only to our own wisdom and advice and therefore we are constantly at war with each other because we see things from self-centred perspectives. Our relationship to nature has turned into one of greed and we are therefore exploiting our environment beyond its capacity to replenish itself, so as a dominant species that has lost its moral wisdom we are slowly killing off ourselves and our planet. We are increasingly taking our ethics from market economics instead of from nature, so that we only see value in those things that we can use to enhance our own interests.
It is time for us to stop and rest!
We need to declare a Sabbath, a space of quiet for simply being and letting be
For recovering the great, forgotten truths
For learning how to live again
(from Earth Prayers from Around the World)